I finally made the trek to the Huntington Library today, as Michele had a school assignment related to the Constable show that’s on view now. More about the whole place later, with pictures, gripes, impressions and other whatnot. