a history of western art

from the renaissance to the present

Early-nineteenth century landscape painting


people, terms, and concepts: historical/classical landscape, picturesque landscape, pastoral, sublime landscape (cataclysmic sublime, infinite sublime), manifest destiny


This topic looks at the genre of landscape painting in Europe and America between around 1780 and 1850, when three main types of landscape were common: the historical landscape, the picturesque landscape, and the sublime landscape.

          What are the characteristics of the historical landscape? How is it often a hybrid with history painting, and how is it similar in style and purpose to classical and biblical history painting?

          What are the characteristics of the picturesque landscape? How is it more ‘realistic’ than the historical or classical landscape, both in terms of its subject and in terms of its style? Why did picturesque landscapes become so popular in the nineteenth century (and remain so today)?

          What are the characteristics of the sublime landscape? What feeling are sublime landscapes attempting to evoke? How does the sublime landscape exemplify a new understanding of God and nature? What is the difference between the ‘cataclysmic’ sublime and the ‘infinite’ sublime? Why did sublime landscapes become so popular in the nineteenth century?

          Be able to identify an obvious example of an historical, a picturesque, or a sublime landscape and analyze the work to explain how you knew.


Bierstadt, Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak, American landscape, 1863

How does Bierstadt combine a picturesque foreground and a sublime background to help ‘sell’ the West to prospective settlers?


Church, Niagara Falls, American sublime landscape, 1857

How is this a typical example of a sublime landscape (both infinite and cataclysmic)?


Friedrich, Monk by the Sea, German sublime landscape, 1808-10

How is this a typical example of a sublime landscape (specifically infinite sublime) in terms of both its subject matter and its style?

Constable, The White Horse, English picturesque landscape, 1819

How is this a typical example of a picturesque landscape in terms of both its subject-matter and its style?


Thomas Cole, The Oxbow, American picturesque/sublime landscape, 1836

How does this work combine a picturesque landscape and a sublime landscape in order to convey a moral lesson about humankind’s relationship to nature/God?