• Alexandre Melay

Aesthetic of Northern Landscapes as an existential, artistic experience

While Mediterranean landscapes have long been interpreted in European art through different artistic styles, Nordic landscapes were mainly represented by the Romantic movement. Since then, the aesthetic qualities of Nordic landscape representations have emphasized the way that contemporary examples are connected to classical landscapes: the classification of a beautiful aesthetic and the concept of the sublime will be connected to the irregular and impressive Nordic landscapes, and the aesthetic qualities will question the spectator himself. This is because, from an anthropological angle, landscape representation becomes a means of self-interpretation, and this characteristic is expressed by artists of this part of the world.

This nearness, as well as the astonished examination of Nature and its powers, are not characteristics unique to the last decades in Northern art, but have roots dating back to the 18th century, which still inspire many Northern artists today. The origins come from a strong aesthetic appreciation of harsh natural phenomena. This appreciation manifests not only in an aesthetic and regional aspect, but also in particular choices of subjects in both older and contemporary art. It also influences the representation of the elemental experience, where composition, display, or choice of colours is concerned. This interest is frequently referred to as “respect of” and “nearness to” nature, which is a part of Nordic art, architecture, and design. The appreciation of the aesthetic qualities of Nordic landscapes comes from a landscape characterized by natural and spontaneous beauty, which represent the inheritance of a Northern European Romanticism. A Nordic landscape is a place of poetry, of dreams and home of the mythical golden age: a primary landscape before its cultivated development by civilisation. These regions are not homogeneous, and Denmark’s mild slopes compared to Norway’s overwhelming fjords certainly weaken the generalisation on the morphology of these landscapes: a sublime stillness, capturing nature’s moody splendor.

Caspar David Friedrich, Mountain with Ascending Mist, c. 1819-1920, oil on canvas, 54.9x70.4 cm, Neue Pinakothek, Münich, Germany

Caspar David Friedrich, Rocky Reef on the Sea Shore, c. 1824, oil on canvas, 22x31 cm, Staatliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe, Germany

Before becomes a genre/style with aesthetic qualities; the natural forms first appeared merely as backgrounds for religious images. Later, this interest of classical landscapes motivated several Northern travellers to undertake a kind of Grand Tour, or pilgrimage, throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries. The wildest of Nordic landscapes were only admired during early Romanticism. Unlike the picturesque, the concept of the sublime is connected to a stronger emotional effect on the viewer [1] and characterizes the aesthetic and “spiritual” feeling born through the experience of encountering the forms and features of the irregular Nordic landscapes. The artists, in particular Caspar David Friedrich, try to grasp and visually reproduce the emotional, metaphysical, and the transcendental experience in their works. The experience of the immeasurable is one that subverts order, coherence, and a structured organization and bypasses the rational mind, concentrating its force directly on the emotions: “landscapes of soul” or “moodscapes”[2]. Hence, the character of the sublime was not considered as a simple sub-category, nor as a new form or a new way of experiencing the beauty, but a proper and new experience of itself. That is why it was applied to describing the aesthetic qualities of such phenomena that were not previously considered. The Northern landscapes, often identified and celebrated through austere mountain scenery, started to become objects of aesthetic interest, through the concept of the sublime, by describing the curious pleasure and the oxymoron of Joseph Addison’s “pleasing horror” they provided.

The interest in Northern regions was a trend throughout the 18th century and due to political or cultural reasons, the appreciation of the wild, mountainous, Northern landscapes and the increased value of the irregular, anti-classical—previously frightening—can also be interpreted as a sort of compensation for the lack of the harmonious Mediterranean forms and sights. Therefore, since the middle of the 19th century, Nordic landscapes represent the national pride of all Nordic regions [3]. The accidental landscape and national Nordic identity were also established in other Nordic countries; a similar tendency in the history of Norwegian art was drawn, because “spending time in the mountains is highly rated as a recreational activity and finding inner peace by overcoming the obstacles of nature and the body seems to be at the core of “Norwegianness” ; or in Iceland, where “Icelandic nature is not only a challenge for all the senses, it is also part of the national consciousness, and from it Icelanders derive part of their identity.” In fact, this harshness of the lands is still an influential source that the Icelandic photographer Ragnar Axelsson’s tries to express in his artistic production, because for him: “The worse the weather, the better the result.”

