Friday, 16 April 2010

You too can paint a Turner Sunset...

The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire
JMW Turner - exhibited 1817
Tate Britain

...or at least you can if you live in the UK and Northern Europe due to the eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull!

The nature of the sunsets in the next few days should be "good" ie much influenced by the volcanic ash in the ash plume which is tracking its way from Iceland across the UK and on into northern Europe.

What you can see below is the estimated areas being affected by the ash plume from the Met Office's Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre in London (What do you mean you didn't know we had one of those? ;) )

This is an article Volcano's Eruption Colors World's Sunsets which explains why volcanic ash colours sunsets

Turner painted his sunsets after the ash plume caused by a succession of major volcanic eruptions leading to the Mount Tambora eruption of 1815, which was the largest known eruption in over 1,600 years. This turned 1816 turned into the year without a summer as the volcanic ash travelled around the earth.

Interestingly what I noticed when going through the catalogue of Turner's works for 1815-1818 was how few paintings he painted in 1816 other than some very big 'set pieces' which go with the painting at the top of this post.

Maybe the explanation can be found in his journals?

In Andrew Wilton's book about Turner (Turner in His Time, Revised and Updated Edition) he quotes Turner as writing in a letter dated 11 September 1816
As to the weather, there is nothing inviting it must be confessed. Rain, Rain, Rain, day after day. Italy deluged. Switzerland as wash-pot. All chance of getting over the Simplon or any of the passes now vanished like the morning mist.
However matters got more interesting when I looked at the sketchbooks.

This is a link to Turner's Skies Sketchbook of 1816 - after the eruption and the volcanic ash plume were making themselves felt in Europe. If you keep looking, in amongst the studies of clouds, the deep orange sunsets keep popping up.

and finally....

Back in 2008, the Guardian had an article about How old masters are helping study of global warming which says

The team found 181 artists who had painted sunsets between 1500 and 1900. The 554 pictures included works by Rubens, Rembrandt, Gainsborough and Hogarth. They used a computer to work out the relative amounts of red and green in each picture, along the horizon. Sunlight scattered by airborne particles appears more red than green, so the reddest sunsets indicate the dirtiest skies. The researchers found most pictures with the highest red/green ratios were painted in the three years following a documented eruption. There were 54 of these "volcanic sunset" pictures.

Prof Zerefos said five artists had lived at the right time to paint sunsets before, during and after eruptions. Turner witnessed the effects of three: Tambora in 1815; Babuyan, Philippines in 1831, and Cosiguina, Nicaragua, in 1835. In each case the scientists found a sharp change in the red/green ratio of the sunsets he painted up to three years afterwards.

Links: J.M.W. Turner - Resources for Art Lovers


Marie Theron said...

Katherine,thank you!I have read this article several times as this is such exciting and new art-historical information for me. I have been collecting notes on instances where artists mirrored the times they lived in, like Surrealism and Dada which reflected the theories of Freud with their automatism, dream world paintings,etc.

Robyn Sinclair said...

That's really interesting. Great research, thank you.

Jan Blencowe said...

Katherine this was fascinating! Thank you so much for the great research and links.

I just hope 2010 doesn't become a "year without summer" because of the eruption.

I'm hoping some of my artist friends in the UK do indeed capture some amazing sunsets in plein air paintings or photos, really looking forward to seeing that!

Katherine Kean said...

Wonderful post, I'm so fascinated by meteorology and geology and the intersection with art. I think it's interesting that the eruption could cool the earth if it lasts long enough, not to mention the effect of grounding all the airplanes.

Does anybody else think the areas indicated as affected by ash on the map looks like shoes?

Debbie Drechsler said...

What a fascinating article, Katherine! Thank you!


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