Dear Artist, This morning Evelyn Dunphy of West Bath, ME, USA wrote, “Some time ago you wrote about the experience of feeling an overwhelming emotion in the presence of beauty. There was a principle named after the man who identified this feeling of awe. Who was it and what was the name of the principle?” Thanks, Evelyn. You’re probably thinking about my letter on January 18th, The Stendhal Syndrome, where I talked about looking at beautiful art and having rapid heartbeat, dizziness and confusion. In 1817, the French writer Stendhal was discombobulated after visiting the Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence. It was a similar discombobulation I was to repeat in the same place in 2010. Fact is, most of us have had wobbly legs in public galleries when suddenly confronted with art we may have previously only seen in books or online. Or you may have been thinking about my letter of March 29th, Spinoza and me, where I wrote about one of my favourite Dutchmen. Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) felt that “all things are worthy of interest and study, including the tiniest animalcule or flower, and the universe itself.” Spinoza and Stendhal were not the only ones to be in awe of everything. “The world,” said the Irish poet W. B. Yeats, “is full of magic things patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.” That’s it. As we sharpen our senses the world becomes a more awesome place. Artists of all stripes are particularly favoured to develop a high degree of awe. Our profession demands that we see more than others and apply our love and talent to exploit it. On our recent painting ventures into the magnificent Bugaboo Mountains, artists would step out of the helicopter and start screaming. We called these involuntary outbursts “Boogasms.” Only the seriously jaded were not having them. A dictionary definition of awe is “an overwhelming feeling of reverence and admiration produced by that which is grand, sublime or extremely powerful.” In modern times, a great deal of awe centres on the field of science. “The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable,” wrote Richard Dawkins. “It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music, art and poetry can deliver. It is truly one of the things that make life worth living and it does so, if anything, more effectively if it convinces us that the time we have for living is quite finite.” Best regards, Robert PS: “The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle and much more elegant.” (astrophysicist Carl Sagan, 1934-1996) Esoterica: Psychologists have studied the inspirational qualities of awe. When asked to say something while viewing a brontosaurus skeleton, test subjects were more likely to speak in grandiose terms: “I, too, have been a fellow traveller on planet Earth.” When confronted with something less awesome like a stuffed domestic rat, they spoke in baser terms: “I wonder where I can get a beer.”   Awesome rats by Warren Criswell, Benton, AR, USA  

“Market Melodies”
original painting
by Cheryl Braganza

This summer a public piano was placed in my neighborhood in Montreal. I decided to play it and returned every day, weather-permitting. I can only say that what made me go back was that Stendhal had struck. Imagine playing Debussy, Chopin, jazz standards under the rustle of the trees, a cobalt sky, chirping sparrows, a full moon, the gently flowing Lachine canal. I was overcome by rapid heart-beat, dizziness and, yes, the occasional orgasm….. I was in love with our universe, in awe of the wonders of creativity, of being consumed by beauty and, as people came and went and the leaves began to scatter, I was reminded of the eternal passage of time. There are 3 comments for Piano played outdoors by Cheryl Braganza
From: Deborah Reeves — Oct 08, 2013

Love your painting; I almost hear your music.

From: Caroline Jobe — Oct 08, 2013

wow that is exciting about the piano outside and near the Lachine Canal, love walking along there and you described the surroundings beautifully. also love your work and will look for you on Facebook. i am originally from Mtl too and now in a small town in BC, but love so many things about Montreal that i go back to my good friends and all the cultural and innovative goings on there, as often as i can. tks

From: Anonymous — Oct 10, 2013

if music be the food of love play on……Moira

  The Responsive Chord by Brad Michael Moore, Perrin, TX, USA  

“Dark Matters”
digital painting
by Brad Michael Moore

I grew up equating, “Awe,” as in unison with, “The Responsive Chord.” All at once, experiencing something magnificently turning myself whole, inside and out, as a beautiful perfectly pitched tuning fork — rung by a pounding — like a kiss of lightening struck within my soul. Really, it’s hard to describe — even for a poet.       There is 1 comment for The Responsive Chord by Brad Michael Moore
From: Robin Sears — Oct 08, 2013

I’d say you hit the tuning fork right on!

