Smoke isn’t uncommon in everyday life, and appears in small quantities on a great many paintings. This weekend I look at a selection of paintings in which smoke plays a significant role – in the depiction of fire, disaster, war and industry, as well as in some more specialised situations.
By smoke, I mean the cloud-like product of burning; mist, fog and airborne dust are all rather different and I will try to exclude them. So let’s start with fire, and its role in bigger disasters, sights of which have held a conflicted fascination: we are at once awed and intrigued, and fearful of what destruction will ensue.
Gillis van Valckenborch’s large painting of The Sack of Troy from around 1600 is typical of the many atmospheric works showing this horrific if legendary event. Issuing from the many fires around the remains of the city are palls of smoke, which rise into and obscure the sky. The artist makes that clear in the moon peeking through a small gap in the smoke.
It’s not only human destruction which can generate vast amounts of smoke. Domenico Gargiulo was a young artist when the volcano Vesuvius erupted a week before Christmas in 1631, and his painting of The Eruption of Vesuvius in 1631 is thought to have been made rather later, in 1656-60. His painting captures well the dense, toxic plume of smoke and gases emitted from the volcano, but is dominated by the human effects on one of the nearest towns.
The majority of the population seem engaged in a religious procession around the centre of the town, with a few taking to the rooftops to spectate. There’s even a small group of rather pagan-looking gods watching the scene from their cloud, probably a reference to the classical mythology of Vesuvius.
Another artist who happened to be in the right place at the right time was JMW Turner, who was in central London when the Palace of Westminster caught fire in 1834. He made sketches which he later used as the basis for more finished paintings such as this of The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16th October, 1834, completed over the following year. John Constable was also in London at the time, but became stuck in traffic, and never made any finished painting of the scene.
By the twentieth century, Vesuvius had faded from popularity in views of the Bay of Naples, and its eruptions were largely being captured in photographs. In his later years, the American landscape artist Charles Caryl Coleman lived in Rose O’Neil’s house, Villa Narcissus, on the nearby island of Capri. In 1906, at the start of Vesuvius’ eruption in April, he seems to have travelled to the mainland, where he painted A Shower of Ashes Upon Ottaviano (1906) in pastels.
This shows the dust- and smoke-laden air of the Naples suburb Ottaviano at ten o’clock in the morning. Vesuvius is reminiscent of Japanese views of Mount Fuji, also a volcano although far less frequently active than Vesuvius. Although Ottaviano was spared anything worse than dust and smoke in 1906, it was badly damaged during an eruption in 1944.
Early battles, before the introduction of cannons, must have been noisy and gruesome, but largely free of smoke. Once gunpowder was used as an explosive and propellant for missiles, that changed, and smoke became one of the attributes of warfare on land or at sea.
Benjamin West’s most famous painting of The Death of General Wolfe from 1770 is a good example, where smoke from gunfire and burning of the city of Quebec form a backdrop for his melodramatic foreground composition. On the ground in the middle of the central group is the dying General Wolfe, supported by two of his staff officers, and being tended by a military surgeon (in blue). Arranged almost ceremonially in front of him are his weapon and hat.
At the left is a group of six people, predominantly military, with a native American (First Nation) man sitting in front. They are all looking intently at the dying general. At the right is a smaller group, of only two military personnel, also looking on intently.
A great many paintings, most made from the artist’s imagination, show the profuse smoke of naval battles. I have selected Manet’s canvas showing the strange Battle of the Kearsarge and the Alabama off Cherbourg during the American Civil War. The sinking Alabama is in the centre, flying a white flag of surrender. The Kearsarge appears to be behind and to the left of her, in the midst of smoke from her own guns. Two other vessels are on hand: a small local pilot cutter in the foreground (French according to its flag), and in the distance at the right is the British yacht the Deerhound, which rescued some of the survivors. One survivor in seen swimming from right to left, towards the cutter.
Although this appears to be an authoritative eye-witness account, the artist didn’t see it, but constructed this from descriptions in the press. It was a strange event, and a very unusual theme for Manet to paint.
