Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Gilpin on the Picturesque I: Picturesque Beauty

Having recently read a bit of Austen, it occurred to me that I should do some posts on William Gilpin on the picturesque, since Austen interacts rather extensively with Gilpin's account of, and approach to, the picturesque in her novels, and especially with its relation to moral psychology (yet one more reason why she should be regarded as not just a novelist but as a moral philosopher writing in novel form). It is also perhaps a sign of the general sad state of modern aesthetics that you can find philosophers who have never heard of Gilpin, despite the fact that his notion of the picturesque takes its place with beauty and sublimity as the dominant concepts of early modern aesthetics, and despite the fact that it is still surprisingly influential today, long after anyone remembers the source.

William Gilpin was born in 1724 and died in 1804. He was an Anglican curate, then a headmaster, then a vicar; at one point he was tutor to Caroline Anne Bowles, who would eventually become a notable poet. He wrote quite a number of works, not merely on the picturesque but also on various religious and moral works: published sermons, dialogues on various practical and moral topics, biographies of reformers, etc. The works that cover the subject of picturesque beauty are themselves quite diverse and scattered, and this is one difficulty in getting a good grasp on Gilpin's account. In the relatively early Essay on Prints we first get the definition of the picturesque, or of picturesque beauty: "a term expressive of that peculiar kind of beauty, which is agreeable in a picture" (EPr xii). Right here we see the interestingly indirect character of the picturesque: it is beauty, but it is not the beauty of the thing itself except insofar as this would contribute to a picture -- of course, the pictures here are drawings and, by extension, paintings -- that would be agreeable to aesthetic taste. Gilpin's account is therefore an offshoot of the major eighteenth century approach to aesthetics, the theory of taste, in which beauty and the like are understood in terms of the appreciation of those to whom it is presented. But relativity to picture is a distinct twist, particularly since much of Gilpin's work is concerned with the beauty of the natural world. This very indirect approach to natural beauty might strike one as odd, but it has one very extraordinary advantage for aesthetics: it gives a philosophical underpinning to the use of artistic vocabulary in discussing the natural world. Living as we do long after Gilpin, it is perhaps difficult for us to grasp the sheer force with which this would have struck eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century minds. One of the continual impediments to the development of aeshetics has been the poverty of a vocabulary for expressing clear judgments and making fine distinctions in experience. The theory of the picturesque allowed people to take over the terminology of painters, drawers, and, to a lesser extent, sculptors, in order to make precisely such judgments and distinctions, on a scale that had never been known before, and with less confusion than might have been possible at an earlier stage of aesthetic thought. To see the world with a painter's eye allows you to weigh and characterize its beauty with a painter's vocabulary.

Gilpin sometimes treats 'beauty' as a general term and sometimes as a specific term. When he is treating as a general term, the picturesque is one kind of beauty. He often, however, treats it as a specific term, in which case we get the distinction found in the "Essay on Picturesque Beauty" from the Three Essays:

Disputes about beauty might perhaps be involved in less confusion, if a distinction were established, which certainly exists, between such objects as are beautiful, and such as are picturesque -- between those, which please the eye in their natural state; and those, which please from some quality, capable of being illustrated in painting. (TE 3)

