PICTURESQUE. Use of the term "picturesque" has varied greatly since its emergence in the late seventeenth century, and its meaning has been frequently disputed. Ostensibly derived from the Italian pittoresco or the French pittoresque, meaning "like a picture" or "as if by a painter," the English version exceeded those meanings even in its earliest usage. For example, in notes to his translation of Homer's Iliad (1715–1720), the poet Alexander Pope (1688–1744) used the word "picturesque" to signal descriptive passages that, when visualized, were particularly compelling. Until the last quarter of the eighteenth century, the term generally implied that the subject in question was to some degree in keeping with conventions of painting. However, that conformity might be deliberate or by chance and, consequently, the expression was equally applicable to designed and natural subjects: gardens and remote wilderness, artful compositions and haphazard arrangements, brushstrokes within a painting, and even paintings themselves.
During the last third of the eighteenth century, the meaning of "picturesque" became a major subject of debate among three theorists particularly interested in landscape: William Gilpin (1724–1804), Uvedale Price (1747–1829), and Richard Payne Knight (1750–1824). Central to the debate were questions about how and where aesthetic properties were constituted.
Gilpin was a rural schoolmaster and clergyman who believed that aesthetic qualities were based on objective properties. He argued that the "picturesque"—defined in his Essay on Prints (1768) as "expressive of that peculiar kind of beauty which is agreeable in a picture"—referred to compositional formulas and textures such as those found in the landscape paintings of Claude Lorrain (1600–1682), Gaspard Dughet (called Poussin; 1615–1675), and Salvator Rosa (1615–1673), in which an open area seen from a low viewpoint was backed by a screening device and framed on both sides by wings, all painted in rough brushstrokes. Gilpin popularized his theory through a series of travel guides, published beginning in 1782, in which he pinpointed places from which to view "picturesque" scenes within rural landscape.
Price and Knight looked not to rustic scenery but to estate landscapes in their appraisals of the picturesque. Like Gilpin, Price believed that aesthetic qualities were objective properties. Influenced by Edmund Burke's treatise, A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757; revised 1759), however, Price also believed that perception of specific forms and textures could elicit specific thoughts and feelings within the mind of an observer. In his Essay on the Picturesque (1794), Price described the picturesque as an aesthetic category in which perceptions of roughness, irregularity, and unexpected variety could produce sensations of curiosity and pleasure. In "The Landscape" (1794), a poem dedicated to Price, and later in his substantial Analytical Inquiry into the Principles of Taste (1805), Knight differed from Gilpin and Price by suggesting that the picturesque was defined not by objective properties but by a mode of perception. More specifically, Knight proposed that the picturesque was an understanding produced in the mind of the observer through the association of ideas, and that individuals with higher levels of cultural education would be more inclined to experience it.
Despite theoretical uncertainties, the practice of configuring real space to resemble paintings became a vital aspect of garden and landscape design in eighteenth-century Britain, particularly in the work of William Kent (1685–1748), William Shenstone (1714–1763), and Lancelot "Capability" Brown (1715–1783). Price and Knight severely disapproved of Brown's untextured designs and hoped, through their writings, to foster appreciation among estate owners of more variegated, "patinated" landscapes. On the Continent, picturesque composition played an important role in the emergence and development of irregular design, beginning in the 1760s in France and, subsequently, in countries as far separated as Italy and Russia.
See also Art: Art Theory, Criticism, and Historiography ; Burke, Edmund ; Gardens and Parks ; Painting .
Andrews, Malcolm. The Search for the Picturesque: Landscape, Aesthetics and Tourism in Britain, 1760–1800. Stanford, 1989.
Bermingham, Ann. Landscape and Ideology: The English Rustic Tradition, 1740–1860. Berkeley, 1986.
Hussey, Christopher. The Picturesque: Studies in a Point of View. London, 1927. Reprint, London, 1967.
David L. Hays
In architectural terms, the asymmetrical villas of John Nash, for example, were a product of the Picturesque, and the freeing of architectural composition from the tyranny of symmetry was undoubtedly due to ideas of the Picturesque, a term that suggested variety, smallness, irregularity, roughness of texture, and an association with the power to stimulate imagination. Thus the Picturesque led to eclecticism and, by its appreciation of variety and asymmetry, to the Gothic and other Revivals.
M. Andrews (ed.) (1994);
Chilvers Osborne & Farr (eds.) (1988);
Colvin & J. Harris (eds.) (1970);
Copley & Garside (eds.) (1995);
Hunt (1992, 2002);
Knight (1794, 1972);
H. Osborne (1970);
Papworth & Placzek (eds.) (1977);
Pevsner (1968, 1974);
Summerson (ed.) (1993);
D. Watkin (1982a)
pic·tur·esque / ˌpikchəˈresk/ • adj. visually attractive, esp. in a quaint or pretty style: the picturesque covered bridges of New England. ∎ (of language) unusual and vivid: his picturesque speech contrasted with his rough appearance. DERIVATIVES: pic·tur·esque·ly adv. pic·tur·esque·ness n.