  Dawkins’s quoted passion by Lisa Chakrabarti, Los Angeles, CA, USA  

“Horses in snow”
ink and watercolour painting
by Lisa Chakrabarti

Based on Richard Dawkins‘s quote: “The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable.” Its ardor seems a bit misplaced. The Arts and science are both constructs of man, and both seek to understand the nature of things, just from differing points of reference. One seeks to express, the other to explain. In the process of explanation, science disrobes nature’s mystery, and is ever questing to define the whole of it. By comparison, the arts exalt the essence of being and the nature of things without necessarily prying into the nuts and bolts of their existence. And if the arts do manage to explain, it is by implication rather than proof. His claim that science has a “deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that art, music and poetry can deliver” is subjective and hardly a scientific statement. It might be worthwhile here to point out that Dawkins is an avowed, albeit strident, atheist. Ironically, his singing such high praises of science has an almost religious ring. While somewhat agnostic myself, I will admit that art is almost a religion to me; Dawkins seems to use science to fill a similar vacuum in his life. Dawkins’s quote implies that there is no higher entity than man, since man has created both science and art. Such arrogance! It could be argued that Dawkins means to refer to ‘nature’ rather than science. But he is too educated to make that kind of mix-up. I wonder if Dawkins himself really believes what he wrote – or was it just to appeal to the masses to further his agenda? There are 8 comments for Dawkins’s quoted passion by Lisa Chakrabarti
From: David Blanchard — Oct 07, 2013

If I was religious, I would be an atheist.

From: Deborah Reeves — Oct 08, 2013

If I were an atheist, I would be religious.

From: Elizabeth Davis — Oct 08, 2013
From: Jim Carpenter — Oct 08, 2013

It would seem to me that “awe” is “awe,” and whether it is the result of scientific enquiry or of standing in front of a van Gogh, it is the same experience. Chills, rapid heart beat, hair standing on end, tear-producing-awe is awe-some, and I will take it wherever I can get it.

From: Leah — Oct 08, 2013

The best thing about science is that it has absolutely no need for priests. Dawkins seems to be opportunistically attempting to be one. Never trust a preaching scientist…and vice versa.

From: Jackie Knott — Oct 08, 2013

Very thoughtful comments. Referencing art and science, I really like, “One seeks to express, the other to explain.”

From: Jim Oberst — Oct 08, 2013

Ah… but the explanations – of the birth of the universe, its awesome size, the wonderful climb of man via evolution… these are awesome things to contemplate.

From: Hugo — Oct 09, 2013

I’ll never forget the overwhelming awe at the end of an electronics lecture where the prof started at the right hand side of a 30′ wide blackboard with the mathematical description of two physical components, a resistor and a capacitor. An hour and a half later proceeding to the left along mathematical proofs and derivations, just before the bell rang, it was all reduced to: equals t, time. Talk about enlightenment!

  Delicate perfection of nature by Joanna Finch, Cumberland, BC, Canada   I feel these “boogasms” fairly frequently when I am in nature or when I listen to music that touches me, or quite often when I eat delicious food. Then I call these: GO’s. Gastronomic orgasms. The sense one gets when in the presence of perfection, enraptured by the simplest wonders of nature, is that joy and awe are intermingled with grief. I feel slight misery when I behold the delicate perfection of nature, because I know I will move onto something less interesting in a second and that moment of perfection is fleeting. I would like to have that bright-eyed awareness/wonder awakened in every passing moment. I guess that would mean my mind would have to stop looking inward and instead be fully conscious of the moment. I sang the Blake poem, “Auguries of Innocence,” when I was in the Christ Church Cathedral choir in Victoria when I was 16. It stayed with me. I am thrilled regularly by awesome observations of art and nature. I am still sharpening my senses and noticing the world is truly an awesome place. “To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour.”   Children can relate to beauty by Ronni Jolles, Great Falls, VA, USA  

“Winter Sky”
acrylic painting
by Ronni Jolles

When I go to MOMA in New York, and see the huge Monet water lilies piece in one of those rooms, I literally have to sit down. I find it so moving, and so beautiful, and it totally envelopes you as you sit in front of such a huge piece (like 20 feet wide?). I could totally relate to that kind of awe. And when I see a beautiful sunset or a view that just makes me have to stop and look and look and look, I figure it’s just a gift from above to those of us who see it. All of my kids are in the arts — none are visual artists, but at least I have had some effect on them because they’ll say they saw something beautiful and think of me, and I think…”Hmmm. At least they’re seeing it!”     There are 2 comments for Children can relate to beauty by Ronni Jolles
From: Jacqueline (Raleigh) — Oct 08, 2013

Your trees and sky catch me up! I can feel the wind.

