Art Term


Theory developed by Edmund Burke in the mid eighteenth century, where he defined sublime art as art that refers to a greatness beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement or imitation

John Martin
The Great Day of His Wrath (1851–3)

The theory of sublime art was put forward by Edmund Burke in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful published in 1757. He defined the sublime as an artistic effect productive of the strongest emotion the mind is capable of feeling. He wrote ‘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’.

In landscape the sublime is exemplified by J.M.W Turner’s sea storms and mountain scenes and in history painting by the violent dramas of Henry Fuseli. The notion that a legitimate function of art can be to produce upsetting or disturbing effects was an important element in Romantic art and remains fundamental to art today.

  • Romanticism

    Term in use by the early nineteenth century to describe the movement in art and literature distinguished by a new interest in human psychology, expression of personal feeling and interest in the natural world

  • History painting

    The term history painting was introduced in the seventeenth century to describe paintings with subject matter drawn from classical history and mythology, and the Bible – in the eighteenth century it was also used to refer to more recent historical subjects

Explore this term


    Jonathan Griffin

    John Martin is best known for his dramatic scenes of apocalyptic destruction and biblical catastrophe. During his life his work was shown across the world, but critical opinion remained divided. The writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton thought he was “the greatest, most lofty, the most permanent, the most original genius of the age”, while John Constable described him as “a painter of pantomimes”. On the eve of Martin’s exhibition at Tate Britain – the largest display of his works since 1822 – Tate Etc. explores his enduring influence on artists and filmmakers

selected artists in the collection

selected artworks in the collection