‘Picturesque’ is one of those concepts which owe part of their success to their ambiguity. In English, picturesqueness can indicate that something has the qualities of a picture or describe a thing that is suited to being painted. The result, from the 18th century to the present, is that the word signifies different things in various discourses. The most recent revision of the Oxford English Dictionary (online) marks the word’s present decline when it adds to the older definitions ‘Now freq. in a weakened sense (sometimes depreciative or ironic): pretty in an underdeveloped or old-fashioned way’.1 The picturesque has had these polarities between being a term of aesthetic approbation and a disparaging term for naïve tastes since being borrowed into English from the French pittoresque in the 18th century; these polarities were made emphatic by John Ruskin in the mid-19th century when he defended JMW Turner’s ‘noble picturesque’ from sentimental uses of the term. This paper aims to add another level of complexity by looking at translations of ‘picturesque’, ‘malerisch’ — the German word commonly given as its translation and ‘painterly’, a neologism introduced in 1932 to translate malerisch. Malerisch (and the substantive das Malerische) became important terms in German studies of art in the later 19th century, and in his Kunstgeschichtliche Grundbegriffe of 1915, Heinrich Wölfflin gave malerisch a range of meaning similar to Ruskin’s use of ‘picturesque’ (Wölfflin 1915; Wölfflin 1950: 1932) (Figure 1).

Figure 1 

Title page of Heinrich Wölfflin’s Kunstgeschichtliche Grundbegriffe, 1915.

Wölfflin contrasted das Malerische with das Lineare, and this master dialectic of painterly to linear then unfolded as five sets of opposing formal values that could be observed across painting, sculpture and architecture. The cosy quaintness and naivety that the OED associates with present usage of the word picturesque thus seems far from das Malerische and art historical formalism. Nevertheless, we will show that ‘picturesque’ had, and still has in places, a meaning quite like Wölfflin’s malerisch. Previous publications have shown how Nikolaus Pevsner’s revival of the picturesque drew on the German concept while maintaining the English usage, and this has obscured aspects of the importance of malerisch in architectural history (Macarthur 2007; Macarthur and Aitchison 2010; Aitchison 2008 and 2011).

The point of the present essay is to bring these previously published arguments together in one place for the convenience of scholars and to look more closely at the etymology of malerisch and how the three words — picturesque, malerisch and painterly — and their use as defined terms have interacted historically. We do not aim to properly define the terms, nor to attribute precedence between German or English speakers, or between everyday usage and art historical language. Rather, we aim to open the more general issue of the value in recognising the consequences of the necessary imperfections of translation. Translations, and particularly those that make common words into defined terms or invent neologisms, are valuable subjects of historical enquiry in their own right. By examining these exchanges we can recover some of the complexity and historical density that has been lost in the schematisation that has come about through translation. While some complexity is introduced and some definition is lost in recognising this, we claim that both malerisch and picturesque become more interesting and useful terms through this recognition of their history.

For the centenary of the Grundbegriffe’s publication in 2015, a new translation was made by Jonathan Blower which usefully extends English readers’ understanding of the text. Nevertheless, thorny issues remain, as Blower explains in discussing his decision to follow the first, 1932, translation by Marie Donald Mackie Hottinger, in which she renders malerisch with the neologism ‘painterly’:

Undoubtedly the most baffling complex of terms to confront any non-German reader of the Grundbegriffe is … the adjective malerisch (painterly) and its substantive, das Malerische (the painterly). Before Wölfflin, these German words would have been translated as picturesque and the picturesque without too much fuss. But … Wölfflin had something quite different in mind and went to some lengths to distinguish between the (Latinate) picturesque and his rather broader (Germanic) conception of the painterly. Rehearsing this deeply embedded cultural distinction here would be impossible. Fortunately it is also superfluous, for the reader can simply be referred to [Wölfflin’s text] along with the following information: malerisch has generally been translated as painterly, the few instances of pittoresk as picturesque, and objektiv-malerisch quite literally as objective-painterly. (Blower, in Wölfflin 2015: viii)

One can only agree with Blower’s hesitancy in explaining ‘this deeply embedded cultural distinction’, as despite his own rule, he is obliged to translate malerisch as picturesque on several occasions (as Hottinger had) because Wölfflin intended to contrast an abstract concept of visual values with the subject matter of low genre paintings, but did so by inflecting the same word, malerisch. Thus, in Blower’s English rendering, Wölfflin writes:

But it cannot be denied that there are certain things and situations in nature we refer to as being picturesque. Their painterly character seems to adhere to them regardless of the particular way they are perceived by an eye that is predisposed toward the painterly. (Wölfflin 2015: 105)2

But when we look at the original German in the Grundbegriffe, the things in nature are malerisch, and their character, to which the eye is predisposed, are also malerisch. The translation distinguishes (as the original text does implicitly) the art historian’s malerisch, which is a matter of style and the subject’s experience of art, from a malerisch which is a naïve belief that there are objects inherently suited to picturing. The translation systematises Wölfflin’s argument at a lexical level, but, for worse as well as better, it misses both the constituent ambiguity of malerisch in German and picturesque in English. Blower’s choice is the correct one; the eighty-year history of ‘painterly’ is a key part of the rise, fall and current re-evaluation of art historical formalism that make the term essential.3 Nevertheless, it is a circumstance where the exigencies of translation and the aim of clarity of language in the translated text seem to have overdetermined the conceptualisation of the terms.

