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Awe, Nature, and Fear: The Sublime Then and Now by Eleanor Goetz

Painting by Eleanor GoetzIf you have ever stood at the edge of a large waterfall or tried to understand the size and workings of the universe, you are most likely feeling an emotion that artists of the sublime attempt to elicit from the viewer.

The sublime can be described as a feeling inspired by nature or by a piece of art (whether it be painting, literature, or modern day media), which cannot be completely comprehended and often strikes awe and fear. The sublime causes tension or unease in the viewer by the introduction of something large in size or complexity, making it incomprehensible. Since I am interested in the visual arts, when I recently visited Yellowstone Park in Wyoming where Thomas Moran painted his famous “The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone,” I set out to learn what it was like to be Thomas Moran painting in Yellowstone and to experience the grandeur of the park and try to capture that in a painting. Here, I will focus on painting and the sublime in the 19th century in the United States, share my experiment trying to capture the sublime in a painting, and then look at how our modern-day obsession with images changes our access to the feeling of the sublime.

During westward expansion in the nineteenth century, American artists created paintings as proof that the natural beauty and grandeur of the West actually existed. Many of their paintings illustrated places inhabited by western Native American peoples that had never been seen or experienced by people from the eastern United States or Europe. And those landscapes were very different from anything they had ever seen before. Magnificent new images of the West represented the potential of the new nation and differentiated the United States from what Americans thought of as old England and Europe.

In the 19th century, the Western United States also commonly represented God’s land and the immensity of God’s work. When explorers of that era saw the features of the area now known as Yellowstone National Park for the first time they felt they were “very near the presence of the Almighty,” as explorer Nathaniel P. Langford said after seeing the hot springs. While some believed the boiling pools and deep canyons of Yellowstone were the gates of Hell, others believed the area to be a fantasyland.

Thomas Moran was the first artist to paint the landscape of the not yet formed Yellowstone National Park. In 1871, Moran was hired along with the photographer William Henry Jackson, and others, to bring back images of a landscape that was indescribable. The trappers who gave reports of the scenery were not a reliable source because they tended to tell tall tales. This artistic team was charged to record the scenery in order to persuade the United States Congress that Yellowstone’s wonders were real, and to convince Congress to establish the area as a national park. Moran made watercolor sketches while in the area and when he got back to his home in New Jersey, he combined the sketches to make incredible, skillful, panoramic views of the geological features of the Yellowstone area. This painting must have been especially overwhelming to see in 1872 because such landscapes had never been seen before and Moran’s talent as a painter heightened the drama. Jackson’s photographs were delivered to Congress, along with Moran’s paintings, as proof that such landscapes did exist. In 1872, Yellowstone, with its geographical features, such as geysers, canyons, and hot springs, became the first National Park in the world. Moran was able to portray the grand, unseen, magical land in a way that elicited a feeling of the sublime to the Congressmen of the United States.

Thomas Moran's "The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone"

This summer I visited Yellowstone and realized that I was on the trail of Thomas Moran. I saw many scenes that looked familiar from reproductions I had studied. The rangers spoke of him often, credited the park to him and there was a small museum and movie about him. As I toured Yellowstone I thought about how Thomas Moran must have felt to be there. It made me understand the context in which he painted and how frightening it must have been for him to paint this scenery, virtually alone, with the threat of wild animals, accidents and fatal navigational errors. There was the added possibility of facing the wrath of society for painting a place that some believed, because of the boiling pools and deep canyons, were the gates of Hell. While traveling in Yellowstone, I discovered that the landscape is overwhelming and awe-inspiring: the contrast of the bright, blinding sun and the cold blue, misty tall mountains on the horizon; the pools of boiling cyan water bubbling up from caverns in the earth next to pools of water with orange bacteria and bleached, dead trees scattered around from the many forest fires that burn in the park; huge waterfalls running over high cliffs plunging into canyons, with walls of reds and yellows and oranges. Not to mention the geysers, some constantly spewing water, and Old Faithful erupting every 90 minutes. I felt awe-struck when looking at the geographical features of the park. The mountains and canyons are so high that they made me feel small and insignificant. I took pictures to show people back home, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t take a photo that captured the grandeur of what I saw. Every photo looked small, insignificant, flat, and cropped.

Watercolor by Eleanor GoetzI wondered if it was possible to capture the awe of this place in a painting when I got home. I decided to make a painting of the lower falls of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and made a watercolor sketch from Artist’s Point, rumored to be the place where Thomas Moran painted “The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.” I discovered from a park ranger that he used many views and sketches to make his final oil painting of the area, which gives the feeling of the canyon. As I was painting, I had vertigo from the great height in which I was viewing the scene. It was beautiful but also frightening.

