For many people in the past, the most awe-inspiring and impressive events in their lives were thunderstorms. Even today, lightning strikes make hot favourite movies and still images in social media. Although paintings of thunderstorms and lightning strikes may be pale imitations of their vivid and earth-shaking reality, they have enjoyed sustained popularity.
In this first of two articles, I look at mainly landscapes in which there’s a thunderstorm; in tomorrow’s second and concluding article I’ll look at narrative works in which the thunderstorm plays a part in their story.
At the dawn of modern landscape painting, Giorgione’s The Tempest from about 1504-8 centres on an approaching storm. The sky is filled with inky dark clouds, and there is a bolt of lightning in the distance.
The foreground is more enigmatic: on the right, a young infant is suckling from the breast of its almost naked mother, who sits on the bank of the river. She stares blankly at the viewer. On the left, a soldier stands bearing a staff against his right shoulder, looking across at the mother and child on the opposite bank. Trees frame the buildings and lightning in repoussoir, an extremely early and innovative use of this compositional device.
The founding fathers of landscape painting in the Northern Renaissance weren’t to be outdone by the south: Aelbert Cuyp’s Thunderstorm over Dordrecht from about 1645 is amazingly effective and accurate, considering it was painted more than two centuries before anyone saw high-speed photographic images of lightning.
It was perhaps Nicolas Poussin who first explored the use of thunderstorms in composed landscapes. In the next article, I’ll show two of his narrative landscapes which feature them. Here, I can only offer this small image of The Storm from about 1651, which sadly hasn’t coped as well with the passing of time.
Still attributed to Poussin’s pupil and brother-in-law Gaspard Dughet, this Landscape with Lightning from 1667-69 lacks the subtlety and finesse of the master himself, but shows a bolt of lightning striking ground and setting a fire in the countryside. In the foreground, a couple flee from among trees being shattered by the strong gusts brought by the storm.
Francisque Millet was a seventeenth-century Flemish landscape artist who followed in Poussin’s manner, but painted views which were less idealised and closer to topographical reality. His Mountain Landscape with Lightning from about 1675 shows a violent but localised storm far away from his native Low Countries, and closer to the Alps, which he may well have crossed when he travelled to Italy.
For George Morland, the exceptional experience of a stonking great storm was too awesome and romantic. In more typical understatement, his Before a Thunderstorm from 1791 shows a more common experience, the modest summer rumble and downpour. His horse-rider perhaps needs a little more sense of urgency if he isn’t going to get soaked.
Eugène Delacroix, though, painted this dramatic watercolour of a Horse Frightened by Lightning in 1825-29. The heavy clouds have made it almost as dark as night, and the contortion of his rearing stallion enhances the effect.
Meanwhile back in the peaceful water-meadows around Salisbury’s cathedral, John Constable gave in to his romantic tendency by adding a summer storm, rainbow and bolt of lighting to his finished painting of Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (1831).
Just as in spoken language, images of thunderstorms and lightning have symbolic or allegorical meaning. For Maxim Vorobiev, Oak Fractured by a Lightning Stroke (1842) formed an allegory of his wife’s death.
For realist painters of the middle and late nineteenth century, awe and impact were to be achieved by less romantic and more objective accounts.
When dry prairies are struck by lightning, they can catch alight, as in this scene which Charles Deas shows so well in his Prairie on Fire from 1847.
A bolt of lightning, at the far right, tells us how the prairie came to be aflame. From this low viewpoint, the fire itself is fairly unimpressive, but is very close behind these three people riding two horses in their flight. On the nearer white horse is a young man, facing behind and away from the viewer, looking back at the fire. His left arm is wrapped around a young woman, who appears to have swooned away.
Behind is a black horse, with an older, bearded man in the saddle. He points to the left, exhorting the others to head that way to safety. The tension is produced by implication: that the unimpressive flames at the right represent a much larger and imminently threatening danger, and that it is progressing rapidly to the left, chasing the horses and their riders.
Albert Bierstadt sought drama in the Rocky Mountains, and in expressing what he saw there on a suitably huge canvas. In A Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt. Rosalie from 1866, he uses his full array of skills and sketches from his second expedition to the West in 1863, to express the sublime, and fill the viewer with awe and trembling.
The foreground shows a pastoral valley floor with a native American camp, in mottled light. Some people and their animals are seen making haste to return from the pastures to the shelter of the camp. A small rocky outcrop has trees straggling over it, which are silhouetted against the brilliant sunlight on the lake behind, in the middle distance.
Behind the lake the land rises sharply, with rock crags also bright in the sunshine. In the background the land is blanketed by indigo and black stormclouds. Those clouds are piled high, obscuring much of Mount Rosalie (named by Bierstadt after his wife), but its ice-clad peaks show proud, high up above the storm, with patches of blue sky above and beyond them. A single large bird, an eagle perhaps, is seen in silhouette, high above the lake.
Surprisingly, the French Impressionists, although they painted storms and rough weather more generally, seem to have taken shelter when there was lightning about. By the end of the century, thunder and lightning had become less awesome.
In Henri Rousseau’s Tiger in a Tropical Storm, also known as Surprised!, from 1891, it’s not the lightning nor the rain but the tiger’s angry expression which engenders tension.
When Gustav Klimt painted his Approaching Thunderstorm (The Large Poplar II) during his summer holiday with the Flöge family at Attersee in 1903, it was the tree which dominated the view.
Pierre Bonnard shows similar in his Thunderstorm at Vernouillet, which he may have painted in 1908 or 1909: black cloud and rain, but no lightning bolts.
The last of these landscapes is perhaps the most technically impressive. The young Canadian painter Tom Thomson was well-known for dashing off lightning oil sketches such as Thunderhead (1912-13), in which he captures a passing thunderstorm en plein air, and in real time.
Who needs a camera?