In common English usage ‘picturesque’ is bifurcated through inflection, just as malerisch is in German. It can be aimed upwards, towards the intellectual peaks and concepts of visual subjectivity and, in a different phrase, pointed downwards towards the marshes of popular tastes and naïve belief in objective aesthetic values.4 In art historical discourse, this nuance is now largely lost because of the success of ‘painterly’. Picturesque has become confined to being the lower term, even to the point where there is little recognition that the concept we name ‘painterly’ relies on a binary opposition to the ‘picturesque’.

Beyond the conceptual clarity achieved, the success of ‘painterly’ relies on two other currents in art history. Firstly, painterly contrasts nicely with picturesque in modern English, where picture has come to mean something like Bild in German. But the longer history of the words ‘painting’ and ‘picture’ is complex and entangled in the term picturesque, as will be discussed in the following section. Secondly, ‘painterly’ has been successful as a shibboleth of the art history profession signifying anglophone art historians’ admiration for the rigorous study of art in Germany that emerged across the later 19th century.

The Picturesque: Aspects of Its History in English

In order to return to the issues revealed in the translation, it is necessary to look at the origins of ‘picturesque’ as a theoretical term, as its meaning has also shifted since the 18th century.5 William Gilpin was largely responsible for the picturesque becoming an aesthetic concept, one identified with England, and the application of the term beyond painting to natural scenery, gardens and architecture (Figure 2). Many of his ideas, however, derive from French academic theories of painting, particularly that of Roger de Piles, from whose works Gilpin freely appropriated much of his Observations Upon Prints of 1768 (de Piles 1699; Gilpin 1768). In 18th-century English, the word ‘picturesque’, borrowed from the French pittoresque and the Italian pitttoresco, maintained its roots in the Latin pictor or painter. Lexically it was very close to those aspects of malerisch that Hottinger and Blower chose to render as ‘painterly’.

Figure 2 

William Gilpin, untitled (Plate 6) from W. Gilpin, Three Essays on the Picturesque Beauty etc., 1792, hand-coloured aquatint.

Following earlier discussions in Italy about the superiority of design or colour, de Piles vaunted Rubens’ handling of colour over Poussin’s supposed superiority in drawing in the so-called Querelle du coloris. To be a Rubéniste was to value the use of tone, colour and the density of paint to represent atmospheric depth, light and shade, blurring, movement, and the arresting of attention, which is to say the contingency of perceiving. By contrast, the clear outlines and bounded planes of more classical painters, and Poussin in particular, stood for accurate delineation of bodily gestures and facial expressions that were the foundation of narrative history painting and of painting’s claim to represent ideas. The picturesque is a repercussion of Rubénism in England, and its echoes continue in Wölfflin’s opposition of the painterly to the linear. The qualities that were used to define picturesque scenery — roughness, variety, surprise, irregularity — come, in the first place, from an appreciation of the fluid and expressive hand of the painter. Indeed, the ‘painterly’ would have made perfect sense if it had been coined in 1760. But picturesque, like pittoresque, also contained another idea, that of the coup d’oeil, by which de Piles described the single instantaneous visual impression that one has of a panel painting. It is this sense of picture-as-image that we hear in picturesque now and in which its etymology in pictor becomes somewhat less significant. Indeed, Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury, recognized this problem and proposed (unsuccessfully) a new English word, ‘tablature’, as a version of the French tableau, precisely because ‘picture’ connoted to him the painter, rather than the defined image field of the rising academic theory of pictorial composition (Shaftesbury 1981: 74; cf. Puttfarken 1985; Puttfarken 2000).

The word ‘picturesque’ became a success with numerous theoretical and popular publications through the turn of the 19th century. It continued to be associated with rural scenery. In architectural discourse, it was closely associated with ‘irregular’ or asymmetrical planning and thus with the Gothic Revival, and the discovery of vernacular building as an architectural precedent. While advocates of the idea always saw it directed to high status buildings, picturesqueness inevitably drew on the lessons of haphazard and accretionary structures and came to have overtones of folkishness, sentimentality and paternalism.

In Modern Painters (volume four) Ruskin developed a putatively new theory of the picturesque that was, in fact, very close to Uvedale Price’s theory of the late 18th century (Ruskin 1903: 12).6 Ruskin, with his characteristic vigour attacks the picturesque for a sentimentality that cloaks a vicarious experience of the poverty and despair of others. But he contrasts this with a ‘noble’ picturesque, that of his hero William Turner who has a true sympathy with his humble subjects. Through detailed observation of material conditions, Ruskin thought that Turner painted the mundane world in the terms in which it presented itself and thus cut through the clichés of hackneyed tropes designed to arouse familiar sentiments, and ultimately reached a true picturesque.

The word picturesque has had this wide range ever since. Picturesque can be a simple word of approbation of a scene that somehow falls short of the grandeur of beauty; it can be a pejorative, deriding the often shallow and uncritical context in which the first usage so often occurs; and it can have a more precise meaning informed by its history — the kind of use that we are making in this essay, where experts like Ruskin, Wölfflin or we ourselves point out that both the approving and pejorative uses are aspects of the conceptual issues at stake in the term. After Ruskin, we no longer have a picturesque observed in high and low genre paintings and scenes, but rather we have individuals of strong or weak sensibility, who may or may not be able to abstract the conceptual lessons of the picturesque from mere picturesque appearances.

Das Malerische I: The German Etymology and the Reception of English Ideas of the Picturesque

There are several historical strands to the German term that invite discussion beyond the English usage introduced above. Alina Payne has shown how central Wölfflin’s theories have been to architectural discourse (Payne 2001). Philip Sohm has argued that the 17th-century Venetian critic Marco Boschini’s theory of pittoresco had fully encompassed Wölfflin’s ‘painterly’ and that malerisch should be understood as a direct inheritance of the Venetian renaissance (Sohm 1991). Daniel Adler relates the growing popularity of malerisch across the 19th century to the cultish status of Rembrandt in Germany and claims that malerisch displaces helldunkel as a description of tonal values in painting (Adler 2004). This would further imply that malerisch takes some of its nuance from de Piles’ key term of clair-obscur and thereby reveals the same French sources that the English picturesque had.

