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What the Forecaster Saw in Famous Landscapes

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An art critic for The Washington Post Philip Kennicott invited meteorologist Matthew Cappucci to comment on the paintings, in which weather phenomena are more significant than a simple background or decorative element.
What the Forecaster Saw in Famous Landscapes
Some images are meteorologically questionable. For example, Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night Over the Rhone (1888) combines the play of light from gas lanterns reflected in the water and a sky full of shining stars. This creates a feeling of loneliness and delight at night. But some of the details don’t make sense. The city view in the background is too clear and detailed, which means there is not enough moisture in the air for the beautiful halos that surround the stars. "It seems that he tried to combine two different scenes in one picture — on the ground and in the clouds," says Matthew Capucci. But, on the other hand, contradictions or uncertainties lead to a deeper understanding of the artist’s intentions. Here are a few things that, perhaps, only a professional meteorologist can notice.

Hendrick Avercamp, Ice Scene (c. 1625)

The Dutchman Hendrick Avercamp was one of the first Western artists to paint winter landscapes. His paintings often feature a special grey light as the sun struggles to break through the clouds and the horizon is lost in a haze. The Avercamp’s ice-covered pond is a social space, and he portrays winter as a social phenomenon that affects not only work, but also clothing, fashion, games, and even romantic relationships.

The painting was painted in the first half of the 17th century, during the Little Ice Age. Winters were harsh back then, and the climate had a significant impact on agriculture, followed by culture and politics.

Matthew Capucci (in the photo) says: "I see the first breath of spring. Of course it’s still cold, t

Matthew Capucci (in the photo) says: "I see the first breath of spring. Of course it’s still cold, the ice is thick enough to hold the horse. But it is slightly hazy with all shades of grey, and some details in the background are slightly distorted. This makes me think there is a little more moisture in the air than there was at that time in winter. So this is probably the end of February — the beginning of March, that first thaw, when the ice is still there, but the heat from the south raises the moisture level. Cold ice comes into contact with it, causing condensation, so a haze forms at the surface. The clouds are not too high — they are not thunderclouds, but the shallow layer that forms with the first warm breeze of spring. The Little Ice Age was especially difficult for Europe, but it seems to me that the artist wanted to show the opposite. People look so energetic, there is a hint of warmth. Maybe he’s trying to portray a ray of hope?"

Katsushika Hokusai, Mitsui Shop at Surugachō in Edo (c. 1830)

This image of Mount Fuji was taken between 1830 and 1832. A characteristic peak can be seen in the distance behind a small store, which became the ancestor of one of the largest modern corporations in Japan. The engraving
Along with monotypy, lithography belongs to the group of flat printing techniques, but this is where their similarities seem to end. Lithography appeared in 1796 or 1798, thanks to Johann Alois Senefelder, a typographer from Munich. Initially, they took an imprint from a drawing on a stone slab, usually limestone, which gave the name for the method (ancient Greek λίθος “stone” + γράφω “I write, draw”). Nowadays, instead of lithographic stone, zinc or aluminum plates are used, which are easier to process. Read more
is part of the Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji series, one of the most popular ones by Katsushika Hokusai. In this cycle, the iconic mountain was the starting point and backdrop for depicting details of everyday life, social customs and the natural world.

Hokusai created these prints around the time when the price of the rich, vibrant blue pigment was falling and it was becoming more accessible to Japanese artists. In this work, colour is important for conveying the feeling of good weather — along with the nice breeze that keeps the kites in the sky. Sometimes a new material or technique not only helps the artist portray what he sees, but literally helps the vision process. When you fall in love with a certain shade of blue, you suddenly notice clear weather.

Katsushika Hokusai. A sketch of the Mitsui shop in Suruga street in Edo
Matthew Capucci says: "If this is Edo or modern Tokyo, then the north is on the right, and the wind is blowing from that direction. It makes sense: there is more snow on the northwest side of Mount Fuji, and less snow on the south, on the left. With the kites hovering from right to left, it looks like a cold front is just approaching. And this whitish sky may not be a haze, but distant thunderclouds moving across the sea. This means that the cold front is located slightly south of Japan, in the East China Sea, possibly near Taiwan. I would venture to suggest that this is the so-called Meiyu Front — a semi-permanent front, which often carries cloudy weather and heavy showers. Perhaps such phenomena can be observed in the south of Japan, behind the front that goes across the coast, in the bay."

Claude Joseph Vernet, The Shipwreck (1772)

This is one of a pair of paintings by the French artist Claude-Joseph Vernet (1714−1789), which depict raging scenes of the power and beauty of nature. In The Shipwreck, we see the power of the sublime — an overwhelming energy and power that threatens to defeat human resistance or reason. From a philosophical point of view, it is not a shipwreck that is important here, but disembarkation and movement forward. Vernet truly captured human emotions from the storm. However, it is difficult to take lightning in the background seriously. It looks like a geometric trace from a cartoon arrow thrown by God, and not a natural electrical discharge.
Matthew Capucci says: "Looks like lightning is targeting people on the ship. It is also difficult to say what kind of light is in the background, whether it is sunlight or a reflection of lightning. We see the coastline, distant cityscape and illuminated rock formations in the background; dim beams seem to be shining through the clouds. The artist was clearly trying to portray lightning, but it is not the correct colour. If you remove it, you get a completely believable sunset. This is a strange combination of fearful foreboding and peace."

John Constable, View of Salisbury Cathedral (1820)

John Constable did not paint Salisbury Cathedral as obsessively as Hokusai painted Mount Fuji. But he portrayed it in several important works under different atmospheric conditions. One of the most dramatic scenes is sometimes interpreted as an artist’s commentary on religious controversy in England in the early 19th century. In the same picture, the temple is not the central figure. In fact, anyone who has ever tried to photograph this monumental object knows that in order for the entire cathedral to fit into the frame
It has always been important for artists and art collectors how to frame their works of art. We can paraphrase Shakespeare and say,

“What’s in a frame? That which we call a picture
In an improper frame will look less nice.”

Or, perhaps, the picture’s message will be obscured by too ornate or too plain framing. Here, we present a retrospective journey into the history of framing and its evolution, with illustrations and an expert’s commentary. Read more
, you need to move far enough away — and the sky will dominate. Unlike weather as a social phenomenon in works by Averkamp or psychological experience in Vernet’s art, here we simply have the weather and its optical perception.
Matthew Capucci says: "The sky is not dark and the clouds are not too high, which makes me think that there is not much convection in the atmosphere. Looking at how wide these puffy clouds spread, I could guess one of two things. The first is that there was a slight morning fog near the surface, which disappeared later, so these big clouds appeared. However, it is difficult to know if it is morning or afternoon. The grass does not look wet or shiny, so it may have been a few hours and the moisture has dried. Second, it can be the sky after a thunderstorm. Look, it’s a little lighter above the spire and a little darker in the clouds above. It could be a distant thunderstorm or one of those cumulus clouds that catch daylight. But I would venture to say that this is still the first option, with morning fog. In any case, I’m impressed by how calm the light seems to be here. I have not seen another picture that would cause me the same feelings as this one."
Based on materials of The Washington Post