Examining weather patterns in art: It’s not just about painting pretty clouds

Examining weather patterns in art: It’s not just about painting pretty clouds

The experience of art is largely a matter of noticing, discovering and connecting details into a sense of wholeness. In a well-made work of art, nothing is beyond suspicion of significance, which is why no one art lover can fully uncover a work’s entire web of meaning. Seeing art with other people, who bring to it different experiences, education and temperaments, almost inevitably expands your noticing power. The same might be said of artists: As they have expanded their understanding of the world, including scientific phenomenon, they have seen more of it, in greater detail, and can express it with more emotional nuance. So I decided to invite meteorologist Matthew Cappucci, a contributor to the Capital Weather Gang, to look at art in which weather seems to be more than just a theatrical backdrop or decorative element — to look at weather as both a scientific and artistic presence in great paintings and photographs.

Weather is more than incidental to art, especially in the past few centuries, as scientists, poets and painters have squabbled over how best to process and make sense of the natural world. But look at art with a meteorologist, and you quickly learn that the clues to making atmospheric sense of an image go far beyond vapor in the air. What direction is the sun coming from? Is the grass wet? What do the trees tell us about the season, or the larger climate conditions? From what direction is the wind coming, and how are people dressed? Situating an image was one of the first questions to address. Which way is south, and which way is north? Knowing that, and a rough, general sense of where the painting was made, offered clues about time of day and other dynamics, including whether a storm is building or passing through. And those, in turn, helped make sense of the artist’s larger intent, which is almost never about just getting weather right, but rather, expressing something beyond tangible meteorological conditions.

Some images didn’t seem to make much sense, meteorologically. Van Gogh’s 1888 “Starry Night Over the Rhone” combines the play of gaslight reflected in water and a sky full of blazing stars to suggest a transfigured sense of nocturnal solitude and ecstasy. But the details don’t quite add up. The view of the city, in the background, is too clear and detailed for there to be enough moisture for the curious coronas that surround the stars. “It almost feels like he is trying to combine a different surface scene and a cloud scene” in a single image, Cappucci told me. But in other cases, contradiction or ambiguity led to deeper insights about an artist’s intent. Here are a few things that, perhaps, only a meteorologist attuned to the beauty of weather might notice.

(Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund/National Gallery of Art)
(Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund/National Gallery of Art)

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Kennicott

Kennicott

The Dutch artist Hendrick Avercamp (1585-1634), who painted “A Scene on the Ice” around 1625, was one of the first Western artists to specialize in scenes of winter. His paintings often capture a particular gray, allover light, in which the sun struggles (and fails) to make it through the clouds and the horizon is lost in a confusion of haze. Ice, for Avercamp, creates a social space, and it seems that he registers winter as a social phenomenon, something that affects not just labor, but also dress, fashion, games and even romance. But the date is striking, sometime in the first half of the 17th century, during a period known as the Little Ice Age, when winters were harsh and the climate had profound impacts on European agriculture. That, in turn, influenced culture and politics, with especially high lethality, when Europe was riven by wars, superstition and intergroup strife. I find the joy in this painting unsettling, a reminder of winters lost — winter is now a luxury for most people in the age of climate change — and a warning. Weather that makes us feel good, that brings us joy — like an 80-degree day in February — may be a sign of profound climate disturbance.

Cappucci

Cappucci

I see the first breath of springtime. Obviously, it’s still icy, people are still skating on the ice, which is thick enough to support a horse. But it also looks a little hazy, with all the grays, and some of the distant details a little disturbed in the background. That makes me think there is a little more moisture in the air, which you wouldn’t really have at that point in the winter. So, this is probably showing late February, early March — that first thaw where the ice is still there but the warmth from the south is trying to pump in a little more moisture. The cold ice touches that moisture and causes it to condense, so you get some fog near the surface. The clouds aren’t overly tall — they aren’t storm clouds — it’s just that shallow layer we get with the first warm push of spring in late winter. I love it — it’s sort of like a tease, where winter is hanging on but it isn’t over. The Little Ice Age was especially bad in Europe, but I am wondering whether the artist was almost trying to do the opposite. The people look so cheerful, there is that hint of warmth. Maybe he is trying to portray a little hope?

(Rogers Fund, 1922/Metropolitan Museum of Art)
(Rogers Fund, 1922/Metropolitan Museum of Art)

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Kennicott

Kennicott

This image of Mount Fuji was made around 1830 to 1832. The distinctive peak is seen in the distance beyond a small shop that was a precursor to one of Japan’s largest contemporary corporate conglomerates. It was one of Katsushika Hokusai’s (1760-1849) beloved series “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji,” which use the iconic mountain as a focal point, and a foil, to depict details of daily life, social customs and the seasonal nuances of weather — and the natural world. Hokusai made these enormously popular images about the time the price of a particularly rich, resonant blue pigment was falling and becoming more widely available to Japanese artists. Other images from the series show stormier or more turbulent scenes, including the famous “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa,” in which Fuji is dwarfed by the curling crest of an enormous ocean wave. That blue seems essential to the sense of fair weather in this image, along with the auspicious wind that keeps the kites aloft. Sometimes, a new material, or technique, not only helps an artist represent what he sees, but also actually helps the seeing process. When you fall in love with a particular hue of blue, suddenly you see fair weather.

Cappucci

Cappucci

If this is from Edo, or Tokyo, that means right would be north and the winds are from the cool direction. That makes sense. That triggers more precipitation on the northwest side of Mount Fuji. In the south, to the left, you see less snow, which also makes sense. Given that the kites are pushed from right to left, it looks like a cold front has just pushed through. And that white in the sky may not be haze, but rather, distant storm clouds, pushing through offshore. That would place the cold front a little south of Japan, in the East China Sea, maybe toward the south of Japan and over toward Taiwan. This is going out on a limb, but there is something called the Meiyu Front, a semi-permanent front that sets up, and it is often the focus of showers, downpours and overcast skies. We may be seeing that kind of overcast conditions south of Japan, behind a front that came through, keeping it offshore, at bay.

(Art Institute of Chicago, Alfred Stieglitz Collection)
(Art Institute of Chicago, Alfred Stieglitz Collection)

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Kennicott

Kennicott

Beginning in 1922, Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) began training his camera on the sky, photographing clouds in a way meant to disorient and distill the image of recognizable reference points. He said that he sought a new kind of purely photographic abstraction “to show that my photographs were not due to subject matter — not to special trees, or faces, or interiors, to special privileges, clouds were there for everyone.” The photographer made many of these pictures, which he called Equivalents, at Lake George, N.Y., where I spent many years as a child. I recognize them as distinctly familiar forms, and I have never been able to share his passion for making images entirely disconnected from recognizable things. Stubbornly, I read his Equivalents as clouds, not simply patterns of light captured on paper.

Cappucci

Cappucci

These are clearly very high-altitude cirrus, or ice clouds, definitely not liquid. You can see details of the cloud, especially that crisp edge, which tells you the moisture levels are pretty low. To me, it almost looks as if I am looking at someone in the eye. I feel like I am looking at Mother Nature, in that you have the sun, but sort of veiled, so it reminds you of the pupil, but there is something mysterious about it, given that veil of white around it. It arcs perfectly at top left and top right, it is crisp like the edge of an eyelid, and you have that second wavelike thing to the right that reminds me of an eyelid. There is a presence in this image. It is more than just a cloud.

(Restricted gift of the Paul and Gabriella Rosenbaum Foundation; gift of Georgia O'Keeffe/© The Art Institute of Chicago)
(Restricted gift of the Paul and Gabriella Rosenbaum Foundation; gift of Georgia O’Keeffe/© The Art Institute of Chicago)

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Kennicott

Kennicott

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) was married to Alfred Stieglitz, and she, too, was trying to abstract an image of clouds. But she obviously did it in a very different way. This is one of several paintings she made after seeing clouds from a plane. In this case, O’Keeffe’s careful ordering of the clouds seems to do the opposite of what Stieglitz was after: She is trying to orient us in relation to them, not disorient us. And that relation seems to be nurturing, as if the clouds form a protective skin, full of orderly cells, around the Earth. This painting inspires joy rather like Hokusai’s beautiful blue skies, an almost tactile sense of the atmosphere as something that sustains and protects us.

Cappucci

Cappucci

These are cloud streets, which are a legitimate thing. It happens when there is a great enough temperature difference between the water below, which is comparatively warmer, and the cold air above, so a change of temperature with height. That causes pockets of rising air right near the surface. Think of those really cold days when you get steam coming off lake beds and the ocean. This is a somewhat similar phenomenon but on a larger scale. You have just the right temperature difference between the ocean and the air above; the air is just a lot colder, and as that blows down, it causes clouds to form. They are often associated with snow showers, but it is the same type of mechanism that causes big-time lake-effect snow totals. Those clouds will be 20,000 to 25,000 feet in depth.

(Patrons' Permanent Fund and Chester Dale Fund/National Gallery of Art)
(Patrons’ Permanent Fund and Chester Dale Fund/National Gallery of Art)

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Kennicott

Kennicott

This is one of a pair of paintings by the French artist Claude-Joseph Vernet (1714-1789) showing highly contrasting scenes of nature’s power and beauty. In “The Shipwreck,” we see the power of the sublime — overwhelming energy and power that threatens to defeat man’s resistance or comprehension. In philosophical terms, the important thing here isn’t the shipwreck — it’s the survival, the clambering ashore and moving on. There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that Vernet had himself strapped to the bow of a boat during a voyage from Italy to France to better observe a violent storm. The artist does register the human emotions inspired by the weather, but I’ve never made peace with the depiction of lightning in the distance, which seems like the geometrical Zap! of a cartoon bolt thrown by a god rather than an electrical discharge cooked up by nature.

Cappucci

Cappucci

It almost looks as if the lightning is aiming for the people on the ship. It’s also tough to tell if the light in the back is sunlight or illuminance from the lightning. You see the shoreline, a distant cityscape and rock formations illuminated in the background; it almost looks like those are crepuscular rays coming in. It is clearly lightning that the artist is trying to depict, yet lightning isn’t really that color. He’s rendered it more like a sunset, and if you cover up the lightning, it looks like a fairly normal sunset. It is a weird combination of foreboding and peace.

(Andrew W. Mellon Collection/National Gallery of Art)
(Andrew W. Mellon Collection/National Gallery of Art)

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Kennicott

Kennicott

Robert Musil’s great modernist novel “The Man Without Qualities” begins with a long, quasi-scientific description of the weather: “A barometric low hung over the Atlantic … a high-pressure area over Russia … Water vapor in the air was at its maximal state of tension.” And then the Austrian author offers this summary of what was probably gibberish to many readers: “It was a fine day in August 1913.” This painting by John Constable (1776-1837), one of the greatest painters of weather of all time, reminds me a bit of the humor in Musil’s opening paragraph. At some point, no matter how much we know about the causes and science of weather, it all comes down to whether it’s a nice day. Constable didn’t paint Salisbury Cathedral as obsessively as Hokusai painted Mount Fuji, but he depicted it in several important works, under strikingly different atmospheric conditions. One of the stormier depictions is sometimes seen as his comment on the troubled state of religious affairs in England early in the 19th century. In this image, the church isn’t the focus. Indeed, as anyone who has ever tried to photograph a monumental object knows, to fit the whole cathedral in the frame means drawing back so far that the sky takes over. Unlike weather as a social phenomenon in Avercamp, or a psychological experience in Vernet, here it becomes simply about the weather, and the optical experience of it.

Cappucci

Cappucci

The sky isn’t dark, and the clouds aren’t overly tall, which makes me think there is not a lot of convection, not a lot of juice in the atmosphere. Seeing how widespread and how puffy the clouds are, I would think one of two things: There was probably some morning fog near the surface that has since burned off, so you get these big, puffy clouds that don’t have flat faces. But it is tough to tell whether this is morning or afternoon. The grass doesn’t look wet or shiny, so there may have been several hours for that moisture to dry up. Or, this could be a post-storm sky. See how it is a little lighter over the steeple and a little darker with the clouds higher up — that could be a distant thunderhead or one of those cauliflower-type clouds that is catching the afternoon light. But I would venture to say it’s probably the former, with the morning fog burning off. No matter which, I just can’t get over how peaceful the light seems. I haven’t seen a painting that makes me feel like I am there as much as this one does.

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