In his book Survival of the Beautiful, David Rothenberg says perhaps it was the evolution of an abstract aesthetics in art (abstract work as beautiful) that enabled human beings to begin to see natural things as beautiful in themselves–as opposed to the Romantic view that human yearning and elevated sensibility could best be encountered while experiencing Nature or Classicist ideas that found natural things corrupt and irregular, in need of perfection into better-proportioned objectification. In History of Beauty, Eco allows the Romantics their view of the sublime but says that in the late 17th c “the Sublime established itself in an entirely original way, because it concerns the way we feel about nature, and not art.” His text offers the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich as an excellent example, paintings that depict people as observers of the Sublime:
The people are portrayed from behind, in such a way that we must not look at them, but through them, putting ourselves in their place, seeing what they see and sharing their feeling of being negligible elements in the great spectacle of nature…more than portraying nature in a moment of sublimity, the painter has tried to portray (with our collaboration) what we feel on experiencing the Sublime.
I love the idea Eco parenthetically notes here: with the viewer’s collaboration. These paintings permit us to enter into the experience as the great preponderance of the artistic canon did not. Some critics suggest the environmental “movement” (in the USA, at least) owes its lineage to Leopold via Thoreau through Darwin, Wordsworth, and the German Romantics.
Friedrich’s work tends a bit over the top for my personal tastes, but I do think some of his best work (notably The Wanderer above the Mists, Woman on the Beach of Rugen, Moonrise by the Sea) does exemplify a sense I have experienced myself in natural surroundings when I feel myself a “negligible element” amid the remarkable scope of the cosmos and the world.
In the USA, at about the same time as the German Romantics, the paintings of the Hudson River school evoke some of the same sense of nature-as-sublime. (Frankly, I prefer Thomas Cole to Friedrich.)
“The sense of the Sublime is a mixed emotion. It is composed of a sense of sorrow whose extreme expression is manifested as a shudder, and a feeling of joy that can mount to rapturous enthusiasm…while it is not actually pleasure…” Friedrich von Schiller, On the Sublime (tr. Alastair McEwen)
“Poetry might be defined as the clear expression of mixed feelings.” I am pretty sure W.H. Auden said that. Which, by the way, gets us into the territory of the Sublime as described by Schiller.
In Japan, in the 17th century, Matsuo Basho composed haiku, some of which demonstrate the sense of the Sublime (without being Romantic at all)–i.e. that sense of rapture tinged with the shudder of grief or the feeling of awareness of one’s negligibility:
A wild sea-
in the distance over Sado
the Milky Way.