While the German language occasionally uses the borrowed word pittoresk, it was never as popular as the directly equivalent malerisch. Malerisch was a term already firmly established when English discourse on the picturesque gained momentum. In 1777, Johann Christoph Adelung’s Grammatisch-kritisches Wörterbuch der Hochdeutschen Mundart, the first major dictionary of the German language, explains the term malerisch as the quality of painting without any reference to other languages.7 However, with the triumph of the English landscape garden, which greatly inspired German audiences towards the end of the 18th century (Figure 3), the word malerisch was increasingly used in the same sense as the picturesque was in Britain. At the same time, the word malerisch itself shrouded the English heritage of the landscape garden and made German-language discourse seem independent from its European counterparts.

Figure 3 

Temple of Venus, Wörlitz Park, 1799, acquatint. Drawing by Karl Kuntz, etched by Wilhelm Friedrich Schlotterbeck (Ansichten von Dessau und Wörlitz, 1800: vol. 2, pl. 1).

German readers were well informed about the developments in landscape gardening. Christian Cajus Laurenz Hirschfeld published Anmerkungen über die Landhäuser und die Gartenkunst (1773) and Theorie der Gartenkunst (in five volumes, from 1779 to 1785), which were unequivocal in tracing developments in gardening to the British novel.8 Later, Hermann Fürst von Pückler-Muskau, and his Andeutungen über Landschaftsgärtnerei of 1834, represented a further instalment towards a particularly English flavour in landscape gardening that was modish in Germany. Both authors had studied English gardening intimately, and Pückler-Muskau had travelled throughout England to study its gardens, before applying its lessons to his own estate, bringing John Adey Repton (Humphry’s son) to Germany in 1821–22. The propagator and critic of the picturesque J.C. Loudon travelled extensively in Germany (Elliott 2004). Despite these interchanges, German intellectuals were not fully aware that English discourse had extended the ‘picturesque’ to an aesthetic concept more broadly applicable to visual experience.

The picturesque in English discourse became something of a public controversy in the last decade of the 18th century, when the three main protagonists, Price, Richard Payne Knight and Repton, published and claimed property in the idea. Price and Knight saw it as a complete rejection of the landscaping style of Lancelot (Capability) Brown, while Repton, claiming to be Brown’s successor, saw continuity. More complex was the difference between Price and Knight. For Price, picturesqueness was a distinct aesthetic quality that sat alongside beauty and the sublime. Knight thought that, while based on associations with painting, picturesqueness was merely a variety of beauty. In the history of aesthetics Knight’s ideas were more advanced, as he claimed that beauty (and picturesqueness) were subjective feelings caused by associating sensory experience with pre-existing images and concepts. Price held to the older and simpler idea that the sensory experience of objects caused aesthetic feeling.

Little of the philosophical issues of picturesque aesthetics were understood in Britain. They were generally ridiculed as obscurantism by the protagonists in their battle for ownership of the newly fashionable term. The German perspective seems to have been similar, limiting the issue to that of landscape style and impatient with aesthetics. The only contemporary German report of the controversy was published in September 1797, in the widely read Journal des Luxus und der Moden, in an article it received from a correspondent in London, who signed just as ‘W.’ and remains unidentified (W 1797). Dated May 1796, the correspondence, occasioned by the publication of Repton’s Sketches and Hints on Landscape Gardening, also informed German readers about the debate between Knight and Price. Possibly for the first time, as a note by the editors suggests, the report is introduced by stating that German audiences so far may not have been aware of the ‘peculiar debate’ on the picturesque (translated here as das Pittoreske). However, the article did not help to promote serious interest in the picturesque, as the author was well informed, and had little esteem for the causes of Knight and Price. He argued in favour of Repton and dismissed the heated debate on the picturesque as exaggerated — his description of the title vignette of A Sketch, from the Landscape, a Didactic Poem, a parody by John Matthews, is longer than the passages on Knight’s original poem.

If German readers did register the nuances of English discourse, they were no more patient with it than the English. In June 1798, another article in the Journal des Luxus und der Moden reported that, ‘more than ever’, England was ‘divided’ upon ‘the application of the Picturesque’. It noted that the second volume of Price’s new edition of his Essays had just been published, and then scoffed at the whole controversy, with a laconic conclusion: ‘The gentlemen will remain at war with each other for a long time, as they, so it seems, do not understand their own words’ (Gartenkunst 1798: 357–61).9 The author thus identified the amusement that the picturesque controversy caused in England, which Jane Austen deployed so successfully in caricature in Northanger Abbey. Without further mention of English discourse, the article went on to contemplate how many publications had recently appeared in Germany, amounting, the author claimed, to more than 150 since Hirschfeld.