When Manet painted a battle from the American War of Independence which took place in French territorial waters, France itself was in the process of sliding inexorably towards its war with Prussia, and the Second Empire of Napoleon III was about to self-destruct. That was the setting for Pierre Puvis de Chavannes’ pair of paintings showing Peace and War, in 1867. Three horsemen are blowing a fanfare on their war trumpets, haystacks in the surrounding fields are alight and pouring black smoke into the sky, and the people are suffering, even though signs of destruction are slight and none is wounded.
Félix Vallotton was one of many artists who felt driven by the infernal sights of the First World War to depict them in his art. He created a series of woodcut prints, the last of his career, titled This is War, and painted the utter destruction on the ground and surreal displays in the sky in works such as Landscape of Ruins and Fires from 1915.
The First World War also saw the introduction of aerial combat, and the appearance of smoke trails originating within the sky itself as aircraft burned, usually incinerating their crews before they crashed to earth, as seen in Louis Weirter’s An Aerial Fight from 1918. This is one of the first paintings showing the war in the air, with British and German biplanes fighting among smoke and scruffy clouds.
During the Battle of Britain in the Second World War, the early Surrealist artist Paul Nash recognised the potential of smoke trails, in his painting of the Battle of Britain from 1941. He increases the distance from this air war by emphasising the forms and patterns made in the sky, and by making his view from high above the ground. This doesn’t make it more abstract, but detaches the story of the battle from the people involved.
From the end of June 1940 for four months, the German Luftwaffe (Air Force) and the British Royal Air Force fought a succession of intense air battles over the UK, mainly the south and east coastal areas. This startling distant view incorporates many elements of air warfare, including vapour trails (contrails), smoke marking the spin and crash of a downed aircraft, formation flight, and defensive airships. Below this action are the low hills, estuary, and a winding river typical of much of the English south coast.
Smoke has long been associated with many industries, and paintings showing the growth and incursion of mines and factories during the nineteenth century frequently use smoke to great effect.
Among the forerunners is Philip James de Loutherbourg’s awesome vision of Coalbrookdale by Night from 1801. Here is the round-the-clock labour of the furnaces sweating out iron for industry and construction. Its clouds of smoke are lit by the furnaces, with white-hot spoil and smut rising into the night. A team of horses draws finished castings away from the site, towards the viewer, as boys watch from amid the debris. Here is a new sub-genre, the industrial landscape, and a glimpse into the fires not of some spiritual hell, but the hell of humans, toiling on earth, in a small, previously rural and wooded valley in Shropshire, England.
JMW Turner painted this too, in more Romantic style, in his Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight from 1835, where the smoke is diluted by the beauty of natural light over the River Tyne at the town of Shields, part of the Newcastle-upon-Tyne conurbation. As with Loutherbourg’s iron, Turner’s coal isn’t destined for local consumption, but was being transferred to ships to carry down to make smoke in London.
Smoke became a not infrequent feature of Impressionist paintings, including the work which is sometimes credited as inspiring the name of the movement, Monet’s Impression, Sunrise (1872). Like Turner’s colliers on the Tyne, Monet’s image of dawn over the port of Le Havre is deeply Romantic.
Not so the many smoky views of the Borinage mining area in the Belgian province of Hainault painted by Constantin Meunier. His undated Black Country – Borinage shows the area in which Vincent van Gogh lived between 1878-80, then one of the major coal mining areas in Europe. The tower at the left is the pit head, where trucks of freshly-cut coal were brought to the surface.
Frits Thaulow’s The Smoke from 1898 is also very different from Monet’s, its view overwhelmed by the smoke, with houses crammed up against the factory walls. His water surface is also grimy and lacks the artist’s distinctive intricate reflections.
The Pile Drivers (1902-3) is one of Maximilien Luce’s explorations of the working life of the common man in Paris. Construction work in the French capital continued to be very active in the early twentieth century, and Luce painted its many different facets. The factories on the opposite bank have infiltrated surrounding residential and commercial districts, only to fill the air with plumes of smoke.
With the decline of sailing ships in the early twentieth century, it took the Post-Impressionist painter Paul Signac to demonstrate how already smoky cities had gained another source of atmospheric pollution in the form of their steam replacements, here in the port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands.
The New World wasn’t spared either. This pastel painting by Joseph Stella shows the city of Bethlehem, in Pennsylvania, in about 1918, when it was the centre of the North American steel industry.