This obviously raises the question, which Gilpin goes on to ask: What is the distinguishing characteristic of the picturesque? Gilpin answers the question by contrast. Burke had noted that smoothness plays an important role in whether we account something beautiful -- indeed, he goes so far as to say that it is the "most considerable" part. Gilpin is skeptical of its being quite that important, but he agrees that it does play an important role. Smooth marble is beautiful. A glass-like sea is beautiful. But one thing we learn quite quickly is that, if you want to draw or paint smoothing, the smoothness of something is not a benefit. Smooth waters are boring to paint; smooth marble gives you nothing to draw. Here we then have a clue as to the distinction between the picturesque and other kinds of beauty: the picturesque concerns the kind of beauty that is rough or rugged. Not a smooth sea, but one with lots of waves; not smooth marble, but craggy rocks; not near rows of plants, but scattered flowers and trees; not elegant columns, but gnarled trees. If you take a really beautiful garden by someone who likes things all in elegant and neat rows, it will nonetheless not make for as enjoyable picture as a garden in which everything is a bit riotous. There's a connection still, and Gilpin does not always emphasize it; but he does recognize that if you take a nice bit of lawn and throw off its symmetry with trees and rocks, you get the picturesque not by eliminating the beauty of the lawn but by making it less smooth, taking away only such elegance as is required to leave a ruggedness and wildness that is interesting to the eye. Or, to use another example that Gilpin uses, suppose you sit for a picture. You're very neat and tidy, nicely combed. But the painter may well look at you and then muss your hair up a bit so that you don't look so boring in the frame. And if you go to portrait museum, the best portraits are not those of smooth faces, however beautiful, but those that are, as we say, full of character: wrinkled faces, shaggy beards, deepset eyes. The best human faces and forms are those that manage to balance both: somehow smooth, elegant, beautiful while at the same time being rough, rugged, picturesque. Likewise, when someone like Virgil, who perhaps provides the best literary examples of what Gilpin has in mind, describes something, he often throws something out of order or symmetry in order to make it more striking. Venus does not merely have beautiful hair; it streams in the wind. Hair that just hangs there may be beautiful; but even the hair of the Goddess of Love is only striking when it is doing something 'rough' or 'rugged'.

The picturesque, then, is roughness or ruggedness that is agreeable when illustrated in drawing or painting. The world, to the extent that it is picturesque, is not quiescent, but alive, forceful, for the eye. The painter can paint the non-picturesque, of course, but, to use the example Gilpin uses, if you have a painter paint your beautiful Arabian steed, you should rest satisfied with that and not complain that the painter would much rather paint your strikingly rugged cart-horse because he could "give the graces of his art more forcibly" to it (TE 16). Gilpin links this preference to the very activity of drawing or painting: the rugged line is a line that is itself made boldly, freely; it is striking in part because the artist strikes out with it. The best pencil sketches consist of lines that are what Gilpin calls free and bold. A line is free if it has the appearance of being unconstrained (e.g., no hesitation or timidity); it is bold "when the part is given for a whole, which it cannot fail of suggesting" (TE 17n). The suggestive line unhesitatingly drawn: this is half of the art of the pencil sketch in itself. Thus one reason for the attraction of roughness is that it is suitable to the execution of the work.

Execution is not the only contributing factor, however. Another reason roughness is important to the picture is composition. In the Essay on Prints, Gilpin had defined composition in the strict sense as "the art of grouping figures, and combining the parts of a picture" (EPr xi). The smoother things are, however, the less composition you have. A painting of a blank wall doesn't involve any combination at all. "Picturesque composition," says Gilpin, "consists in uniting in one whole a variety of parts; and these parts can only be obtained from rough objects" (TE 19). Indeed, almost everything related to composition requires roughness of some kind: variety, contrast, light and shade, richness of light, textures of color, are all kinds of roughness in what one sees. Painting is an art of visible roughness. Even when painting a smooth object, the smoothness of the real object simply becomes a subtle roughness in the painting; the surface itself may be smooth, but the painter would then capture variations in light and dark, or subtle shifts in color.

Gilpin has an interesting discussion of why roughness ends up being so important, and rejects a long list of possible answers. For instance, it's not because the picturesque is solely about nature (since the painter's 'nature' is just whatever can be put to canvas), nor is it because roughness makes possible simplicity-with-variety (since this is just the common feature of all kinds of beauty), nor is it because it is easier to imitate. And he concludes that we simply don't know. It's a first principle.

Thus Gilpin's basic account. If this were all, however, it would probably not have made as much of a splash as it did. We are missing something, and what we are missing is another important element in Gilpin's theory of the picturesque: picturesque travel. More on that in the next post.