Working on a watercolor sketch of the lower falls, it was hard to capture the vastness, depth, atmosphere, beauty, and the feelings of awe and fear. Is this how Thomas Moran felt when he was working on his sketches for the “Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone?” While I was working I realized that I was painting this wild, strange, vast, and amazing landscape with every modern convenience sitting on a bench in the shade sipping bottled water. I thought as I worked: “Something more must be added to my final oil painting (that I paint at home), in order to completely convey the emotions I feel when viewing this scene.” How could I make this painting feel sublime? What are the characteristics of Thomas Moran’s paintings that helped him elicit the sublime?

Moran painted something that had never been seen before, and he painted a landscape that was sublime itself. The unfamiliarity of the landscape made it easier for him at that time to evoke emotion from the viewers of the eastern United States who had never seen anything like it. Also, many people of that time were influenced by religious convention to think of nature as God’s awesome work. Paintings that call forth the sublime in the 19th century formulaically have dark shadows in the foreground and a very light background. Many paintings have dramatic extreme landscape elements such as mountains, large boulders, waterfalls, cliffs, deep valleys, and unusual colors. These paintings feature dramatic skies with ominous, low clouds and small figures that define the scale as overpowering.

Moran’s “Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone” is very large. It measures 7 feet by 12 feet. His landscapes in general emphasize certain elements of the scene. For example, he exaggerates rocks and geographical elements and combines views so that the viewer can be in the shoes of the painter and feel what it was like to be where he had been. A photograph or an exact copy cannot do this. In order to elicit the sublime, the artist must add something more in order to bring out the emotions that he or she wants to convey. The artist is making a translation of the scene so we know just how grand and awe inspiring it is. 

One of the problems I faced in creating my painting was that I knew I had to make the canyon scene I chose original and new in order to make it sublime. When I arrived home from my trip, I got to work painting the canyon from my watercolor sketch. I tried many of the techniques I learned from looking at painters to evoke the sublime, such as layering darks and lights, depicting a dramatic scene and placing small figures in the foreground. I studied Thomas Moran’s watercolor sketches of Yellowstone, his painting of the Canyon and the work of Caspar David Friedrich to inspire me. As I worked, I thought about today, comparing our culture to that of the nineteenth century. If Thomas Moran made his painting today would it have the same impact as it did in 1872? Probably not because the Yellowstone landscape has been depicted in art so many times, in many types of media and the actual canyon is seen by millions of visitors every year. I had to make a painting that resonated with the viewers of today in order to evoke an emotional response.

Today, however, we are bombarded with images, static or moving, from television, computers, the Internet, movies, posters, billboards, magazines, newspapers, and our phones. Daily, hourly, minute by minute, we can see hundreds or more images of things, people or places. Paintings are no longer the primary means to convey images of the sublime. What we see becomes mundane and everyday. We are desensitized to the power of images by the sheer number that we are exposed to. Therefore artists or others who make images wanting to elicit the sublime may have to produce a work extra shocking, exotic, or extreme. Damien Hierst actually takes nature (a shark, butterfly wings) and uses it in his work instead of just an image from nature. His “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,” where he exhibits a preserved tiger shark in a tank filled with formaldehyde, and his “For the Love of God,” in which he arranges dead butterflies to make the image of a stained-glass window, illustrate the shock factor needed to evoke a modern day viewer’s emotions.

In addition, the images that move or shock us may have fewer roots in reality and more in man-made and computer-generated images. For example, in the movie Inception, there is a scene where the street peels off the earth, rears up and curves toward the viewer. It makes us fearful because it looks dangerous and makes us afraid of being in such a situation even though we are not actually there. We are also amazed by the image because it is so fresh and new. Finally, we don’t just passively observe images today, we interact with them. Our culture pressures us to be more like some images, to change ourselves to fit an ideal. Think of depictions of women’s bodies, in media and advertisements, where everything is airbrushed and altered to make the model look thinner, taller, and have perfect, flawless skin. We don’t ask ourselves whether the image is real; we wonder how we can make ourselves into that idealistic image.

Through my research about paintings and images that evoke the sublime, and painting my own work, I realized that what a person feels about an image is influenced by culture and ultimately relies on the viewer’s interaction with the image and their experiences. An image or painting that would be sublime to one person may not be to another. An image that is sublime to an era or culture may not be significant in another. When I stood at the edge of the actual Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, I realized that no image of it could capture all the emotion I felt while standing before it. There in the fantastic, awe-inspiring park, I did not have cell phone or Internet service; there were no billboards or bus posters, no flashy advertisements. I was alone and small and insignificant in this huge wild park where I could feel the power of nature. Perhaps in order to feel the sublime, we must unplug and limit the media, television, and ads that are desensitizing us, so we can open up and truly experience what is simply in front of us.

Eleanor Goetz

Elly Goetz is 15 years old and lives in Brooklyn, New York. She attends LaGuardia Arts High School and likes to garden, swim, play the viola, and create art.
Artwork by Eleanor Goetz
 Thomas Moran, “The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone,” 1872;  Smithsonian American Art Museum
  1. Amazing article, amazing painting. Congratulations!!

  2. Beautiful descriptions of an amazing park and the creation of it and a great definition of sublime. Amazing painting.