The cultural production, the style of artworks, and the different moral values of these regions, have several aesthetic and historical consequences. The Nordic region was often set against the Mediterranean region, because of the extreme Northern seasons, as well as the fog and thick mist, which make it impossible to create a solar art. In many pieces of Romantic writing, many testimonies established an aesthetic of the Northern scenery and countries [4]. The irregular and impressive Northern landscapes relate the beautiful through the concept of the sublime, and from Kant’s analyses, the beautiful is often concerned with qualities connected to form, while the sublime phenomenon can, in many cases, amaze with its formlessness or by something definitely outgrowing the perceptible form. In this way, the description and the appreciation of non-harmonious natural visions can be made through the experience of the sublime [5]—physically encountering the rough, non-harmonious landscapes becomes a part of being an indisputable experience, an experience of the sublime for the creator himself. It clarifies why artists were highly inspired to grasp the essence of these mighty natural scenes, and to depict them in their works, while searching for a new experience. From the early Romanticism, Northern landscapes became not only aesthetically valuable, but even more capable than the Southern scenery of moving the spectator, especially because the landscape representation can be a means of self-interpretation [6].

Southern places are a more likely destination to visit and see, whereas Nordic landscapes are a place to experience and feel. Nordic landscapes become the ideal places for experiencing the sublime forces of nature, not about a simple and delightful experience, or a pleasurable exposure to nature’s impact. But instead, it is more connected to the ideas of the Romantic apprehension of man’s alienation from nature that also leads to the objectification of nature. One of the key achievements of Northern Romantic philosophy and art is the comprehension that experiencing the rough, intensive and elemental forces of powerful and sublime nature results in direct emotional responses. Nature was understood as overwhelming, as well as sublime, not only due to its physical, but also because of its temporal infinity. Consequently, the endless forces of Nature, experienced through the Northern landscapes, were manifesting eternal essence and permanence compared to man’s limitedness in space and time. The Romantic understanding of the relationship between man and nature will thereby be interpreted in such a way that—nevertheless due to the objectification of our alienation from nature and the fact that nature’s real essence remains out of our reach forever—the analyses of our emotional reaction to the sublimity of nature’s manifestations, while encountering its wild and serious aspects in the Northern landscapes, will guide us in our own process of self-interpretation.


[1] William Vaughan, Helmut Börsch-Supan, and Hans Joachim Neidhardt, Caspar Friedrich 1774-1840 : Romantic Landscape Painting in Dresden. London : Tate Gallery, 1972, p. 9.

[2] Hofmann, Werner, and Caspar David Friedrich, Caspar David Friedrich. New York : Thames & Hudson, 2000, p. 22.

[3] King Charles XV of Sweden, who himself liked to paint local landscapes, and who claimed that the wild natural scenery is a significant and distinctive part of Northern identity : “We have a wonderful country, perhaps not radiant in sunshine but all the more in seriousness and vigour. Our history and traditions are rich and poetic, full of noble memories, which with good reason constitute our honour and our pride. And so the history and natural beauty of this, the land of our fathers, shall be the main subjects of our art – together they build a temple, and thus shall the work of our artists be also the worship of our Lord of Nature, the Almighty God. This is the path by which our art will achieve its goals, bestowing upon a beloved fatherland both honour and glory”. Torsten Gunnarsson, Nordic Landscape Painting in the Nineteenth Century. New Haven : Yale University Press, p. 115.

[4] Ms De Staël wrote in her book, continuing both the considerations of climate-theory by transforming the challenging and unpleasant weather conditions, as favourable for imagination and artistic production : “It was pretty generally understood that literature existed in the north of Germany alone, and the inhabitants of the south abandoned themselves to the enjoyments of sense, while those of the north tasted more exclusively those of the soul. From Weimar to Konigsberg, from Konigsberg to Copenhagen, fogs and frosts appear to be the natural element of men of a lofty and vigorous imagination”. Staël-Holstein Germaine de, De L’Allemagne. Paris : Flammarion, 1998.

[5] Carrive Paulette, « Le sublime dans l’esthétique de Kant », Revue d’histoire littéraire de la France, vol. no 86, no. 1, 1986, pp. 71-85. See also, Kant Immanuel, Observations sur le sentiment du beau et du sublime. Paris : J. Vrin, 2008.

[6] Rosenblum Robert, Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition : Friedrich to Rothko. London : Thames and Hudson, 1994.