Hubert Robert
Alexander Gerard
An Essay on Taste
Alexander Gerard (1728-1795)
An Essay on Taste, 1759
Part I, Section II
Part I. Taste resolved into its simple principles
Section II. Of the sense or taste of grandeur and sublimity
Grandeur or sublimity gives us a still higher and nobler pleasure, by means of a sense appropriated to the perception of it; while meanness renders any object, to which it adheres, disagreeable and distasteful. Objects are sublime, which possess quantity or amplitude, and simplicity in conjunction.
Considerable magnitude or largeness of extension, in objects capable of it, is necessary to produce sublimity. It is not on a small rivulet, however transparent and beautifully winding; it is not on a narrow valley, though variegated with flowers of a thousand pleasing hues; it is not on a little hill, though clothed with the most delightful verdure, that we bestow the epithet sublime:but on the Alps, the Nile, the ocean, the wide expanse of heaven, or the immensity of space uniformly extended, without limit or termination.
We always contemplate objects and ideas with a disposition similar to their nature. When a large object is presented, the mind expands itself to the extent of that object, and is filled with one grand sensation, which totally possessing it, composes it into a solemn sedateness, and strikes it with deep silent wonder and admiration: it finds such a difficulty in spreading itself to the dimensions of its object, as enlivens and invigorates its frame: and having overcome the opposition which this occasions, it sometimes imagines itself present in every part of the scene, which it contemplates; and, from the sense of this immensity, feels a noble pride, and entertains a lofty conception of its own capacity.
Large objects can scarce indeed produce their full effect, unless they are also simple, or made up of parts, in a great measure similar. Innumerable little islands scattered in the ocean, and breaking the prospect, greatly diminish the grandeur of the scene. A variety of clouds, diversifying the face of the heavens, may add to their beauty, but must detract from their grandeur.

Objects cannot possess that largeness, which is necessary for inspiring a sensation of the sublime, without simplicity. Where this is wanting, the mind contemplates, not one large, but many small objects: it is pained with the labour requisite to creep from one to another; and is disgusted with the imperfection of the idea, with which, even after all this toil, it must remain contented. But we take in, with ease, one entire conception of a simple object, however large: in consequence of this facility, we naturally account it one: the view of any single part suggests the whole, and enables fancy to extend and enlarge it to infinity, that it may fill the capacity of the mind.

Many things are indeed denominated sublime, which, being destitute of extension, seem incapable of amplitude, the first and fundamental requisite of the sublime. But such objects will be found, on examination, to possess qualities, which have the same power to exalt the disposition of the observer. Length of duration; prodigious numbers of things similar united, or so related, as to constitute a whole, partake of the nature of quantity, and, as well as extension, enlarge and elevate the mind, which contemplates them. Eternity is an object, which fills the whole capacity of the soul, nay exceeds its comprehension; and strikes it with astonishment and admiration. We cannot survey a vast army or navy, without being sensible of their grandeur; which arises, not so much from the largeness of the space they occupy, as from the numbers of men or ships, which are in them united under one direction, and co?operate to a common end; the union and similitude of the parts adding simplicity to the vastness of their number. Hence too is derived the sublime of science, which lies in universal principles and general theorems, from which, as from an inexhaustible source, flow multitudes of corollaries and subordinate truths.

But do not we attribute grandeur and sublimity to some things, which are destitute of quantity of every kind? What can be more remote from quantity, than the passions and affections of the soul? Yet the most imperfect and uncultivated taste is sensible of a sublimity in heroism, in magnanimity, in a contempt of honours, of riches, of power, in a noble superiority to things external, in patriotism, in universal benevolence. To account for this, we must observe, that, as no passion can subsist without its causes, its objects, and its effects, so, in forming the idea of any passion, we do not satisfy ourselves with conceiving it as a simple emotion in the mind, but we run over, in thought, the objects about which it is employed, the things by which it is produced, and the effects by which it discovers itself. And as these always enter into our conception of the passion, and are often connected with quantity, they naturally render the passion sublime. What wonder that we esteem heroism grand, when, in order to imagine it, we suppose a mighty conqueror, in opposition to the most formidable dangers, acquiring power over multitudes of nations, subjecting to his dominion wide extended countries, and purchasing renown, which reaches to the extremities of the world, and shall continue through all the ages of futurity? What can be more truly great than the object of that benevolence, which, unconfined by the narrow limits of vicinity or relation, comprehends multitudes, grasps whole large societies, and even extends from pole to pole?

