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Romantic Landscapes

As Mary Shelley had the idea for Frankenstein in the company of two leading Romantic poets, it is not surprising that her novel has Romantic elements. Two of these elements are fundamental: the importance of terror, and the choice of landscape.
A book which had great influence on Romantic art and literature was Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757). In Burke’s view, the sublime and beauty were two different categories. He associated beauty with smallness, smoothness, brightness of color and the presence of light, while he associated the sublime with vastness, power, solitude and darkness. Burkes also emphasized the importance of terror: whatever might “excite the ideas of pain and danger or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling?.

Burke’s ideas contributed to the rise of the popular Gothic genre but it was equally influential for the “higher” art of the Romantics: their taste for wild landscapes in art and terror and suffering in literate is based on Burke’s ideas that pleasure and pain are connected and that energy and power are qualities that must be admired. For the Romantics, great literature was not the most beautiful and elegant, but that which gave the reader the strongest emotions.
In the 16th century the English aristocracy started the custom of finishing their son’s education by sending them on “the Grand Tour”, a leisurely journey, lasting a couple of years, through Europe and ending at the historic sights of Rome and Naples. By the 18th century the Grand Tour had become fashionable among the educated middle classes as well; Horace Walpole, the Gothic novelist, and Thomas Gray, an early Romantic poet, spent three years on the tour, from 1739 to 1741. For them, and for all “Romantic” travelers, the Alps were example of sublime nature which excited feelings of wonder. In late 18th century it became popular to take journeys in England as well, without going abroad, and travellers wanted to see remote mountain peaks, rushing torrents and dark forests.
It is difficult to define Romanticism in the visual arts, but there are many scenes of wild natural landscape and ruins. Artists particularly associated with such scenes and inspired by Romantic writers were the Italian Salvatore Rosa (1615-1673), known for his wild landscape and macabre subject such as witches and monsters, the German Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840), whose views of sea or mountains are shown in the light of dawn or the moon, and the English painters John Martin (1789-1854) and J. W. M Turner (1775-1851).

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