The Picturesque

The Picturesque

You've probably heard the term before, but what does it mean? Learn more about about this 18th and 19th-century art theory and aesthetic category, and consider its influence on "Tintern Abbey."

What is it?

In 1786 William Gilpin coined the term "picturesque" in his treatise on art, Essay on Prints. Derived from the Italian "pittoresco," "from a picture," Gilpin's picturesque was defined simply as, "that kind of beauty which is agreeable in a picture." Gilpin developed and clarified this definition in Three Essays on Picturesque Beauty (1794) and in his most famous work, Observations on the River Wye, wcich is also thought to have influenced "Tintern Abbey."

Most fundamental to the picturesque is harmony and wholeness in the landscape, which elicits a sense of pleasure in the observer. Different shapes, contrasts, textures, and surfaces come together to form a sense of unity and harmony. The picturesque is therefore more complex than the simple smoothness and neatness of the beautiful—a popular 18th-century aesthetic category discussed by theorists Emmanuel Kant, and Edmund Burke. Gilpin further distinguishes the picturesque from the beautiful when he explains that beautiful objects "please the eye in their natural state," while picturesque objects "please from some quality, capable of being illustrated by painting" (Three Essays 22).

The pleasing ruggedness of the picturesque approaches the sublime, but does not contain the fear-factor, vastness, or magnitude. Gilpin concludes that the picturesque can therefore be considered a happy medium between the beautiful and the sublime.

Broader Influence

As Gilpin further developed the concept of the picturesque, and as it made its way into public consciousness, the picturesque developed into its own aesthetic category that influenced creative writing, landscape painting, and even garden and park design. It also provided ordinary people with a conceptual framework with which to view and judge actual landscapes. Thousands of tourists flocked to the Wye Valley in hopes of catching a glimpse of this famed picturesque landscape and experiencing its rugged pleasure (Blanton Museum).

Below is an example of the picturesque painting tradition. The landscape is neither frightening nor perfectly smooth, but instead evokes pleasure through its unity and slight ruggedness.

A View of the New Weir
Francis Jukes
The British Library

In "Tintern Abbey"

William Gilpin's concept of the picturesque has a considerable presence in "Tintern Abbey," largely because the poem features the same Wye Valley landscape that inspired Gilpin to define the characteristics of the picturesque. This shared landscape source leads readers of "Tintern Abbey"—students, scholars, and teachers alike— to systematize and standardize the descriptions of the landscape and the aforementioned picturesque characteristics of ruggedness, contrast, variety, and wholeness. We are tempted to use extant theory to identify which descriptions and features appear in the poem's landscape, and evaluate how "Tintern Abbey" measures up to these standards.

However, this assessment is erroneous, because it supposes that Gilpin's observations of the landscape and his proposed characteristics are the sole foundation of the picturesque, when really Gilpin's theory is far more complicated. Most importantly, the pivitol role of harmony is often underestimated or overlooked. Even though Gilpin offers these artistic criteria of the picturesque, he also stresses that there is an artistic process behind the picturesque, which requires a degree of edification and revision for the sake of harmony. Since nature is "seldom so correct in composition, as to produce an harmonious whole" (Observations 31), it is the artist or gardener's job to embellish or adjust what he observes in order to create harmony in the picture. This dynamic state of the picturesque is fundamental to this theory, which Gilpin demonstrates himself when he watercolors the prints in his personal copy of Observations and defends his actions in a recently unearthed "Advertisement" he added to the beginning of his copy.

If we instead examine how this process of the picturesque relates to "Tintern Abbey," we find that the act creating the picturesque is quite similar to Wordsworth's process of revising thoughts, images, and emotions through his poetic and imaginative processes. Wordsworth describes this process in the 1802 Preface to Lyrical Ballads, and demonstrates it throughout "Tintern Abbey," as he (the speaker) recollects and refines images of and experiences with the Wye Valley landscape in his mind. Wordsworth's imaginative process then becomes like Gilpin's water-coloring: reimagining images and adding "richness," "variety," and "distinction to the objects"—all for the sake of creating a sense and picture of harmony.

Continue scrolling for a deeper analysis of how the picturesque functions in this poem.