Before the early nineteenth century, caves had been sacred places where hermits lived, legendary and mythical hideyholes for sibyls and dragons, and most recently sites on the Grand Tour. Over the next century, they were to be associated with a great deal more besides.
Heinrich Jakob Fried’s painting of The Blue Grotto, Capri (1835) shows one of the most famous sights of the island of Capri, which has been the motif for many paintings since. This has to be visited by boat, and is at the north-western tip of the island. It features in August Kopisch’s book, published in German in 1838, describing his re-discovery of the cave in 1826, which popularised the island for northern Europen tourists. Fried visited the cave in 1835, and probably painted this in a studio in Naples shortly afterwards, just in time for the publication of Kopisch’s book.
Legend has it that witches also occupy caves. In 1816-17, following his ostracisation over alleged incest with his half-sister, Lord Byron wrote Manfred: A Dramatic Poem. Its eponymous hero is tortured by guilt in relation to the death of his beloved Astarte. Living in the Bernese Alps, he casts spells to summon seven spirits to help him forget and sublimate his guilt. As the spirits cannot control past events, he doesn’t achieve his aim, and cannot even escape by suicide. In the end, he dies.
John Martin’s watercolour shows Manfred conjuring a witch from a flooded cave in the mountains. Unusually light and sublime but (exceptionally for this artist) not apocalyptic, it is perhaps one of Martin’s most beautiful works, and reminiscent of Turner’s alpine paintings.
Caves also played a significant role in Thomas Cole’s narrative series The Voyage of Life, first versions of which he completed in 1839-40.
The first, Childhood, establishes the scene: the lush coastal undercliff, rich in flowers and the vibrant green of vegetation. A boat has emerged from a large cave in the cliff – symbolic of the mother’s birth canal and the process of birth. A young baby is standing in the boat, which has an angel at its tiller. A carved angelic figure forming the prow holds out an hourglass as the symbol for time.
Meanwhile in Australia, the immigrant artist Conrad Martens painted this surprisingly painterly view of Stalagmite Columns at the Southern Entrance of the Burrangalong Cavern in 1843.
Thomas Cole may have been one of the first artists to explore those symbolic associations of caves, but he isn’t the best-known. During the 1860s, Gustave Courbet took to painting views of the underground sources of rivers near his home town of Ornans in north-eastern France. These have been inevitably interpreted in similarly Freudian terms.
The cave shown in Courbet’s Grotto of Sarrazine near Nans-sous-Sainte-Anne, from about 1864, is the source of stygian waters, and already a noted place for tourists to visit.
The Grotto of the Loue (1864) had a personal meaning for Courbet, as it is from here that the river runs down through his native town of Ornans. It’s tempting to suggest that in painting these the artist was seeking to symbolically return to his mother’s womb.
Apocryphal stories of apostles, saints, and other key people in the early Christian church were often extremely unconventional, and sometimes downright weird.
Jules LeFebvre made his career from painting nude women for all sorts of ‘acceptable’ reasons. He even found a religious motif which could feature a nude: Mary Magdalene In The Cave, which he painted in 1876. This refers to a French legend which held that Mary Magdalene, her brother Lazarus and some companions fled across the Mediterranean to land at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer near Arles. From there, Mary went to live in isolation in a cave on a hill near Marseille, now known as La Saint-Baume, and the setting for this painting.
John Melhuish Strudwick managed to work a small hut-like cave into his account of Circë and Scylla from 1886. The jealous Circe, dressed in brown rather than blue, is sprinkling a potion into the water from inside this small cave, as Scylla at the left walks down to bathe. Little does the latter know, but that potion is about to turn her into a sea monster.
With the populations of Europe and North America turning to the seaside for recreation, sea caves were starting to become more familiar, and holiday haunts for children.
Edward Poynter’s Outward Bound (1886) shows two young boys playing in a small rock cave at the coast. They have a bamboo fishing rod with them, and have made a small boat, which appears to be floating out through the rock arch at the left towards the open sea. Although the phrase outward bound is now more usually associated with the movement started in around 1941 by Kurt Hahn, and Baden-Powell’s scouting movement wasn’t founded until 1910, there were contemporary advocates who promoted getting the poor out of cities to a healthier life in the country and at the coast.
Georges Lacombe’s Cave in Camaret (1890-97), a sea cave at the end of the Crozon peninsula in the far west of Brittany, not far from Cape Finistère, wasn’t seen as a holiday haunt, though. In this case, the cave seems as laden with mystery as the deep woods further inland.
Edward Poynter’s Cave of the Storm Nymphs from 1903 follows on with this association. Its literary reference is most probably to the Naiads of Homer’s Odyssey, book 13, who live in a sea cave, updated to encompass more contemporary references to Wreckers, who lured ships onto the rocks in order to steal their precious cargos – sirens without the socially unacceptable habit of cannibalism.
As with so much, the First World War brought new and even more chilling associations.
Alfed Roll, then in his late sixties, seems to have spent some of the war in the city of Reims, where in 1915 he painted Reims Under Bombardment, 1915, Vision of a Cavern. The city had first come under shelling on 4 September 1914, and the German army continued to bombard it at irregular intervals through the remainder of 1914, 1915, and into 1916, reducing its ancient cathedral to ruins. Roll shows locals taking shelter in a capacious cave or cellar under the city, as a veiled and ethereal woman bearing a lantern walks through.
Roll refers back to the earlier tradition of the cave being sacred: at the left is a statue of the Virgin and Child, and lit by the lantern is a mother and baby. Oddly, though, the lantern bearer appears naked under her diaphanous robes.
My final painting of a cave is one of Georg Janny’s wonderful flights of the imagination, taking him to The Dragon’s Cave in 1917. Although this doesn’t have any direct references to a classical story, we’re back in the realms of myth and legend.
That’s a surprisingly wide range of associations of caves, and despite the rapid spread of folk history that ‘primitive’ humans lived in caves, that doesn’t appear to have been represented in paintings before 1918.