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3 - The Iconography of the Sublime

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 November 2020

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Summary

Abstract

This chapter sets out to describe the establishment of the iconography of the sublime by focusing on three central motifs: the shipwreck, the hostility of mountain summits, and the volcano eruption. I first analyze a shipwreck painting by Joseph Vernet in relation to Denis Diderot's writings and the particularities of the picture's exhibition at the Paris Academy Salon. Then, the Alpine landscapes of the Swiss painter Caspar Wolf and their oscillation between academic traditions, vedute painting conventions, sublime imagery, and geological accuracy is analyzed by example of the painting Lower Grindelwald Glacier with Lightning. The motif of the volcano eruption is addressed through a group of paintings, whose interplay makes visible a variety of complications inherent to the sublime. The discussed artworks depicting the three motifs feature intrinsic – that is stylistic and formal – innovations that seek to intensify the pictorial experience of their sublime content matters.

Keywords: Landscape Painting, Edmund Burke, Media History, History of Natural Disasters, History of Science

Virtual Windows. Claude Joseph Vernet at the Academy Salon

Here, a child who's survived a shipwreck is carried on his father's shoulders; there, a dead woman stretched out on the shore, with her distraught husband. The sea roars, the wind whistles, the thunder cracks, the pale, somber glow of lightning pierces through the clouds, momentarily revealing the scene. One hears the noise of a ship's hull being breached, its masts tipped over, its sails ripped. The crew is terrified; some on the bridge lift their arms towards the heavens, others throw themselves into the water, the waves smash them against the neighboring rocks where their blood intermingles with the whitening foam […]. The same variety of character, action and expression prevails among the spectators: some of them shudder and turn away, others offer help, others still are immobilized by what they’re seeing […].

Facing Joseph Vernet's shipwreck paintings, Denis Diderot struggles to find words to describe the discursively unpresentable visual experience that these works offer. It is interesting noting that Diderot adds sensual layers to the protocol of his pictorial perception, which the paintings themselves are unable to present explicitly (by means of their technology). He senses various auditory phenomena (roaring, whistling, cracking, noise) echoing through his mind.

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Disaster Cinema in Historical Perspective
Mediations of the Sublime
, pp. 65 - 94
Publisher: Amsterdam University Press
Print publication year: 2020

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