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The beautiful, the picturesque, the sublime


Eighteenth century Romantic philosophers made nuanced distinctions between and among three closely-related ideas: the beautiful, the picturesque, and the sublime. What began as a literary phenomenon (creation of the novel as a new literary form) spread rapidly to art (plein air paintings of sweeping landscapes with dramatic weather) and other modes of expression. In connection with architecture and landscape, plant materials and incidental structures were intended to evoke strong emotional response from the observer—the insignificant human subservient to the larger world “of Nature and of Nature’s god” as Thomas Jefferson might have put it.


Novels such as Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto created mental pictures through language [not unlike the strong word images I wrote about recently by Frederick Rolfe or Peter Ackroyd]; while John Constable’s landscapes did the same with pigment on canvas. Landscapes like the 1740 gardens at Stourhead, Wiltshire, were four-dimensional experiences choreographed to startle the observer through a calculated program of dramatic encounters through time. In architecture, we call this fourth dimension enfilade or spatial progression. What you see at Stourhead is as “natural” as a raked Japanese garden “strewn” with carefully chosen and composed rocks and bonsai, all intended to deceive. Now imagine this landscape infused with tombs.

It took a while for these ideas to cross the Atlantic and gain foothold in the Americas. The 19th century cemetery is just one place to encounter this Holy Trinity of the Romantic: the beautiful, picturesque, and sublime. And those ideas held on long enough in American culture to have shifted west with settlement from the East Coast; long enough to have laid a foundation for The Shades, Agincourt’s non-denominational cemetery at the east edge of the original townsite. Our recent visit to both Pere Lachaise cemetery and Butte Chaumont park in Paris may have given me the courage to finally attack The Shades—despite my lack of landscape ability.

τεθνήκαμεν. σώζετε δάκρυα ζώσιν

“We are dead. Save tears for the living.” That’s what it says in ancient Greek (thanks to the help of our friend Carol Andreini) at the cemetery entrance. How that intentionally evocative message is delivered and how the irregular curvilinear paths and clustered burial sites are organized (to appear that they aren’t organized) is a challenge I’ve long needed to accept.

I’m not getting any younger.


1 Comment

  1. […] 2014 April 13: The day previous (I was clearly on a roll) mentioned ideas drawn from Enlightenment notions of park and cemetery design, influential concepts like the beautiful, the picturesque and the sublime, articulated by theorists like […]

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