In Focus: the sublime in art

Stormy seascape painting with ship against a large rock and dark stormy clouds in the sky
Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), A Ship against the Mewstone, at the Entrance to Plymouth Sound, c.1814. Photo © National Gallery of Ireland.Credit

In our ongoing adult learning series, In Focus, we link works from our collection with key art historical, theoretical or philosophical texts. Aimed especially at third-level students, but accessible to all, this series aims to support in-depth engagement with our collection and the selected texts.

In this post, we consider the philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke’s (1729-1797) writings on the sublime. His book A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful will support new ways of looking at George Barret’s A Stormy Landscape, J.M. Turner’s A Ship against the Mewstone, at the Entrance to Plymouth Sound, and Andrew Nicholl’s, Baily Lighthouse, Howth, County Dublin, in Stormy Weather.

Key artwork

Supporting artworks

Key text


Edmund Burke was an empiricist, which means his thinking gave privilege to our sensory experience of the world. Burke asserted that the formation of ideas and our knowledge of the natural world are not arrived at through intuition or reasoning, but from passions of our imagination.

He offers a parameter for defining the sublime; this is in contrast to his definition of beauty. According to Burke, the beautiful is correct, proportional and balanced, offering an uninhibited aesthetic pleasure. The sublime is that which has the power to compel us through astonishment and awe.

"WHATEVER is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. I say the strongest emotion, because I am satisfied the ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which enter on the part of pleasure." Edmund Burke.

We can observe problems in Burke’s writings. He establishes his inquiry of the sublime and the beautiful in gender terms, the sublime as masculine and the beautiful as feminine. Writer and philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) challenged this. She stated that these are ideas that are explicitly viewed through the sensory experience of the male: the woman is beautiful through the gaze of the male and the whole subject position of the sublime is masculine.

Burke also approaches both beauty and the sublime in psychological terms. He uses medical theory from the time, writing about nerves and the inter-relation of the mind and the body. Burke claims that sensations that are occurring externally have an influence on the mind, and this is what produces the sublime. It is this claim that positions his thinking within a psychological paradigm.

After Burke, Immanuel Kant developed thinking on the sublime, as the power of reason over nature. He divided it into two types: the mathematical sublime and the dynamic sublime. The mathematical sublime is the power of the imagination in relation to the infinite. For Kant, it is our reason and sense of mathematics which allows us to conceive the idea of infinity. The dynamic sublime is closer to Burke’s conception of the sublime. It is the ability of reason to overcome the feeling of fear that we get from seeing something which is potentially dangerous, but is if no current danger.

In Part II, Of Passion Caused by the Sublime, Burke talks about a state of astonishment with an underlying experience of horror, an all-consuming experience that does not cater for any other track of thought or awareness, and therefore becomes an experience of the sublime. The sublime overwhelms our faculty of reason, proving that in particular instances, we are incapable of rational thought.

A painting of a stormy night scene
George Barret (1728/32-1784) A Stormy Landscape
A painting of a stormy seascape
Andrew Nicholl (1804-1886) Baily Lighthouse, Howth, County Dublin, in Stormy Weather

The paintings by George Barret, J.M.W. Turner and Andrew Nicholl, all depict storms. The experience of the artist, and indeed us the viewers, is that of the sublime, as we are observing something that is potentially dangerous, but we can gain pleasure knowing that we are observing it from a place of safety. There is an initial feeling of fear or distress, followed by pleasure, once the subject realises that the object that is posing these feelings is not a real threat. Burke claims that the most powerful passion is that of fear because it comes from an apprehension of pain. In this apprehension, an event of self-preservation takes place followed by pleasure. Contemporary examples of this could be the experience of riding a rollercoaster, or of watching a horror movie. One experiences the impression of fear while at them same time remaining assured in the knowledge of being safe. Also, for Burke, pain and pleasure have properties in common, mostly that they both oppose a state of indifference.

Burke specifically acknowledges a terror that is derived from the ocean: "…the ocean is an object of no small terror. Indeed, terror is in all cases whatsoever, either more openly or latently, the ruling principle of the sublime." [Part II, Terror, Edmund Burke]

In J.M.W. Turner’s A Ship against the Mewstone, at the Entrance to Plymouth Sound, 1814, the Mewstone dwarfs the ship, which is likely to be a Royal Naval vessel. The Mewstone, which lies at the eastern end of Plymouth Sound off Wembury Bay, notoriously claimed many lives over the centuries. Here we see a depiction of an object known to be dangerous, set in the dangers of a storm. Turner often positioned himself extremely close, or within his subject. In one instance, he tied himself to a steam ship for four hours during a nocturnal snowstorm, which resulted in the painting Snow Storm—Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth making Signals in Shallow Water, and going by the Lead. The Author was in this Storm on the Night the Ariel left Harwich, 1842 (now in the Tate Collection). Consequently, the painting is both a forensic record of this specific storm and a masterwork of painting. Considering Turner’s approach to these natural scenes, we can question if Turner himself experienced the sublime as a safe observer or if he himself was of the sublime in particular moments.


  • What is Edmund Burke’s definition of the sublime?
  • What interpretation of the sublime might we attribute to the artworks A Stormy Landscape, A Ship against the Mewstone, at the Entrance to Plymouth Sound and Baily Lighthouse, Howth, County Dublin, in Stormy Weather?
  • Do you think that the sublime takes place exclusively in art?
  • Can the sublime be experienced through direct encounters with nature?
  • From this text, how would you distinguish the sublime from the beautiful?
  • What political or social connotations might the sublime have had in the 18th century?
  • What political and social connotations might the sublime have in the contemporary world?

Written by: Jennie Taylor, National Gallery of Ireland

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