That German interest in the picturesque remained focused on landscape gardening again became apparent when Price’s Essay on the Picturesque was published in German translation in the same year. As we have become accustomed in the complicated transactions of this story, it is perhaps in keeping that Price’s title was changed to Ueber den guten Geschmack bei ländlichen Kunst- und Garten-Anlagen (On Good Taste in Rural Arrangements of Art and Gardens). Though Price’s ideas were now available to a wider German audience, their reception was not only hampered by the fact that the book was published under a different title, it was published anonymously (as were the early editions in English). It did, however, receive a favourable review in the periodical Neue allgemeine deutsche Bibliothek, in which the author bitterly complained that the anonymous edition prevented access to the English original.10

Ultimately, the publication does not seem to have had a huge impact, though Friedrich Gilly mentions the book in one of his essays and had it in his personal library. Gilly, who had travelled Britain in 1797, also owned a German edition of Gilpin’s Observations, Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty,11 as well as several other books from English authors.12 But he, too, was not aware the book was by Price. Gilly attributed the Essay to ‘a young English author’ when he favourably mentions it in 1799 (Gilly 2004: 143).

Knight did not find a wider audience in Germany either. The only one of his texts translated into German was the diary he had kept while travelling Sicily with the German painter Philip Hackert in 1777 — some years before he published on the picturesque. Knight’s diary was translated by no less an author than Goethe, but as late as 1811, as part of a book on Hackert. Goethe mistakenly gives Knight’s first name as ‘Henry’, which suggests that Goethe was not very familiar with the identity of Knight (Goethe 1811: 53–143). Important later writings, such as Price’s Dialogue or Knight’s Analytical Inquiry into the Principles of Taste (1805), seem to have attracted little notice in Germany, being neither reviewed nor translated. Again it seems that the taste for English gardening precluded the theoretical aspects of the picturesque.

Das Malerische II: Malerisch in Kunstwissenschaft Discourse

It took until the beginning of the 20th century for German readers to receive a new chance to explore the more philosophical aspects of the picturesque — thanks to the popularity of Ruskin. We know that Wölfflin read Ruskin’s Stones of Venice in English (Hart 1981). Ruskin’s Modern Painters (in which the ‘Turnerian Picturesque’ became ‘das Malerische bei Turner’) was translated as part of a 15-volume edition of his major works published between 1900 and 1906 (Ruskin 1903: 2; Ruskin 1905: 2). However, one should not overestimate the impact of this translation. The edition did not sell very well from the start, and sales declined with each new volume (cf. Heidler 1998: 251). A t the time, Ruskin was seen as a prophet of Lebensreform, but not principally as an art critic. Within the rise of Kunstwissenschaft, German language discourse on art had taken a different direction and Ruskin’s ideas on the picturesque were of limited interest for Wölfflin and fellow art historians.

Wölfflin had reviewed earlier translations of selections from Ruskin’s works for the Literarisches Centralblatt für Deutschland.13 He expressed doubts about publishing Ruskin in selections, claiming, ‘One has to hear the wide stream of Ruskin’s eloquence in order not to be irritated by the questionable and also contradictory character of his sentences’ (Wölfflin 1900: 1820).14 Wölfflin became increasingly critical with each review. In his second one, he refers to Ruskin’s ‘brilliant dilettantism’ for which readers had to have an inclination, or else they would note instead ‘the strangeness and contradictoriness of his musings’ (Wölffin 1901: 1430).15 In his third and final review he lamented that ‘if one does not approach the writer with sympathy, then one will soon lose the patience to extract the precious from the convolutions of arbitrary, dilettantish, contradictory assertions’ (Wölffin, 1901: 1430).16 For Wölfflin, Ruskin’s ‘brilliant dilettantism’ simply was not up to the standards of scientific rigour he and other proponents of Kunstwissenschaft wished to establish.

Despite many common aspects and overlapping histories of the two words, it is clear that by Wölfflin’s time malerisch had specific meaning in its context in the rising currency of Kunstwissenschaft, which made reconciling it with the English picturesque complex, if not largely irrelevant. The term became crucial because of the success of Wölfflin’s Renaissance und Barock of 1888, in which malerisch qualities were held to explain the concept of ‘movement’, later developed in the Grundegriffe. Wölfflin’s main inspiration for his work on Baroque architecture was Burckhardt’s Der Cicerone (1855), in which Burckhardt used malerisch frequently when describing architecture. Burckhardt’s teacher Franz Kugler had extended malerisch to describe the visual qualities of architecture as early as 1852 (Kugler 1852). Joan Hart claims that Wölfflin’s Renaissance und Barock completes this specialisation of malerisch as a technical term (Hart 1982; 1981). In 1896, Wölfflin’s contemporary August Schmarsow published an entire volume dedicated to a study of the term, entitled Zur Frage nach dem Malerischen: Sein Grundbegriff und seine Entwicklung (1896) in which there is no mention of the English term or context (cf. Schmarsow 1896: passim).17 In a follow-up volume, Barock und Rokoko, Schmarsow dismissed Wölfflin’s attempt to define Baroque architecture as malerisch. Schmarsow declared that Baroque architecture tended towards sculpture, and hence was plastisch, whereas only Rococo architecture could justifiably be called malerisch (Schmarsow 1897). Wölfflin, Schmarsow and others continued to attempt to add new layers of meaning to an already ambiguous term, and we can say that the former’s Grundbegriffe of 1915 marks the apogee of malerisch as a term.18 Thus, well before Wölfflin further generalised malerisch in the Grundbegriffe as an abstract concept applicable to the painting, sculpture and architecture of any period, malerisch was an established technical term bound up in German debates around scholarly method and the periodisation of art, with virtually no reference to the English picturesque.

