It’s that time of year, with ‘February Fill-Dyke’ fast approaching, that we’re getting used to rain. And more rain. Drizzle, showers, downpours, mizzle, stair-rods – over the winter we get the lot, sometimes all in the same day. This weekend’s pair of articles ‘celebrates’ paintings not of distant showers (if only they did keep their distance), but of actually being in the rain. Have your mac at the ready.
Painting in the rain is quite a challenge to the artist. In a studio, of course, it’s hard to observe the subtle effects that falling rain has on the world around us, and trying to paint when both you and your work are getting wet is not just unpleasant, but was claimed to be the death of several artists, including Paul Cézanne.
We’ve become used to graphic artists depicting rain with oblique streaks descending down the image, as used so effectively by Jan van der Straet in this engraving for the Third Circle of Dante’s Inferno. This shows The Gluttons (1587) suffering pouring rain, snow and huge hailstones. Even Cerberus, the fearsome three-headed canine monster which guards this circle, is soaked by the unceasing rain. But in paintings, such rain streaks didn’t appear until relatively recently, as far as I can see.
It took Turner’s impressions to incorporate Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway in 1844, but I don’t feel his rain running down my neck.
As far as I can see, the first faithful painted descriptions of falling rain came with the French Impressionists in the late nineteenth century. It was possibly Gustave Caillebotte who broke fresh ground in the closely-observed ripples in Rain on the Yerres (1875). This is the point at which you put your hood up or unfurl your umbrella, captured so eloquently in those carefully projected ripples.
A year later, Jean Béraud developed the theme in Leaving Montmartre Cemetery, which brought him acclaim at the Salon of 1876. This wet world is all black and grey, with the distinctive sheen of rainwater on the road and kerb in the foreground.
The following year, Caillebotte tried a similar view with what must at the time have seemed a startling three-dimensional projection. His oil study (above) for Paris, a Rainy Day from 1877 already demonstrates how the finished painting (below) will look. It is one of his masterpieces, and coincided with growth in popularity of the black umbrella.
Rain and umbrellas then became popular themes for paintings. Just before the Norwegian Naturalist Christian Krohg went to Grez-sur-Loing in France, he visited Normandy, where he painted this view of a Village Street in Normandy (1882). Its curved recession of umbrellas with disembodied legs is memorable.
Umbrellas are hardly suitable for the more severe weather on the coast of Kintyre in Scotland, where William McTaggart caught this small group sheltering from the Wind and Rain, Carradale in 1883.
Back in the Belgian winter, Guillaume Vogels chose a more distant view of Ixelles, Rainy Afternoon in about 1883.
I can’t help but think that it was Caillebotte who inspired Frederick Childe Hassam’s Rainy Day, Columbus Avenue, Boston in 1885.
There’s another more subtle phenomenon that landscape painters have observed, that rainfall in the countryside brings about an intensification of natural colour. As enthusiasm for carefully projected grey cityscapes started to fade, this came to replace them.
Not known for his landscapes, the Symbolist artist Fernand Khnopff seems to have been one of the first to record intensification of colour in his view At Fosset: Rain from 1890. He painted this at his family’s country home in the forest of the Ardennes, another region noted for its rainfall. The bright areas in the field at the lower left and the blank white wall of the building pop out so much they appear almost unnatural.
Another artist who recorded this in the same year is the American Impressionist Julian Alden Weir, in his Autumn Rain (1890).
Just a few months before, one of the most famous paintings of rain was made at Auvers in France, which I will show in the next and final article in this series.