Wanted: A Brief Art History of Rain


Granted, there are many pressing questions worth being answered first, but right now I’m just sitting here wondering about Rain in Art. When & where & why has it first been represented? Isn’t there some famous Japanese print with a bridge in the rain (but when was that made?). And how often has it been raining in Western art? Not that much before the 19th century it would seem. There are violently romantic ‘storm at sea’ pictures. And Turner did do foggy & rainy things, and obviously there are impressionist paintings of Paris in the rain and of London in the fog. Simmering expressionist views of drizzly Berlin must have been painted too.
And then of course, the full potential of the urban romance of rain has been unlocked by urban photography – going from classical B&W photos ( Leonard Misonne!) to glossy pictures of all the grubby grimy glamour of shimmering neon lights reflected in wet streets.


But so, the real art-historical question: how about rain in pre-romantic, pre-modern art? Is there for instance any explicit rain to be seen in 17th century Dutch landscape and seascape paintings? Well, skies & seas & rivers can definitely look pretty rough in the most anxious pictures done by Van Ruysdael , but where’s the visibly raging rain? The splashing drops? The rainy misty shrouds? I’m not sure ...
And the Venetians then, with their Laguna-dampness .... Does rain ever finally pour down in Giorgione’s ominous Tempest?
Oh, and in medieval books of hours, with their miniatures showing the labours of the months, surely there must be a picture of poor drenched peasants toiling away in a downpour? But no, even October, November and December seem to keep it quite dry in Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry.


Um, but come to think of it, surely there will be plenty of rain in religious art! Mystical floods! The Deluge! Noah’s Ark! Hmmm ... not really, wet precipitations clearly were not a favourite pictorial theme before the Romantic age.
Though there are of course a few Nativities taking place in snow covered stables including icicles hanging down from the shabby roof. And Bruegel’s hunters were courageously (& quite prettily) trotting through deep and very white snow. But still: no rain.
There are quite some missed iconographic opportunities there methinks. How infinitely pouring rain could have added to the pathos of poor Joseph and Maria trudging on that tired donkey during their Flight to Egypt! And imagine a chilling hostile drizzle in the Garden of Olives... (now don’t tell me it hardly ever rains in Egypt or Jerusalem - painters adapted the scenes to northern tastes anyway).



And the Caravaggists, with their contrasted chiaroscuros – why did they not exploit the many pictorial delights of gleaming , splattering, refracting Rain?
Perhaps because rain back then in the old days really was nothing but a nuisance, a harbinger of miserable wetness and of fatal colds & coughs?
Perhaps one does need a sufficient measure of rainproof materials and vehicles, as well as warm housing, to appreciate the romantic and visual potential of rain?
Not to mention the lavish availability of waterproof sources of artificial light – yeah, car lamps, traffic lights and neon lights ... they do get the very best out of rain.





Notes being washed away


14 comments:

leenhuet said...

Gek genoeg zat ik me hetzelfde af te vragen over Les Très Riches Heures. Waarom regent het daar nooit? Bijvoorbeeld in de maand juli. Nu ga ik op zoek naar voorbeelden. De zondvloed is natuurlijk vaak voorgesteld, maar ook dan zien we het resultaat, niet het proces.

ffflaneur said...

Ik kijk alvast uit naar de resultaten van je opzoekingen! (en in het bijzonder naar die mbt de maand juli)

Roxana said...

wow, you know i have also pondered this, ever since i got mesmerized with Hiroshige's depictions of rain, unlike anything else i had ever seen. now i understand better why i was so amazed, because, yes, rain is not readily seen in european painting, hmmm.
and Van Gogh paints rain inspired by Hiroshige as well, no?
(maybe this is the Bridge you were searching for?)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Hiroshige_Van_Gogh_2.JPG

i also love this one:
http://japan-cc.com/images/wbu378.jpg

and it is true that Hiroshige is late as well, the 19th century, i don't know whether he is part of a traditional way of painting rain in Japan or no, we need a specialist :-)

pensum said...

Interesting. The famous japanese print you mention is by Hiroshige. Off the top of my head one of the only other painters i can think of is Georges Michel who was famous for his stormy landscapes. i believe it is said to be one of the first to paint en plein air. here's a sample. Of course the other obvious painter of storms is Turner.

pensum said...

oh and there are some fine depictions of rain in Indian classical art, such as this one of Krishna and Radha dancing in the rain.

ffflaneur said...

@ pensum - many thanks for the links! A very good start for a rain-collection. And so Hiroshige is the name (it's indeed the print I had in mind)

ffflaneur said...

ah dear Roxana - of course you would prove to be an expert in the matter! (& indeed, apparently Hiroshige is 19th Century)
mmmh, i'd forgotten about Van Gogh's fascination with japanese art - thanks for 'bridging' that gap in my memory...

That japanese evening rain print is absolutely lovely!

ffflaneur said...

@ pensum: & thanks for the Georges Michel-tip! I've been checking him out - late 18th C - early 19th C ... so a quite early rain-representative we have there!

pensum said...

the more i thought about this the more certain i became that earlier tribes and peoples must have depicted rain in petroglyphs and ritual art. i have only made a very percursory investigation, but Renaud Ego and the author of this article both seem to back up my suspicions.

oh and it seems i messed up the link to the image of Krishna and Radha dancing in the rain, which apparently comes from a 17th century illuminated manuscript, so here it is.

ffflaneur said...

interesting articles, Pensum - and indeed, in view of the importance of rain for human survival it should have turned up in ritual images - cfr this citation from the Renaud Ego article you mention: "Water is the condition of all life. In the form of rains, it marks the rhythm of the passing seasons, determines animal migrations and the blossoming of berries and citrus fruits. No society has ever been able to rid itself of meteorological fluctuations, or of the management of its water resources"
But so perhaps "rain" was too much linked with pagan rain gods to be admissible for explicit depiction in christian art?

(Luckily Google had already helped me to locate the Krishna & Radha dancing in the rain picture, but thanks for your concern!)

pensum said...

Where are those biblical deluges? that is a good question. but in the meantime it would seem that the Eastern traditions have been more enamoured with precipitation from early on. of course the rain has been used to good effect by oriental artists, as in this Korean painting from the late 12th or early 13th century. And though a later work this ink painting by Maruyama Oshin from the late 18th century is a fine example of exploiting the obscuration provided by the falling rain. While in India it seems they relate rain with joy (perhaps the fall of blessings?) as they tend to like dancing in it as in this example from about 1670.

ffflaneur said...

@ pensum thanks a lot! your japanese and korean examples indeed wonderfully render the atmospheric blur of rain (the slightly eerie stillness of it in the japanese example - and the rather hostile drenching quality of it in the picture of the poor struggling Korean riverman)
--- And the Indian dancing in the rain is a pure delight (though a delight hardly transferable to these northern climes)

Roxana said...

did you know this van Gogh painting? the text about it is interesting as it insists on the Japanese influence on van Gogh's style of depicting the rain.

http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/82820.html

ffflaneur said...

thanks a lot, R! another nice contribution to the art history of rain!