The Painterly: Malerisch in Translation

Wölfflin’s work first appeared in English in Walter Armstrong’s 1903 translation of Die klassische Kunst, as The Art of the Italian Renaissance. In a long review, Roger Fry, who was the most perceptive contemporary English reader of Wölfflin, explained that the German’s analysis was based on fundamental differences of what Fry called ‘pictorial form’ (Fry 1903). Fry’s appreciation of Wölfflin’s account of these differences between 15th- and 16th-century Renaissance painting underlies the 1910 exhibition at the Grafton Gallery for which Fry coined the term Post-Impressionism. Fry was informed by Wölfflin’s ideas that 16th-century Italian painting reasserted painterly values and that linear and painterly formal values were a pendulum in history. Fry proposed, correctly, that contemporary taste was returning to the linear. Wölfflin seems to have had similar thoughts, as not only is there evidence of his interest in the Blaue Reiter group, but also in 1910 he was considering writing a book on the ‘opposite of impressionism’ (Warnke 1989: 178–79).

Armstrong’s translation of Die klassische Kunst uses ‘picturesque’ for malerisch throughout, and this is not particularly problematic as Wölfflin had yet to give the term the meaning it has in the Grundbegriffe. Nevertheless, Fry was aware of the problem of malerisch; in his 1921 review of the Grundbegriffe he proposed to translate malerisch as ‘painter-like’ (Fry 1921: 146). Because of Fry’s commitment to an epochal view of modernism, he also valued the challenge continental European art and art history constituted for the staid English scene. Presumably, the hackneyed word ‘picturesque’, with its overtones of rustic sentimentality, did not do sufficient honour to the German scholarship that Fry was advertising as being of ‘vital interest to the artist and art-lover’ (Fry 1921: 146) and which intended to usher in a new age in art history and theory. German scholarship stood for the truth and the historical inevitability of modernism, and it needed the specificities of its usage respected.

In 1932, by coining ‘painterly’ for her translation of the Grundbegriffe, Hottinger insisted upon this relationship of malerisch to the whole enterprise of rigorously describing formal differences in artworks. Initially, the term was met with only sceptical assent. Reviewing the book for The Burlington Magazine, D.H. Waley wrote, ‘the first few times this word met my eyes I re-coiled, and wished that she had adopted the path of discretion rather than valor, and simply said “non-linear”. … But I have to confess that I rapidly became accustomed to the word’ (Waley 1933: 246–7). A. Philip McMahon wrote that it was necessary, as ‘picturesque covers only one subdivision of the malerisch’ (McMahon 1932: 22, 27). Much later, Erwin Panofsky disagreed with ‘painterly’, writing of the ‘seven or eight ways’ that malerisch could be rendered, including ‘picturesque’, ‘pictorial’, ‘sfumato’ and ‘rather horribly, “painterly”’. He remarked that ‘the German language unfortunately permits a fairly trivial thought to declaim from behind a woollen curtain of apparent profundity, and conversely, a multitude of meanings to lurk behind one term’ (Panofsky 1955: 329).19

Because of the emigration of German art historians to British and American universities around the period of the Second World War, and despite some anti-German prejudices (to which we will return), ‘painterly’ came to mark the specialized nature of art historical discourse. Herbert Read justifies the by then standard term in his introduction to Peter and Linda Murray’s translation of Die klassische Kunst, of 1952:

One word, however, calls for comment — the word ‘painterly’, which has been invented to convey the meaning of the German word malerisch. It is a word absolutely essential to the discussion of stylistic problems in art, and purists must admit it to our language, for no other word is exact enough. (Read 1952: vi)

Read could easily have found this quality described in Ruskin or in Price, but the word ‘picturesque’ is not mentioned. More surprisingly, perhaps not wanting to raise contentious issues, Read does not account for the everyday German usage of the word, nor for Wölfflin’s own usage of malerisch to describe picturesque things alongside his more technical concept.

The Painterly at Work

The crucial redefinition of malerisch in the Grundbegriffe is in the section entitled ‘Das Objektiv-Malerische und sein Gegensatz’, which Blower translates as ‘The Objective-Painterly and Its Opposite’. Hottinger had translated this as ‘The “Picturesque” and its Opposite’, the quotation marks around picturesque perhaps intended to indicate that this is where her new word would find its justification (Wölfflin 1915; Wölfflin 1934; Wölfflin 2015).

The section is intended to demonstrate that (in Blower’s translation), ‘What we generally refer to as picturesque motifs are only the preliminary step, more or less, to higher forms of painterly taste’ (Wölfflin 2015).20 This is similar to Hottinger, who continues, ‘and [this] is historically of the greatest importance, for it is just in these more outward picturesque effects that the feeling for a completely painterly apprehension of the world seems to have developed’21 (Wölfflin 1932: 27). Blower, however, replaces Hottinger’s ‘outward picturesque effects’ (or ‘gegenständlich-malerische Effekte’ in the original) with ‘external objective painterly effects’. With this phrase Blower is rendering another term which had crept into Wölfflin’s argument, das Objektiv-Malerische. This qualification of malerisch/picturesque as ‘objective’ is the one point where Wölfflin goes beyond inference and defines the naïve malerisch. The naïve version is a false belief in picturesqueness lying in objective qualities of objects and scenes, while the sophisticated malerisch is an account of subjective relations to pictorial form that Hottinger invented painterly to describe.

In this argument, ‘objective’ carries quite a load in the reconciling of Wölfflin’s Kantian ideas of subjective aesthetic experience with his more Hegelian ideas of art’s trans-subjective role as ‘Spirit’. The art historical malerisch describes formal matters of painting such as brush work and tonal values, as these express the contingencies of subjective visual experience and, beyond this, how these can become inter-subjective through the concept of style and express the mood of a time and a people, as they are animated by Spirit. The malerisch of ordinary usage is, in contrast, naïve, in that it fails to understand Kant’s dictum that aesthetic judgements are subjective and have no interest in the actual existence of the object. To define the lower picturesque as das Objektiv-Malerische then makes some sense if we could take from that, as English readers of Wölfflin have been prone to do, that the picturesque is a naïve belief in objective aesthetics, while das Malerische describes what Mark Jarzombek has called ‘aesthetic experientialism’ (Jarzombek 1994). This is, however, not quite the case, because there is also a question of precedence.