From: Gentlehawk — Oct 08, 2013

Great emotion in your trees….inspires me to do a similar view, I’ve been doing horizontal ones

  Other-worldly phenomenon by Nikki Coulombe, Lewisville, TX, USA  

“Oceanside Beach Formations #3”
original photograph
by Nikki Coulombe

Nature demands no attention or compliment, just as W.B. Yeats eludes to in your letter; the magic is therefore us to discover and savor — or not. This other-worldly sand-shaped cone was formed by changing tides and strong winds, was one of many unique shapes found only for about one mile along a particular beach in Oceanside, Oregon. Some shapes were more interesting as groups, where the progress of the phenomenon could be speculated. Without the camera I could never describe the sophisticated beauty of each, but the multi-dimensional experience could never be captured by camera, or any other medium. I return occasionally, when new ones have formed, but they are never as spectacular as the first day, and I have never seen another cone. There is 1 comment for Other-worldly phenomenon by Nikki Coulombe
From: Virginia Wieringa — Oct 08, 2013

You have a remarkable eye for beauty and wonder, Nikki!

  Poem favourite by Diane Voyentzie, CT, USA   Reading your letter today about our finite time and awe, reminded me of one of my favorite poems by Shelley. Nothing here on earth lasts forever.

original painting
by Diane Voyentzie

Ozymandias I met a traveller from an antique land Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand, Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown, And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, Tell that its sculptor well those passions read Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed. And on the pedestal these words appear — “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away.’ (Percy Bysshe Shelley) There is 1 comment for Poem favourite by Diane Voyentzie
From: Kathy Howard — Oct 08, 2013

With no particular anticipation, I went to visit the David. When I first saw it, I burst out in tears and cried like a baby. I had never seen such beauty, it took me totally by surprise.


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Awe

From: Odette — Oct 05, 2013

I recently experienced a three hour episode of goose-bumps upon wandering The Stadel, Frankfurt. Not only was I surprised at my reaction (yes, I admit to be a jaded old-er artist) but that I was thrilled by the Art collection, and equally the new architecture. Nothing like looking at art through the play of natural light – in a basement!

From: Laura Host — Oct 05, 2013

I know I felt that “awe” feeling when approaching Bryce Canyon for the first time. Walking up to the edge and seeing what lies before you is the closest thing to really feeling what awe is for me! I loved listening to other people walking up and seeing the canyon for the first time. “Oh my God!” had to be the most universal reaction!

From: Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki — Oct 05, 2013

I was awed standing at the Lake O’Hara’s Sargent spot, completely mesmerized by its magnificence. There was a young woman taking the scene in with her digital thingy. As we moved on, I took a look at her screen to see the scene once more. Imagine my shock when I realized that she was running a mirror app, checking out her very cute touque I guess.

From: Carole Smale — Oct 05, 2013

Yes, I often get this feeling of being on a higher plane. We are so fortunate to have access to wonderful TV documentaries. I never cease to wonder at what humans can achieve with their cameras. The universe is very queer and even queerer than we think it’s queer and so is our world.

From: Ruth MacCandlish — Oct 05, 2013

The ‘AWE’ factor is so amazing if one is lucky enough to experience it in their lives.

I recall some years ago when I was on a trip to Paris and my first visit to the L’ouvre. I had been studying art history at a local college, and had loved the period of the Impressionists …amazing ! When I walked into the room where all the Impressionist work was hanging I dissolved into tears of absolute joy and wonderment. What a memorable moment for me. I will never forget it.
From: Ann Jene Bunyard — Oct 05, 2013

i recall the first time i felt this, not knowing what it was, when i saw the ecsatsy of st theresa.

i can easily go back there, recalling how everthing around me fell away and wondering what in the world was happening to me/what in the world could i be seeing do i sound like bodhidave?
From: C. W. Nave — Oct 05, 2013

I experienced this awe in the National Gallery in Washington, DC when I walked into the room with 6 or 8 monumental landscapes. I walked to the center of the room, opened my eyes, slowly turned around and burst into tears.

From: Doris Daigle — Oct 05, 2013

I am so grateful for sharpening of senses ……………..

From: Sheila Psaledas — Oct 05, 2013

I have visited the Academy in Florence, Italy four times. Every time I see Michaelangelo’s David, I cry. Standing in line before entering the building the last time I visited, I swore to myself that I would not cry.

