The Important Artists and Works of The Sublime in Art

Progression of Art
Théodore Géricault: The Raft of the Medusa (1818-19)

The Raft of the Medusa

Artist: Théodore Géricault

Many consider this gory and chilling work to be Géricault's magnum opus, and it changed the direction of modern art. The enormous canvas, almost 23 by 16 feet, depicts the survivors and less fortunate occupants of a life raft that had been cut adrift from a stricken French navy frigate, sunk by an incompetent captain. Dead or dying, the figures cut a horrifying scene as they are thrown about on the turbulent West African sea. When the raft was eventually rescued after 13 days, only fifteen men remained alive. Another five died during the voyage, and the event caused a contemporary scandal surrounding France's colonial aspirations.

As history painters had never before depicted a contemporaneous event, the work shocked the public, and its gruesome rendering further outraged them. Géricault went to great lengths to portray realistically the horror of the event, visiting morgues to study the skin color of the dead, even taking body parts home to work from as models. The pyramidal structure, comprising the raft's corners and the rickety mast, add to the drama of the gruesome scene. He also uses chiaroscuro to add drama to a terrifying sky and to highlight the deathly pallor of the parched bodies. By allowing the edges of the raft to move beyond the bottom of the frame, the artist invites the spectator onto its perilous floor, and by turning the stricken subjects' heads and arms towards the horizon, the viewer is drawn more deeply into the terrible scene as they hopelessly seek rescue.

The notion of horror and death is a key motif in the exploration of the sublime. Edmund Burke wrote, "Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say whatever is in any sort a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling." Géricault's fascination with the macabre can also be seen in Francisco Goya's powerful plates, The Disasters of War produced ten years previously. And artist have sought to replicate a morbid fascination up until today as artists including Joseph Beuys, Anselm Keifer, Doris Salcedo, and Damien Hirst explore the sublime in reaction to traumatic events and death.

Oil on canvas - Musée du Louvre, Paris

John Constable: Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (1831)

Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows

Artist: John Constable

In Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows the sublime becomes apparent in the work's moody skies and teeming symbolism. An influential figure in the Romantic movement, Constable became known for his unique treatment of light and use of vibrant, naturalistic colors, but this large canvas has a dark and ominous feel and raises questions about the future of the Anglican Church. In the center of the scene, the spire of Salisbury Cathedral pierces the lightening-cleaved clouds, but the contrasting lights in the scene solicit a symbolic reading of the church. Divided diagonally across the center, the left bottom triangle shows in muted browns and oranges a pastoral scene, and a man on horse and cart wade through a stream. A large tree on the left casts a deep shadow over the scene. Despite the presence of a rainbow cutting through the upper triangle of the composition, the sky is dark and brooding. Shafts of light battle with squalls of rain, and the reds of the gray sky are used to threatening effect. Many have also tied the contrasting moods to Constable's own psychological state after the death of his wife.

Art historian Anne Lyles says the work represents the "transcendental sublime," explaining, "When the painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1831, the critics acknowledged the extent to which it differed from the artist's previous work, but struggled to define the ways in which this was so. Their descriptions ranged from 'exaggerated,' 'theatrical,' and 'unnatural.'" But Charles Robert Leslie, Constable's biographer, wrote that the artist believed the work conveyed "the full impression of the compass of his art" and that one day it would probably "be considered his greatest" picture.

Oil on canvas - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom

J.M.W. Turner: Slave Ship (Slaves Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On) (1840)

Slave Ship (Slaves Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On)

Artist: J.M.W. Turner

J.M.W Turner explored notions of impermanence, death, and violence in his seascapes and nature paintings. In this dynamic and expressive work, Turner uses a palette of fiery reds and yellows to depict a treacherous ocean. The bottom half of the canvas depicts a tumultuous sea, in which animals and slaves are engulfed. Flame-like waves lick at the fiery sky as a spindly, vulnerable ship sails away, abandoning the overthrown. The horizon seems to pivot, emphasizing the fear and chaos experienced by the drowning. Here, a number of sublime concepts are at play: the sun, godlike but uncaring, in the center of the canvas evokes the spiritual, the menace of drowning and death loom, and nature is presented as all-powerful and terrifying.

The work was based on a poem about the true story of slave ship whose captain had thrown sick and dying slaves overboard so he could claim insurance on lives lost at sea. Turner was fascinated by the human and elemental violence, and the sea provided a powerful place for an exploration of the sublime. Writer Alison Smith said, "Turner's works have been seen to both elevate and inspire perception in the beholder." Turner used skilled brushwork and color effect to unsettle the viewer. The critic John Ruskin wrote, "If I were reduced to rest Turner's immortality upon any single work, I should choose this."