For Wölfflin, the problem is not only how to distinguish his two uses of malerisch conceptually, but also how they relate historically: ‘The really interesting question is now this: how does the painterly style of representation relate historically to this picturesqueness of the motif?’ (Wölfflin 2015: 108).22 Here, the answer is a problematic term for Wölfflin: genre, and more particularly, genre hierarchy. Wölfflin writes,

With his weathered hat and split shoes, one tends to call the tattered beggar a picturesque figure, while boots and hats fresh from the store are not thought of as being picturesque. They lack that rich, trickling life of form which can be compared to the ripples on the surface of a body of water when it is swept by a wisp of wind. And if this analogy is not particularly well suited to the picture of a beggar’s tatters, one might imagine the same effect in an expensive costume where the panels are pierced by slits or animated merely by the crumpling of the folds. (Wölfflin 2015: 106)23

This passage has remarkable similarities to a passage in which Uvedale Price shows an imagined interlocutor that the picturesque applies not only to:

The old gypsey’s tanned skin, the ass and his panniers, the rotten posts and thatch of the hovel … [but also to] … the fresh and tender colours in the cheeks of young men or women; with the shapes and colours of sleek and pampered horses, rich and gaily caparisoned: or with those of porticos or columns of marble. (Price 1801: 111–12)

For Price the system of genre hierarchy is assumed, but, like de Piles, he wished to show that in the lower genres one can observe a pure picturesque, that is, a purely visual and aesthetic understanding of painting which one can then carry to high status works which necessarily combine the beautiful and picturesque because they represent objects and scenes of value, and meanings to be deciphered. Wölfflin can have no interest in genre hierarchies per se, but his discussion of das Malerische does seem to suppose that the present concept arises from an earlier more primitive state, the picturesque of genre painting, which is a ‘preliminary step’ to painterly understanding. Moreover, Wölfflin has a philogenetic/ontongenic concept of art, which develops not only across the long sweep of cultural history but also in the maturation of an individual:

The case of Rembrandt clearly shows that progress in painterly perception can be accompanied by an ever-greater simplicity. But simplicity here means a departure from the popular ideal of the picturesque motif. When he was young, yes, he did think beauty was in the tattered beggar. … Later on there is an abating of the picturesque [das Pittoreske] — I use the foreign term advisedly here for the sake of differentiation — and a concomitant increase in the painterly proper. (Wölfflin 2015: 108)24

Although Wöfflin’s introduction of a further term, das Pittoreske, confuses the issue of what exactly to call the ‘opposite’ of painterly, it is nevertheless clear that for Wölfflin, Rembrandt’s development as an artist away from subject matter and towards a formal concept of the painterly parallels Rembrandt’s more general aesthetic awakening. Thinking that an aesthetic quality such as malerisch is an objective quality of things is not so much a conceptual error as it is a necessary phase. Das Malerische is thus not a simple state of painting; it always contains its shadow, the picturesque, the state of innocent belief in a mimetic relation to a quality in the world, which has been transcended:

Everyone knows that the least painterly of all possible aspects of a building is the frontal view, where object and appearance correspond completely. As soon as there is any foreshortening, though, the appearance detaches from the object, the visual form changes into something other than the form of the object and one speaks of a painterly charm of movement. (Wölfflin 2015: 106)25

The above passage on the charm of architectural movement explains how we find painterliness in ‘a picturesque nook in a little old town’, the architectural equivalent of a low genre (Wölfflin 2015: 106). Here Blower again uses ‘picturesque’ for malerisch, and begs the question of what a high status conceptual version of malerisch architecture would be in English. Pevsner answers this question and attempts to rebuild the fuller meaning of the word ‘picturesque’ with the tools of his education in Kunstwissenschaft. But to get to this part of the story, we need to introduce another aspect of German-language discourse, Stadtbaukunst, or artistic city planning, which was at the height of its intellectual popularity in the first decade of the 20th century and which every contemporary reader of the Grundbegriffe would certainly have identified with Wölfflin’s ‘picturesque nooks’.

From Stadtbaukunst to Pevsner’s Picturesque Modernism

Camillo Sitte and his popular book, Der Städte-Bau nach seinen künstlerischen Grundsätzen (1889), stood at the head of the German-language reform movement that became known in the following decades as Stadtbaukunst (artistic city planning) (Figure 4).26 The movement was intended to reform the rationalising and regularising effects of 19th-century urban planning, which tended to place the regulatory, technical and economic aspects of over-simplified Baroque planning forms and resulted in the uniformity, monotony and undifferentiated nature of many plans from the period.27 In stark contrast, Sitte’s ‘artistic’ approach was heralded as the beginning of an aesthetic school of urbanism favouring planning from actual points of view (Choay 1969). The seminal text of the movement in its English adaptation is Raymond Unwin’s Townplanning in Practice of 1909, whose goal, like Sitte’s book, but using British as well as European examples, was to show that the complexity of planning that derived from layers of history could nevertheless form malerisch visual wholes. Unwin cites and quotes Sitte and Stadtbaukunst sources at length, thus cementing German origins and authority in these matters for English readers. And, thus, the issue of the translation of malerisch arises again.

Figure 4 

Camillo Sitte, Breslau: Rathaus, 1889 (Sitte 1889: pl. XIII).