It didn’t work. I cried like a baby.
From: Alberta Manfredi Woodall — Oct 05, 2013

I felt that awe, that breathlessness in the presence of perfect art. It was Michaelangelo’s Pieta in St. Peter’s in Rome. Then there was my first visit to the MOMA in New York. Both were many years ago, yet it feels like it was just this morning when I think of it. Thank you for reminding me of these awe moments.

From: Jackie Knott — Oct 05, 2013

Notre Dame in Paris: we toured the cathedral on a Tuesday, midday, and I was enthralled. I can’t adequately describe the beauty of this place.

We were about to leave and I saw a notice on the kiosk window inside announcing monks would perform Gregorian chants on Thursday night. Had to go, and bought tickets. We thought we had plenty of time to get from our hotel on the Metro to the cathedral. We ran two blocks and turned the corner exactly at the time the performance was to start. We saw a long line and I was crushed. I thought we missed it. My daughter said, “Come on.” She ran up to a 5′ security fence and demanded we be admitted. The guard shook his head and pointed to his watch. She shook the tickets in his face and raised her voice. He argued, she argued, then he finally shrugged and admitted us. I told her later, “I guess you really can speak French if you won an argument with a Frenchman.” Still breathless from running we took our seats in front of one nave and immediately heard voices singing. Listening, it sounded like a whole choir. Soon, eight monks strode quietly, singing from one side of the cathedral and then stood in front of a lighted statue and sang chants for over an hour. The acoustics were so perfect their voices had natural volume with no echo whatsoever. At that moment I realized the passion people have for Notre Dame. I felt the effort of people of faith trying to manifest the grandeur of God in one edifice – it was in the dramatic light that fell upon the statuary, the coolness of the interior, the stained glass, the architecture, the beauty of the voices … almost overwhelming.
From: Tiit Raid — Oct 07, 2013
From: Louise Francke — Oct 07, 2013

Last year, my husband and I visited Paris. It was the first time he had traveled abroad. I having been there at age of 16 wanted to experience it again at 70. He had of course watched many Rick Steves programs; but when we took our first walk in Paris to the Louvre and its environs, he stood there and slowly took it all in as he turned slowly. Then, he said: Is this all the Louvre? I had never imagined it was so vast. The next day we went inside and spent the whole day moving from room to room and painting to painting. Having studied art history extensively, i could direct him to the important works and to the paintings which I though would interest him. I’m so glad we had that time together. Hopefully, our next stop is Amsterdam.

From: Hamish Dalton — Oct 07, 2013

Every day I awaken to the feeling that we who are living on this earth, particularly in the countryside in good circumstances, are blessed. And when I enter into my little downs studio I feel that we artists are particularly blessed. (Sussex by the Sea)

From: Craig Nesbitt — Oct 07, 2013

The study and appreciation of extraordinary Nature cannot help but bring out the best that humanity might finally offer the world.

From: Liz Reday — Oct 07, 2013
From: Lissie Mills — Oct 08, 2013

Having seen many documentaries and pictures of it, nothing prepared me for my first sight of Machu Pichu as it appeared through the mists of early dawn when the rising sun lit the mountain side. It was such a spiritual experience that I just burst into tears in wonder and awe at this man made creation.

From: Karen Nastuk — Oct 08, 2013

40 years ago looking up at the Sistine Chapel ceiling, my hands began to burn, my guidebook fell to the floor. The guards must have a field day watching us.

From: Julia — Oct 08, 2013

Oh the AWE! Ave awe! The more i paint the more ability to percieve beauty, art, music, poetry grows and the more i want to create! It is the journey to the higher self, it is spiritual, it is a path. It is the essence of humanity! Everything else is uncivilized! Hallelujah! Let’s teach everybody to see and feel it!

From: Kathleen Turner — Oct 08, 2013

Awe for me is triggered most often by something in nature or small children or the elderly. Innocence at it’s best!

  Featured Workshop: Michael Chesley Johnson
100813_robert-genn7 Michael Chesley Johnson Workshops Held in Scenic Milheim, Pennsylvania, USA   The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order.

Shark Tooth

acrylic painting, 22 x 33 inches by John Burk, Newport, RI, USA

  You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013. That includes Luc Poitras of Montreal, QC, Canada, who wrote, “The Canadian artist David Milne called this awe: aesthetic emotion. He didn’t invent the term but used it often.”  

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