Oil on canvas - Museum of Fine Arts Boston, USA

Thomas Moran: The Chasm of the Colorado (1873-74)

The Chasm of the Colorado

Artist: Thomas Moran

In this bright and dramatic work, the canvas' middle opens up to an enormous gulf, into which are sucked the sky and the clouds. The red structure of the Grand Canyon surrounds the chasm, towering up the left of the canvas. The power of the scene is emphasized with bold reds and blacks, while the distant horizon, rendered in soft blues, oranges, and yellows, extend the reach of the enormous landscape. Dark rainclouds pour into the ground, while water bubbles up from the earth in a steamy mist. The work is almost biblical in its celebration of majesty and power. The embellishment of a rainbow completes the picture and references the great end-of-days flood of the Old Testament.

From his vantage point at Powell's Plateau - a northwestern Grand Canyon summit - Moran at once produced an image that points to a still, unmoving, and uncaring history of the earth, while also introducing dynamism through the active weather-scape. This dichotomy conveys a sense of irrelevancy in the viewer who looks on at the entirely unpeopled scene. Moran worked with explorer and geologist John Wesley Powell as he painted the composite, using sketches, photographs, and compositions rather than a direct observation of the view. Powell wrote, "Mr. Moran has represented the depths and magnitudes and distances and forms and color and clouds with the greatest fidelity. But his picture not only tells the truth...It displays the beauty of the truth."

Oil on canvas - Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC

Kazimir Malevich: Black Square (1913)

Black Square

Artist: Kazimir Malevich

This work comprises a black square set slightly askew on a white field. This small and seemingly simple canvas turned the art world on its head. Originally conceived as a set design for the last scene in an avant-garde opera, Black Square epitomizes the style Malevich named Suprematism, a form of pure abstraction which was totally non-figurative and non-descriptive. In producing a work with no color, no form, no symbolism and no message, Malevich claimed to have "freed art from the burden of the object." He thought that perception should be freed from logic and reason and that absolute truth could only be realized via feeling.

Art critic Will Gompertz explained that Malevich deliberately induced a state of confusion in the viewer as she sought to find meaning. "Once it had escaped from its rationalist prison, the unconscious mind would be able to 'see' that the artist was presenting the entire cosmos, and all life within it, in his small, square, simple painting." Gompertz, here, describes the transcendental sublime; the work takes the viewer beyond the defined, rational limits of understanding. Further, as scholar Philip Shaw explains, "Favoring flatness over depth, Black Square conveys, in the words of Kant's Analytic of the Sublime (1790), 'the feeling of displeasure that arises from the imagination's inadequacy.'" In our incapacity to find a rational meaning for Black Square and in the unease one feels in that situation, Malevich succeeded in conveying the sublime through completely abstract means, an accomplishment that would propel subsequent artists, including Americans Ad Reinhardt and Mark Rothko, to advance their own versions of it.

Oil on canvas - State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Barnett Newman: Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950-51)

Vir Heroicus Sublimis

Artist: Barnett Newman

This vast Abstract Expressionist painting consists of a deep, saturated, matte red. Across the almost 18 by 8 foot canvas five vertical bands, called "zips" by Newman, punctuate the field of red. Working from the left, we see a slightly brushy orange zip, followed by a thicker, bright white zip. On the right, a dark maroon zip divides the work again, and another orange zip is painted to its right. A year later, Newman added the final zip; a thick, tan line that hugs the edge of the canvas.

At the time, it was Newman's largest painting, and it was supposed to redraw the lines between artist and the viewer, who was encouraged to examine the canvas up close. When standing at the proper distance, the colors and lines morph and envelop the viewer, and the light of the red canvas is cast back upon them, changing their own appearance - the work alters the viewer visibly and hopefully, per Newman's intentions, metaphysically.

The title of the work, translated from Latin means "Man, heroic and sublime." In his 1948 essay, "The Sublime is Now," Newman argued that Europe had failed to find the sublime in modern art, but that in America, freed from the weight of European culture, artists could realize the sublime. He wrote, "We are freeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth...that have been the devises of Western European painting. Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man or 'life,' we are making them out of ourselves, out of our own feelings." In eschewing the figure and landscapes, Newman and his colleagues made their subject human existence and experience. As philosopher Paul Crowther writes, "The implied analogy is that just as the zip is properly defined and comprehensible only through its opposition to the color-field, so humanity can only define and express its own finite rational nature in opposition to the infinite and unknown." The relationships that Newman created between the vertical lines and the horizontal red field, then, stand in for, or evoke, our relationship with the world, with nature.

