Romantic Landscapes

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In common parlance, ‘Romantic’ often serves to qualify a landscape, or a representation of a landscape—think of Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840)’s gloriously mysterious sunsets or ruins by moonlight. Romantic landscapes encompass real and fictional places, and range from deserted rural environments to manmade vistas and edifices.

Roaming through sublime scenery was prized by contemporary voyagers. Travellers recount seeing glaciers and trembling before chasms or being transfixed by volcanoes and admiring the terrifying spectacle of flames and lava issuing forth. Mount Etna (exhibit 1) sparked renewed interest amongst antiquarians like William Hamilton (1703-1803) or polymaths like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) who were followed by numerous casual visitors, guidebooks in hand. In many cases, when a landscape like this provoked emotion in a spectator, links were traced with ancient cultures; myth met science. Exploring Staffa after his return from Captain Cook’s expedition to the Pacific, Joseph Banks (1743-1820) discovered a splendid natural feature, a rock formation whose name he understood to be ‘Fingal’s cave’ (exhibit 2) and which would attract much attention, including that of Felix Mendelssohn who took it as a subject for a celebrated composition. Whilst the poetry ascribed to ‘Ossian’, popular throughout Europe thanks to multiple translations, was seen as an emanation of the Scottish landscape, this landscape, in turn, was made to conform to literary imagination. In the same way as the surroundings of Lake Geneva were ‘Rousseauised’ to allude to episodes of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s bestselling novel La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761), a stone folly near Dunkeld was christened ‘Ossian’s Hall’ to make it more fashionable (exhibit 3). It became part of a route of Ossianic tribute constructions or scenery.

Beyond literary re-imagining of places, commercial interests followed on from cultural ones. Many landscapes were made famous by paintings and engravings which might serve as souvenirs—think of the vedute tourists brought back from Italy—but also to bring the exotic closer to home. Catherine the Great’s Wedgwood ‘Frog’ service, commissioned in 1773 for Kekerekeksinensky Palace, near Saint Petersburg, was illustrated at her request with views of England (exhibit 4). Pursuing the fashion of seeking seeds and plants from abroad to grow them in one’s own garden and thus transform the landscape, a cedar of Lebanon sustained Chateaubriand’s inspiration in his French house (exhibit 5). Another Frenchman, Victor Hugo, found such intellectual stimulation in a Basque country landscape that he briefly settled there in a modest house in 1843, much to his contemporaries’ bewilderment (exhibit 6).

People sought and found Romanticism far afield but also on their doorsteps—the account of an ascent of Scafell Pike in Wordsworth’s Guide to the Lakes (exhibit 7) suggests that foreign travel practices could be adopted at home. It also bears witness to the often-gendered presentation of Romantic landscapes, mediated, for the public, through male eyes, even when in reality experienced by women.

Beyond serving as the ground for individual affective experience, landscape could also accrue a more explicit political value as when William II commissioned a series of paintings of picturesque views of Luxembourg to mark his support for the House of Orange’s claim to the Grand Duchy (exhibit 8). Koekkoek’s representations of ruined castles unite past glory and present nationalism, nostalgia serving as a powerful unifying force. They also document the birth of a consciousness of heritage as a political force. In a different way, Byron, swimming the Hellespont (exhibit 9), was laying claim to a landscape. He was turning himself into a character and striving to join Leander and figures from ancient history as a hero. Making his actions the stuff of poetry, he was using the strait’s renown to shape his own persona, metaphorically writing himself into the landscape.

For more on real and fiction landscapes and the mediation of cultural and commercial exchanges, see:

Byron’s autograph at Chillon; A picture from Corinne’s gallery; ‘Adieux de l’hermite’; Falun Mine (upcoming); Rousseau’s tomb (upcoming).