For most of his brief discussion of the picturesque Scott offers a common definition of the term, contrasting it to the beautiful purely in terms of art history. His closing paragraph, however, parallels — and probably borrows from — John Ruskin’s socio-political analysis of enjoying scenes that ultimately turn out to derive from the poverty and misery of others. .

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he term PICTURESQUE, with its correlatives, SCULPTURESQUE, GROTESQUE, is one which has been in use little more than two centuries, Italian in origin, and easily enough explained; at least the definition of the word is quite within reach, although it is not quite so easy to say why this or the other thing or appearance is picturesque.

When we say any scene or object is picturesque, we mean literally that it is picture-like or fit for a picture; that it possesses those conditions of aspect that qualify it to be striking or pleasing under the treatment of the painter’s art.

This signification being a general one, it may be supposed that it ought to include and be applicable to the materials of all pictures, of lofty as well as humble subjects, sacred and profane history as well as landscape. This, however, is not the case; it is restricted to landscape, genre, and romantic matters, and the history of the word explains its limitation [Professor Blackie, of Edinburgh, in his discourses on Beauty, note on p. 155, speaks as if the term picturesque at first comprehended all the elements fit for great pictures as well as familiar ones had by degrees in some unexplained manner been restricted. This is disproved by the history of the word, which is a coinage of late times.] When Annibale Carracci applied himself to scenic painting, and was followed by more professed landscape painters, such as Salvator Rosa, a new treatment arose; the Naturalisti also introduced rough wild character for its own sake, in which beauty or abstract sentiment of any description was not found, but which was exceedingly striking and interesting, and this word picturesque was invented, which admirably describes the new treatment. The picturesque belongs only to the beautiful by contrast. The pleasure it gives is not so much a natural as an artificial or simply artistic one; it is only when painted that we learn to admire those conditions of nature that are picturesque. Lord Lindsay says, “In art it answers to the romantic in poetry: both stand opposed to the classic or formal school; both may be defined as the triumph of nature over art (i. e. symmetrically regulated form), luxuriating in the decay, not of her elemental and everlasting beauty, but of the bonds by which she had been enthralled by man. '

An antique temple in its prime, on a wide paved plain, showing white against the sky, with its massive line of Doric columns laden with the broad entablature, bearing its regular succession of bronze shields and metopes with painted grounds, the fine angle of the tympanum sloping into the sky to the exact centre of the entire form, was grand and beautiful. The same structure in ruin, the continuity of the columns gone, the lines everywhere shaken, the angles of the tympanum bent, and the apex fallen, surrounded by shattered sculpture and masses of masonry, is picturesque. If in addition, instead of sunshine and long draped Athenians, we suppose a thundercloud forming its and background, the shadowed walls lit up fitfully , and home less banditti flying for shelter on their frightened horses , the scene becomes more and more picturesque.

Whatever we would consider undesirable as a personal adjunct or condition, that is what the picturesque painter for the most part covets for his canvas [emphasis added]. Wild and gaunt features as well as artless and contented expression, dishevelled tresses or elf-locks, tattered garments, he prefers; beggary is the most picturesque condition of social life. The terrier is more picturesque than the pointer, the Shetland pony than the Arab horse. And the same with action: those positions that give most variety of aspect and are most transitional, as leaning forward, stooping on one knee, falling or rising, are more picturesque than walking, sitting, or standing, however elegantly.

But it is more particularly to landscape that the term belongs, and to figures in landscape; and in considering ancient sculpture and architecture you must bear in mind the ancients had no landscape, and no art of any kind pursuing the picturesque as its motive. They could not have conceived how tumbling-down cottages with fences falling to pieces, rocky precipices, tangled and black labyrinths of forest, or pinnacled buildings of the Gothic kind, could give gratification to the artistic sense. They did not admire in pictures or sculpture what they would avoid or rectify in actual life. We moderns have learned to do that and a great many other cunning things. I have heard a lady say she wished they would not do away with climbing boys in the north of England, they were so picturesque — dear little wretches!! And this is only an extreme expression of what we all feel. We must have the floors of our rooms flat that we should not trip ourselves up between the boards or stones; our ceilings clean and white that they may reflect the light upon us, the walls smooth and bright with paper or paint; but we object to all this on canvas, and there is something so attractive and seductive in this we call the picturesque, that it alone seems to inspire all the young would - be artists with the determination to follow it. Indeed they recognise it alone as art. [327-29]


Scott, William Bell. Half Hour Lectures on the History and Practice of the Fine arts. 3rd ed. “with 50 illustrations engraved by W.J. Linton. London: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1884.

Last modified 28 April 2021