Tuesday, July 15, 2014

What is 'Picturesque'?

For over three hundred years, people have tried to identify ideal landscapes in terms of paintings.


A landscape would be called picturesque if it resembled a painting by Claude Lorrain (1600-1682) or Nicolas Poussin. A tourist would travel with a darkened mirror called a 'Claude glass' or 'Lorrain mirror' to see a reflection that reminded them of a familiar landscape painting.

Scholars have debated what aesthetic factors qualify a scene as picturesque, and it usually boils down to a scene that satisfies the human instinct for beauty and the sublime. Others have said that there needs to be an element of roughness or variation, or a pleasing distribution of masses of trees or ruins.


The notion of what is picturesque has evolved as our taste for images has changed. If you google the term 'picturesque' all by itself, you don't get paintings; you get a lot of HDR photos of nature scenes with mountains and water features, and occasionally a domestic human structure integrated into the landscape. Our collective visual imagination is probably influenced as much by calendar photos and computer screen savers as it is by gallery paintings.

What do you think of when you hear the word "picturesque?"
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Previously on GurneyJourney: Lorrain mirror
Picturesque in Wikipedia

17 comments:

Mitch said...

I immediately think of Yosemite Valley.

Marian B said...

I immediately think of the Great Bear Rain Forest in British Columbia Canada. Any of these:

https://www.google.ca/search?q=great+bear+rainforest&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ei=ZFfFU7bwF8-dyAS1vYHwBA&ved=0CAYQ_AUoAQ&biw=1280&bih=588


Doug

Ο σκύλος της Βάλια Κάλντα said...

I am not a native speaker of the english language, so I had never thought that the word "picturesque" meant a view that deserves to be resqued via a picture...

Karen Robinson said...

I tend to think of it as something to be avoided in my art, to be honest. I associate the term with cliched, chocolate-box type images. I think it is because the British press use the term like this, eg linked with some wholly unrealistic description of the British countryside: the houses are always thatched, never in need of maintenance, the sun is always shining (it usually rains actually) and the roses growing round the door never have thorns or need dead heading. So I think of picturesque as being a bit naff. Which is sad.

James Gurney said...

Karen, I agree that the term has plenty of negative connotations because of the echo chamber effect of paintings-looking-like-landscapes-looking-like-paintings. Great painters have found subjects never before treated in art and made them part of the visual language. But even within familiar motifs, such as a barn in a bucolic landscape, a really good painter can surprise and delight us.

Rich said...

"Picturesque"'s the English term. The Germans say "Pittoresk"; which it nearer to "Pittore".
A pittore in Italian means nuthin but a Painter.

So in my view "picturesque" means "a painterly view"; in other words: a landscape, seen by the educated vision of a painter.

The general screensaver public may see it otherwise:-)

Abraham Evensen Tena said...

I don't know if this makes sense, but to me it always had to do with some embellishment or exaggeration of the natural world that is meant to be understood, not hidden. Something as simple as breaking colors or re-arranging value masses can look picturesque, at least as I understand it. Perhaps it has to do with the artist making it clear to the viewers that what they see is not meant to be solely a representation of nature, but also a reference the general understanding of what a "painting" is.

Marque Todd said...

"Picturesque" to me means "unsullied". Usually unsullied by the human element. Interestingly, I think even man-made ruins or country villages can have this connotation because once they have become ruins or have a feel as if coming from nature (thatched roofs, etc) they feel somehow fresher or cleaner (a Thoreau-like vision).

I think the reason the hyper-real HD nature photos have become the new "picturesque" is because there are very few if any truly unsullied places left in the world (as per the definition above). People today imagine that such places still exist on the highest peaks or by out of the way hidden lakes or streams where water or extreme elements "wash them clean" of human intervention and detritus.

I would go so far as to say "picturesque" can be defined as evoking an emotion response in the reviewer akin to spiritual reverence.

I don't believe that many such places actually exist anymore (either in reality or in our current cultural spiritual sensibilities) - thus the term picturesque has become overused and abused. Thus our jaded sense of the word when it is used.

Jason Lipow said...

I think that the subject matter of a painting or photograph can sometimes influence whether others consider it "picturesque," especially if society gives them the impression that the subject matter should be regarded with awe (ie. the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls). Subject matter aside, however, I think that most "picturesque" photos and paintings owe this designation purely to their composition. If someone were to paint such a "picturesque" subject as the Grand Canyon, for example, in such a way that it would lead your eye immediately into the corner of the canvas, or lack an interesting focal point, think that people would subliminally discount the image as "ugly".

D said...

When I was a kid, I would sometimes play a video game like Ultima VI too long. And when I went outside, things in the real world would remind me of the video game. I think things looking picturesque means being more familiar with representations of reality than reality itself, so that reality reminds you of a picture, rather than the other way around.

Marque Todd said...

D: I think you captured it really well! It's like it's reality that isn't real!

GiuliaCan said...

I think of a landscape that's aesthetically pleasing, with composition/lighting that would make a beautiful painting. Although the word "pittoresco" here in Italy is also used to describe someplace that has a unique character and look.

Dan said...

Most of the times I've personally heard the term used it was meant to have a positive connotation.

I think the negative connotation may be mostly a postmodern phenomenon--a reaction by a generation against the aesthetics of prior generations, and especially the manifesto of a deconstructionist aesthetics--a fierce criticism of what are perceived as attempts to manipulate the viewer's emotional experience by presenting images obviously meant to evoke positive associations.

In my view, a work of art can be a picture of something beautiful, or of something that I associate with positive feelings, without being either hackneyed or manipulative. Art communicates. The best art is often moving and inspiring. It doesn't necessarily have to say something that's never been said before in order to be valid. It can reiterate an old truth in a novel way. West Side Story retells Romeo and Juliet, with new words, music, dance, acting, etc. Nonetheless, I think it's spectacular as an original work of art.

To me, "picturesque" describes a visual experience that is the opposite of mundane--one that is particularly interesting or beautiful, that deserves to be captured in a picture, not because it would make a smashing calendar or screen saver, but just because it's particularly interesting or beautiful.

Susan Krzywicki said...

One of the great characteristics of being human is that we have such a wide range of reactions to any-and-everything. And even a single human can change their mind, their opinion or their point of view. What might have once seemed a little too "sweet" becomes wholesome and salvation in different circumstances.

I love that! My role is to bring the great wildness of nature into the garden and, at every step, there are those who say "that is too refined. I want more wildness." While others ask for more "control" and it all is valid. All part of helping us have just these conversations.

Craig Banholzer said...

William Gilpin gave two perfect examples of the picturesque. He wrote that if one were painting a good-looking young man, one should muss up his hair and rumple his collar to provide a contrast to his features. In landscape painting, he pointed out the superiority of ruins to intact buildings, and jagged, rotted trunks to young straight trees.

Rich said...

"Superiority of ruins to intact buildings" etc, besides "picturesque", would also imply the term of "patina".

The overall charm of ageing things Nature brings.
Patina, a painter's enjoyment and delight.

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