In the first of these two articles, I looked at smoke in paintings of fires, disasters, wars, and industry. This article looks at its more subtle associations in art, in which the significance, even meaning, of the smoke is important in reading.
Smoke, being hot air containing particles emanating from fire, is lighter than surrounding air, and normally rises. As it rises, its position gives us a good indication of the movement of the air – whether it is calm, or windy.
The great French landscape painter Nicolas Poussin uses the vertical rise of smoke as a means of telling the viewer that this is a Landscape with a Calm, as shown in the detail below.
Another example is Millet’s Man with a Hoe from about 1860-62. This full length portrait of an agricultural labourer shows him leaning on his mattock after breaking up the heavy and stony soil, presumably to ready it for a crop such as potatoes. He has clearly been swinging the short haft of the mattock for much of the day, its weight suspended from his bent back. You can almost feel his back pain as he tries to find some comfort in this momentary break. In the distance there are bonfires burning on the plain, their smoke rising languidly into the sky in the calm which deprives him of any cooling breeze during his labour.
When rising smoke is blown almost horizontally, this is one of the clues which tells the viewer that it is windy.
Although trees are a help when depicting wind, Daubigny’s undated October, in which the few trees are too distant to help, manages very well with the tell-tale smoke rising from burning stubble.
Once steamships were becoming more commonplace, their smoke became an obvious indication of the strength of the wind, as used by Winslow Homer in his watercolour A Fresh Breeze from about 1881. He painted this when he was working in the coastal village of Cullercoats in the north-east of England, a formative period in his career.
Trying to convince the viewer of searing hot wind without the involvement of figures is far harder. Charles Conder, the Australian Impressionist, succeeds in his Hot Wind (1889), using only simple if unusual objects, including the smoke being generated from this small tripod incense burner.
That takes us to another of the more subtle associations of smoke, in the burning of incense and other substances as part of a religious, mystic or magic ceremony.
In John Singer Sargent’s Smoke of Ambergris, completed, exhibited at the Salon, and sold all in 1880, the smoke in question is that of a waxy substance apparently extracted from whales, used in religious ceremonies, and believed to be an aphrodisiac. Sargent started this painting when he was visiting Tangier in the winter of 1879-80, and completed it in his Paris studio. Although it uses authentic costume, the scene is thought to be fictional.
Magic smoke self-organises into genies and other apparitions, as is starting to happen in John William Waterhouse’s Magic Circle from 1886. His barefoot sorceress is drawing a blazing circle in the dust around her, as the smoke and steam rises vertically. In her left hand she holds a golden sickle. Outside her magic circle are half a dozen ravens or crows spectating, perhaps waiting to be turned back into humans.
This association with magic could also be more worrying. The best example here is the myth of Pandora and her vase or jar, first recorded in Hesiod’s Works and Days, and later mistranslated to become a box instead. This jar, containing sickness, death, and the evils of the world, had been entrusted to Epimetheus, but Pandora decided to open it. When those evils were released, she tried to close it again, but by that time the only thing left in it was hope.
Henry Howard keeps close to Hesiod’s original in The Opening of Pandora’s Vase from 1834. Pandora crouches to duck the plume of woe, evil and pain which streams upwards from the jar, as Epimetheus tries in vain to reseal its lid. The smoke contains vague forms representing the daemons it contains.
The use of coloured smoke to represent the woes from the jar remained popular among painters, and is seen in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s first painting of Pandora, completed in 1871, as modelled by Jane Morris. She has just cracked open the lid of the jewelled casket held in her left hand, and it emits a stream of noxious red smoke. As this coils around her head winged figures appear in the fumes.
This was one of Rossetti’s earlier paintings of Jane Morris, the wife of his friend William Morris, and the subject of Rossetti’s late passionate obsession. Rossetti’s source for the story of Pandora was most probably Lemprière’s dictionary of classical mythology, which erroneously referred to Pandora’s box, rather than the more traditional jar. The inscription on the side of the jewel casket reads “Nascitur ignescitur”, meaning born of flames, another reference to smoke.
Although I haven’t touched upon paintings about or including the smoking of tobacco, an extensive field to itself, I end with two works in which tobacco smoke determines the whole atmosphere of the scene.
Jean-Eugène Buland’s Le Tripot (The Dive) from 1883 is one of my favourite paintings of the nineteenth century. Set in a seedy, downmarket gambling den, it is a group portrait of five hardened gamblers at their table. Each is rich in character, and makes you wonder how they came to be there. A little old widow at the left, for example, looks completely out of place, but is resolutely staking her money. Looking over her shoulder is a man, whose face is partially obscured. Is he, perhaps, a son, or a debtor?
A young spiv at the far right is down to his last couple of silver coins, and looks about to lose them too. The air is thick with smoke, the walls in need of redecoration, and a pair of young streetwalkers prowl behind them, looking for a winner who will spend some of their cash on them.
Anna Palm de Rosa’s painting of A game of L’hombre in Brøndum’s Hotel from 1885 shows a late-night session of the popular card-game between two couples staying at this hotel in Skagen, the remote fishing village which at the time was the summer home of the Danish (and other Nordic) Impressionists. This time, there’s no seediness, just the intense concentration of four people playing cards into the small hours of the morning.
A far cry from Poussin’s calm.