It must also be remarked, that whatever excites in the mind a sensation or emotion similar to what is excited by vast objects is on this account denominated sublime; it being natural to reduce to the same species, to express by the same name, and even frequently to confound together whole objects, which we contemplate with the same or a like disposition. Hence the raging of the sea in a storm, and the loud roaring thunder, which inspire an awful sedateness, are termed sublime. Objects exciting terror are, for this reason in general sublime; for terror always implies astonishment, occupies the whole soul, and suspends all its motions.

In like manner, we admire as sublime superior excellence of many kinds; such eminence in strength, or power, or genius, as is uncommon, and overcomes difficulties, which are insurmountable by lower degrees of ability; such vigour of mind, as indicates the absence of low and grovelling passions, and enables a person to despise honours, riches, power, pain, death; setting him above those enjoyments, on which men generally put an high value, and?those sufferings, which they think intolerable. Such degrees of excellence excite wonder and astonishment, the same emotion which is produced by amplitude. A great degree of quality has here the same effect upon the mind, as vastness of quantity, and that by the same principles, by stretching and elevating the mind in the conception of it.

We shall but just observe that the sublime passions, habitually prevailing in the temper, and uniformly displaying themselves in suitable expressions and effects, constitute dignity and sublimity of character.

But in order to comprehend the whole extent of the sublime, it is proper to take notice that objects, which do not themselves possess that quality, may nevertheless acquire it, by association with such as do. It is the nature of association to unite different ideas so closely, that they become in a manner one. In that situation, the qualities of one part are naturally attributed to the whole, or to the other part. At least association renders the transition of the mind from one idea to another so quick and easy, that we contemplate both with the same disposition, and are therefore similarly affected by both. Whenever, then, any object uniformly and constantly introduces into the mind the idea of another that is grand, it will, by its connection with the latter, be itself rendered grand. Hence words and phrases are denominated lofty and majestic. Sublimity of style arises, not so much from the sound of the words, though that doubtless may have some influence, as from the nature of the ideas, which we are accustomed to annex to them, and the character of the persons, among whom they are in most common use. This too is the origin of the grandeur we ascribe to objects high and elevated in place; of the veneration, with which we regard things in any direction distant; and of the superior admiration excited by things remote in time; especially in antiquity or past duration.[1]

But the fine arts present the most numerous examples of grandeur produced by association. In all of them, the sublime is attained, chiefly by the artist's exciting ideas of sublime objects; and in such as are mimical, this quality is chiefly owing to our being led by the exactness of the imitation to form ideas and conceive images of sublime originals. Thought is a less intense energy than sense: yet ideas especially when lively, never fail to be contemplated with some degree of the same emotion, which attends their original sensation; and often yield almost equal pleasure to the reflex senses, when impressed upon the mind by a skilful imitation

Grandeur in works of architecture may, in some instances, arise from their largeness: for we generally estimate the magnitude of things, by comparison with those of the same species: and though no edifice is equal in quantity to many works of nature by no means accounted great; yet loft? palaces and pyramids, far exceeding the bulk of other buildings, have a comparative magnitude, which has the same influence upon the mind, as if they had been absolutely large. But still the principal source of grandeur in architecture is association, by which the columns suggest ideas of strength and durability, and the whole structure introduces the sublime ideas of the riches and magnificence of the owner.

In painting, sublimity is sometimes introduced by an artful kind of disproportion, which assigns to some well chosen member a greater degree of quantity than it commonly has: but chiefly those performances are grand, which either by the artful disposition of colours, light, and shade, represent sublime natural objects, and suggest ideas of them;[2] or, by the expressiveness of the features and attitudes of the figures, lead us to conceive sublime passions operating in the originals. And so complete is the power of association, that a skilful painter can express any degree of sublimity in the smallest, as well as in the largest compass. It appears in the miniatures of Julio Clovio, as, really as in the paintings of Titian or Michelangelo.