Like Blower’s and Hottinger’s difficulties with translating Wölfflin, George Collins and Christiane Craseman Collins struggled with the unseemliness of ‘picturesque’ in their seminal translation and discussion of Sitte’s work. They point out,

It is our feeling that Sitte did not really mean ‘picturesque’ in the romantic sense that his imitators took it, or ‘painterly’ as Wölfflin’s concept is so often rendered, but rather ‘pictorial,’ viz., structured like a picture and possessing the formal values of an organized canvas. We have in translating, however, used both ‘picturesque’ and ‘pictorial’. (Collins and Collins 1965: 136)

The concept of ‘the formal values of an organized canvas’ applied to the spatial experience of landscape and building is exactly what the ‘higher’ picturesque has always meant in English, since Gilpin borrowed de Piles’ usage and the concept of a coup d‘oeil. Nevertheless, the Collins and Collins translation follows the pattern of the Wölfflin translations in restricting picturesque to the naïve description of material conditions and popular taste for tumble-down urban scenery. Collins and Collins would certainly have known of Hottinger’s neologism but wisely chose to avoid the confusion of a ‘painterly architecture’.

In the 20th century, the professionalisation of town planning and urban design, like the establishment of art history as an academic discourse, relied in part on the authority of a specialised discourse that was German. This was the case early in the century and later, as intellectuals who had escaped Nazi Germany made their impact in British and American universities. When Pevsner, who had studied with Wölfflin and other proponents of Kunstwissenschaft, escaped to Britain in the late 1930s, he made ‘picturesque theory’ the vehicle for his inquiry, elevating the lower term to the status of das Malerische, insisting on its national character. For some decades Pevsner neglected to mention what he certainly knew of its parallels in German art history and planning discourse, in part because of his belief in Kunstgeographie, or ‘art geography’, which gave primacy to national characteristics, but also because he was writing in England during the Second World War and its aftermath, and suffered from anti-German prejudices (Aitchison 2015).

In 1942 Pevsner joined the British magazine the Architectural Review (AR) as wartime editor and began working immediately on a pet project for the AR’s eccentric owner and chief editor, Hubert de Cronin Hastings, to revive the picturesque in modern terms (Rosso 2004; Macarthur and Aitchison 2010). What emerged from the collaboration between Pevsner and Hastings in the war years was a theory of urban design that would later become known as ‘townscape’, but in the mid-1940s was variously termed ‘visual planning’, ‘exterior furnishing’ and ‘sharawaggi’ (Aitchison 2008; Macarthur and Aitchison 2010). Hastings proposed that Pevsner write a book on this theory (a book that would lie dormant until 2010; see Pevsner 2010)). As a theory of urban design, ‘townscape’ was very close to Sitte’s ideas, which all informed readers must have known, not least through Unwin’s hugely popular book and the reverence which Unwin had for Sitte. Throughout his campaign on the topic in post-war England, however, Pevsner never acknowledged any debt to Sitte, his preferred source being Joshua Reynolds on the picturesque:

The forms and turnings of the streets of London and other old towns are produced by accident, without any original plan or design, but they are not always the less pleasing to the walker on that account. On the contrary, if the City had been built on the regular plan of Sir Christopher Wren, the effect might have been, as we know it is in some new parts of the town, rather unpleasing. The uniformity might have produced weariness and a slight degree of disgust. (Pevsner 1947: 56)

Pevsner had been impressed by Christopher Hussey’s The Picturesque of 1927, which showed that 18th-century theories of visual form and experience underlay the clichés of rustic sentimentality in 19th-century stylistic romanticism that modernists found so difficult (Hussey 1967). In the pages of the AR, Pevsner went on to provide guides to this theory for architects, working towards his Reith Lectures of 1955, which made the picturesque into something like a will-to-form that drove the ‘Englishness of English art’ (Pevsner 1956; Pevsner 1938; Aitchison 2015; cf. Pevsner 1934). The lecture, ‘Picturesque England’, explained how the history of English culture could be a source for what Pevsner proposed to call ‘visual planning’, but as his book remained unpublished until 2010, the idea came to be called ‘townscape’ (Figure 5).

Figure 5 

First page of Nikolaus Pevsner’s article in The Architectural Review, ‘C20 Picturesque’, from 1954, facing an illustration by Gordon Cullen (Pevsner 1954: 225–26).

Not surprisingly, ‘picturesque (visual) planning’, and later ‘townscape’, were campaigns launched with post-war reconstruction and the modernisation of Britain’s cities in their sights. These ideas were meant to stimulate thought on the shape of a reconstructed Britain, primarily its appearance. Both Hastings and Pevsner thought that modernism was not only the most significant but the most appropriate development in architecture of their day, and that modern planning had been, and threatened to remain, a grand disaster if it could not be reformed and adapted to local and national traditions. Instead, they proposed what was then an unlikely marriage of modern architecture, which contrasted strikingly with the pre-existing built environment, set within a more informal, irregular and antiquated urban pattern.

These episodes from the AR are of particular interest to the present discussion because they mark the most substantial emergence of the picturesque in the 20th century, which went on to be broadened and conceptualized under the umbrella term ‘contextualism’. From the late 1930s into the 1950s the AR ran a full-blown picturesque revival in parallel with its other campaigns. The article usually taken to herald the launch of ‘townscape’ was published in 1949 with the fanciful title ‘Townscape: A Plea for an English Visual Philosophy Founded on the True Rock of Sir Uvedale Price’ (de Wolfe 1949). Pevsner and the AR’s editor, Hastings (a.k.a. Ivor de Wolfe), were convinced that the picturesque offered more than just a culturally familiar term that might help to galvanize opinion around their version of modernist post-war reconstruction. At the level of theory and technique, they thought the picturesque offered useful tools for the problems of their own day. Writing anonymously in the 1944 article ‘Exterior Furnishing or Sharawaggi: The Art of Making Urban Landscape’, Hastings pleaded for a ‘picture’ of what this new city might look like, and went on to outline how this picture could be achieved:

There is an aspect of this matter which seems to have been inexplicably overlooked by town-planners. It is the fact, obvious to foreigners and historians, that a national picture-making aptitude exists among us, and has done for centuries.

