J. M. W. Turner

Special exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through September 21.

The meaning of the word sublime has faded over time. Now it’s just a generic expression of greatness—a gorgeous dress, a delicious meal, a beautiful evening, all can be sublime—but sublime once held deeper significance. Only something vast and breathtaking, perhaps even frightening, could be sublime. Sublime described something literally beyond compare. It was a word to describe the wonders of nature: an immense chasm, a crashing wave, the boundless expanse of space.

I love that old meaning. It’s easy to forget, easy to abuse the word, like using awesome when you don’t feel anything like reverence, but I think we lost something when we pulled such beautifully deferential words down to our own level. When you look at the paintings of J. M. W. Turner, for example, you need sublime, in its original sense, because that’s what the artist is trying to convey, the overwhelming power and grandeur of the natural world: the sublime—there’s no better way to express it.