The Sublime and the French Revolution

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the sublime was associated in particular with the immensity or turbulence of Nature and human responses to it. Consequently, in Western art, ‘sublime’ landscapes and seascapes, especially those from the Romantic period, often represent towering mountain ranges, deep chasms, violent storms and seas, volcanic eruptions or avalanches which, if actually experienced, would be life threatening.The best-known theory published in Britain is Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757). Burke’s definition of the sublime focuses on such terms as darkness, obscurity, privation, vastness, magnificence, loudness and suddenness, and that our reaction is defined by a kind of pleasurable terror. (Burke also predicted the outcome of the French Revolution in 1789 in terms of terror, dictatorship and war). Other themes relate to the epic and the supernatural as described in drama, poetry and fiction, for example, by Homer, Dante, Milton, Shakespeare, as well as more contemporary authors, such as Byron and Mary Shelley. Arguably the greatest source of the sublime for European art is the Bible, which begins with the creation of the world and ends with apocalypse and the Last Judgement.