What we really need to do now … is to resurrect the true theory of the Picturesque and apply a point of view already existing to a field in which it has not been consciously applied before: the city. ([Hastings] 1944: 3)

Pevsner’s and Hastings’ enthusiasm for the picturesque and its application to topical problems of building and planning was untiring; they went on to show that not only could modernism and the picturesque be highly complementary, they were much the same thing in principle. The similarities between picturesque ‘irregularity’ and the asymmetry of modern architecture that resulted from functionalism led Pevsner to write, ‘unconsciously, the modern revolution of the early twentieth century and the Picturesque revolution of a hundred years before had all their fundamentals in common’ (Pevsner 1954: 229). Such an equation drew sharp rebukes from the younger generation of British architects, who felt they were watching the lineage of a heroic modernism melt into a form of uncritical sentimentality, which the word picturesque had come to mean in English by the 1950s. Reyner Banham later exercised his taste for Schadenfreude by describing these events as the ‘revenge’ of the picturesque (Banham 1968).

Returning to the main theme of Britain’s mid-century architectural and urban polemics, Pevsner and Hastings were not only keen to demonstrate the ‘Englishness’ of the picturesque and visual planning, but to show that modernism itself was picturesque, and therefore, oddly, English. In many ways, the re-emergence of aesthetic urbanism in mid-20th century Britain can be seen as a twofold rejoining of the picturesque: a practical with a theoretical picturesque, and the malerisch of Stadtbaukunst with the picturesque in Britain via Pevsner (Aitchison 2011). But this is a story told in retrospect and little known, partly because of regrettable national antagonisms continuing in the post-war period, but also because of the very real problems of translation.

Productive Misunderstandings

This has been a story of oscillations between the various manifestations of the picturesque as a term and a concept between different languages and periods. The value of distinguishing among these manifestations becomes clear in translation, but so too do the continuities and often unacknowledged similarities. This rich history need not be negatively construed, particularly if the systematisation of linguistic nuances that occur in translation are remembered for what they are. ‘Painterly’ is a valuable artefact and tool of 20th-century art history, but we ought not allow the term to totally encompass and thus obscure the relation of pictorial form and spatial experience that occasioned it when it was also called ‘picturesque’. Similarly, we do not have to do away with ‘painterly’ to realise that it has tended to over-emphasise the disciplinary boundaries that obscure the common ground between Wölfflin’s theories of malerisch Baroque façades, Sitte’s malerisch city squares and Pevsner’s picturesque modernism. What has been lost in disciplinary distinctions, historical events and the varied contexts and aims of translations can also be productively recovered.

The bifurcated high and low significances of picturesque-malerisch multiplies the complexity of the two languages and the scholarly contexts, but it is this high-low polarity that is constant from Price through Ruskin, Wölfflin, Sitte, Pevsner, Read and others to today. The denigration of ‘townscape’ by its avant-gardist enemies as something tainted by the shallow, sentimental and quaint side of the picturesque (cobblestones and bollards), is paradoxically, the reason that the disreputable low picturesque has become a useful tool for those like Rem Koolhaas who question the relevance of 20th-century contextualism. In the research project ‘The Project on the City’, directed by Koolhaas, the picturesque resurfaced as a method for incorporating the effects of China’s rampant urbanisation and critiquing polite contextualism (Orff 2001; Aitchison 2014). Feigning to copyright the term, Koolhaas and Orff provide a new definition of the ‘PICTURESQUE©’:

An aesthetic based on harmonizing disparate elements … by visually preparing the viewer to receive any and all chaotic fragments of construction by integrating them into a pleasing and inhabitable vision. … To the viewer versed in picturesque aesthetics, the construction of a highrise tower in a rice field, the addition of a reflecting pool in front of an office building, or the insertion of a Donald Duck sculpture on a median strip, can be apprehended with delight and awe rather than contempt and bewilderment. An aesthetic of visual consumption, the PICTURESQUE© becomes the aesthetic framework in which rampant development can take place and transform every last fragment of wilderness into an inhabitable scene. (Orff 2001: 393)

Koolhaas and Orff mention the 18th-century European belief that the picturesque concept and gardening practice came to England from China (Orff 2001: 394). Despite the confrontation that Koolhaas and Orff seek with the Eurocentric urbanism of the latter 20th century and the formalist modernism of which Wölfflin is considered the progenitor, this recent PICTURESQUE© is remarkably close to Ivor de Wolfe’s confronting appropriation of Uvedale Price’s picturesque in 1949. And so, in Koolhaas’s hands, the picturesque becomes riskily disruptive, and Chinese, as it was in 18th-century England, and no longer the dowdy earnest ‘townscape’ which is its more recent history.

No one can doubt the rhetorical effectiveness of flipping the connotations of apparently hackneyed terms as Koolhaas, and Hastings before him, has done. Nor should we question the more serious considerations that Pevsner and Wölfflin’s translators have given to the longevity that terminology can have. Our point in this paper has been that these choices, which are sometimes tactical and sometimes forced by the exigencies of translation, are a rich site for historians to examine the intended and unintended consequences of turning words into terms.