The sublime of those arts, in which the instrument of imitation is language, must evidently arise from association; as it is the only principle. from which words derive their force and meaning. And in these arts, sublimity precisely considered, will be found resolvable into a very few general qualities....

...Subjects thus grand in themselves must bestow sublimity on a composition, whenever they are described in such a manner, as conveys entire, or augments, the feeling, which they naturally excite.

If an author's main subject is destitute of innate grandeur, it may be rendered grand, by comparing or someway associating it with objects naturally such. By the same means the real greatness of a subject is increased. Hence metaphor, comparison, and imagery are often productive of sublimity. Cicero raises Cesar's idea of clemency, by representing it as godlike. Seneca gives a sublime idea of Cicero's genius, by comparing it with the majesty and extent of the Roman empire ....

...The power of imparting sublimity to objects which naturally have it not, by giving them a relation to others, is an advantage peculiar to the arts, which imitate by language; for the rest can attain the sublime, only by copying such objects as are themselves possessed of that quality.

The principles we have laid down explain also the sublime of music; which seems to be derived in part from the length and the gravity of the notes; the former constituting a kind of amplitude to the ear; the latter contributing to that composure and sedate expansion of the mind, which attends the perception of sublimity; and is then completed, when the artist, by skilfully imitating the sublime passions or their objects, inspires them into his hearers, and renders them conscious of their operation.

It is farther proper to observe, that things may be destitute of grandeur, and yet not be accounted low or mean; but may, on the contrary, possess other qualities, which gratify us highly in a different way. It is only when grandeur is requisite and expected, that the mere absence of it produces meanness. Thus a remarkable defect in quantity, in comparison with things of the same kind; a resemblance in individuals of a superior species to the orders below them; or the defect of sublimity in compositions of art or genius, which propose to imitate originals or treat subjects confessedly noble, gives us distaste and inspires contempt. Meanness arises often likewise from association, when low and grovelling ideas are suggested; as when images and similes, taken from mean objects, are applied to an important subject. Thus also, words and phrases become mean, when they excite mean ideas, either by their proper signfication, or by their being ordinarily used only by those of inferior rank.


[1] The author of a Treatise of Human Nature has very ingeniously reduced these phænomena into the principle of association. B. ii. P. 3, S. 8. The sum of his reasoning, so far as it is necessary to take notice of it here, is as follows: "Because we are accustomed every moment to observe the difficulty with which things are raised in opposition to the impulse of gravity; the idea of ascending always implies the notion of force exerted in overcoming this difficulty; the conception of which invigorates and elevates the thought, after the same manner as a vast object, and thus gives a distance above us much more an appearance of greatness, than the same space could have in any other direction. The sensation of amplitude, which by this means comes to attend the interposed distance, is transferred to, and considered as excited by the object that is eminent and above us; and that object, by this transference, acquires grandeur and sublimity. And here we may observe in passing, that this natural tendency to associate ideas of grandeur with things above us is the reason, why the term sublime is metaphorically applied to excellence of any kind. especially to that species of it, which elates the mind with noble pride in the conception. To our transferring. to like manner, the interposed space, and its attendant sensation to the distant object, is owing the veneration, with which we regard, and the value we set upon things remote in place. And because we find greaser difficulty, and must employ superior energy, in running over the parts of duration than those of space: and in ascending through past duration. than in descending through what is future: therefore we value higher, and contemplate with greater veneration things distant in time than things remote in space, and the persons and objects of antiquity, than those which we figure to ourselves in the age of futurity."
[2] It may be here observed that, though the figures, in painting, can seldom have so great quantity, as is sufficient of itself to produce sublimity; yet the comparative magnitude, and also the simplicity of the figures, parts, and members, are among the principal means by which a work suggests sublime ideas and thus becomes itself sublime. The preservation of magnitude and simplicity is therefore recommended as fundamental to sublimity, in the art of painting....

Back to top

Alexander Gerard
An Essay on Taste, 1759
Source: Andrew Ashley & Peter de Bolla eds.
The Sublime: A Reader in British Eighteenth-Century Aesthetic Theory
Cambridge University Press, 1996 (pp.168-72)