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Thursday, November 22, 2012

Painting the Weather

The Tempest, 1507-08, Giorgione
There are probably more clichés regarding the weather than any other subject except maybe men, women, and sex. Around here, the favorite seems to be "If you don't like the weather, wait a minute." Several times a year we have days like that. And then there may be the all-time favorite, "Everyone talks a lot about the weather, but no one ever does anything about it." Actually, artists are the exception to that rule. Probably the first person to actually do something about the weather was the Italian artist, Giorgione in 1510. He painted it. His painting, The Tempest, has long been one of the most enigmatic works ever done. It depicts a soldier on the left observing a nude mother suckling a child, while in the background there is a violent thunderstorm brewing. It seems a strange mix with one thing having little to do with the others. Be that as it may, the one very obvious element in this work is Giorgione's fascination with the brittle, electrically charged atmosphere right before a storm as the fading sunlight vividly illuminates a city in his background. Incidentally, a 1521 inventory of the art collection of Cardinal Grimani (who first owned this painting), written by the Venetian art critic, Marcantonio Michiel, may have seen the first recorded use of a term meaning, "landscape."

Storm with a Shipwreck, 1754, Claude-Joseph Vernet
Landscape painting was one of the fruits of the Renaissance. Before that time, it was of little interest to artists except as a means of filling up negative space in the backgrounds of their works. In the years afterwards, however, artists such as Claude and Poussin became fascinated by the countryside, so long as they could paint it from the safety and comfort of their studios. Though they might sketch on location, for the most part they were "fair weather" painters in fact and in content. But Claude-Joseph Vernet's 1754 A Storm with a Shipwreck broke with that tradition. While undoubtedly painted in his studio, it gives us a vivid look at both fair and foul weather in the same painting as he depicts a small ship dashed against a rocky coastline while survivors of the wreck struggle to come ashore and a small fishing boat manages to rescue those who can't. The storm occupies the left side of the canvas while a crowd descends from a fortified tower on the right, which is blessed by a sunny, lightly clouded sky. The contrast in the weather above is as dramatic as the shipwreck below.

The Magpie, 1868, Claude Monet
The weather seems to have been only of passing interest, even to landscape artists, until they began to paint pictures in it as opposed to pictures of it. In 1868, a French journalist from Le Havre reported, in a mixture of awe, dismay, and amusement, having seen Claude Monet painting at his easel out in the snow. It was a cold but sunny day and even with layer upon layer of clothing and gloves, the news account reports that he was still half-frozen. But the painting, The Magpie, with its brilliant, sometimes yellowish, whites and cold, vibrant, blue-grey shadows would seem to have been well worth the effort. The title comes from the one sign of life in the painting, a magpie sitting on a snow-covered wooden gate.

Life-boat and Manby Apparatus, 1831, J.M.W. Turner
Monet was not alone among the impressionists in his fascination with the weather. Fifty years before, in England, J.M.W. Turner had made weather and atmospheric effects the hallmark of his entire career, leading the way for impressionist artists such as Alfred Sisley and his The Fog, Voisins, painted in 1874. We most commonly think of the Impressionists as having been enamoured with the purest light and color, but Sisley's tiny work, painted in the same fog he depicts, dissolves the form of a woman gathering flowers in a secluded garden into a silvery-blue greyness which diffuses the trees, flowers, fence, and a broad path to such a degree we have to struggle to define all but the simplest reading of its content. But then, I guess Sisley probably wasn't the first or last artist to be painting in a fog.

The Fog, Voisins, 1874, Alfred Sisley
Erich Heckel, one of the founders of the group of Dresden artists known as Die Brücke (The Bridge) in 1905, found the ephemeral period after a storm most interesting. His 1959 painting, Landscape in Thunderstorm seems to reflect a sort of revival of hope following the stormy post-war period in his country. There is a strong emphasis on pictorial structure in his raw, Expressionist lines, angular planes, and luminous colours. It is a deep, hilly landscape overhung with heavy clouds through which the sun is seen bursting free to suffuse a lush green valley with a vital, ecstatic energy. It's an extreme scene compared with the cliché, sunny blue skies so many of us seem to automatically favor without much (or any) thought in our own landscapes. Even those who like to paint out in the weather tend to shrink from painting it at its most fascinating and dramatic moments.

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