Oil on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Damien Hirst: The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991)

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living

Artist: Damien Hirst

This huge tank, containing a 14-foot-long dead tiger shark suspended in blue formaldehyde solution, shocked and unsettled the public when it was first unveiled in 1991. The work launched Hirst's career; he said he wanted "to make a sculpture where the fragility was encased...[and] exists in its own space." The shark has long been an emblem of the sublime; a graceful, powerful creature, inextricably related to violence and death, reminiscent of the ocean and drowning in the great abyss. Hirst described the shark as the "universal trigger," capable of instilling fear in all.

Art historian Luke White suggests that while Hirst's work echoes Burke's fascination with the body, mortality, violence, pain, and power, Hirst's very being and cultural capital make him symptomatic of the contemporary sublime and its entanglement with commercial concerns. White explains, "Hirst's restaging of the Burkean sublime places him in a long tradition of the commercial exploitation of the tropes and themes of the sublime." Art critic Jonathan Jones is a bit less critical of Hirst's commercialism, as he describes the work as "genuinely profound." He writes, "There it was: life, or was it death, relentlessly approaching me through deep waters. It was galvanizing, energizing. It was a great work of art." But just as the piece invites a meditation on the relentless march or life into death, the work itself is impermanent. The shark began to disintegrate and was replaced in 2006. Nothing lasts forever.

Glass, painted steel, silicone, monofilament, shark and formaldehyde solution - Here installed in the Saatchi Gallery, London


Nantes Triptych

Artist: Bill Viola

Bill Viola uses experimental sound and video to create an experience. The Nantes Triptych references religious art in its name and in its format of three panels of video. On the far left, a woman is giving birth and the footage catches the moment when the baby is first placed into the mother's arms. In the middle, a fully-clothed man floats in a black watery void. On the right is footage from the end of the artist's own mother's life as she lies still, taking her last breaths on her death bed. Against these powerful scenes, clashing sounds are played: crying, breathing, and water sounds.

Viola explained that he wanted to "go to the future with sound and electronics" to project the great universal experiences, which are at once deeply personal and private but at the same time common to all. Viola explained that the presence of the camera in each of these private scenes is "the embodiment of invasion of privacy" and adds to the work's tension. While the technological sublime attempts to make sense of age-old experiences, beliefs, and mysteries using the most up-to-date science, Viola wanted to explore how art takes place within a continuum and that in this way he is no different to his Renaissance forebears. He said, "Renaissance artists were exploring the same thing. The renaissance was a meeting of science and art. Perspective would have seemed like computer CGI graphics now."

Viola, a student of Zen meditation, uses Eastern philosophy to inform his artistic investigation into the relationship between an individual's inner life and bodily experience. He said, "The word 'sublime' means being overwhelmed, not just physically, the way a great storm at sea would, but being overwhelmed emotionally, spiritually, within every fiber of your body. Not destruction or chaos, but absolute revelation and truth of the moment. Absolute confirmation that this moment is an eternal moment."

Video, 3 projections, color and sound (stereo) - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom

Anish Kapoor: Descension (2014)


Artist: Anish Kapoor

In this sculptural work, which has been exhibited at the Château de Versailles in France, the Galleria Continua in Italy, and New York's Brooklyn Bridge Park, we see a huge, circular void in the ground filled with water. Within that, a vortex swirls continually, sucking the water down into its depths. It is unclear how deep the body of water is, and in some incarnations the interior of the pool is black, taking away any hint of what is within, while also giving the impression that the water is icy cold. The water spirals constantly, and within that movement the vortex itself moves gently in its own orbit as white bubbles make their own shapes that spin out to the work's edges. When the work was exhibited in France and Italy, there were no ropes around it; the viewer could have easily stepped or fallen in, and sensing the danger, some spectators stepped warily back from it while they peered down, as if standing at a cliff edge.

Bombay-born British artist Anish Kapoor's work aims to provide a narrative without storytelling. "I seem to be making sculpture about the space beyond illusory space," he explained. Creating large sculptures that dominate the viewer, his use of outdoor space, and mirrored-glass structures that reflect the sky, Kapoor's works bring nature back to us, urging us to reconsider our relationship with the natural world.

Kapoor's conceptual work Descension speaks to a postmodern age in which our own security within nature is a given. We no longer need fear sharks and shipwrecks, but that does not mean we're ever really safe. In returning to the water motif, the work is designed to make the viewer feel uncomfortable. Its use as a medium invites self-reflection, and more darkly, invites our primordial brain to contemplate peril and death; blackness, depth, and the infinite. It makes us think of our own impermanence. In 1990, Kapoor talked about "void states" as an internal experience linked to fear. "There is nothing so black as the black within," he said.

Brooklyn Bridge Park, New York

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Content compiled and written by Sarah Ingram

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"The Sublime in Art Definition Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. .
Content compiled and written by Sarah Ingram
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 28 Jan 2019. Updated and modified regularly
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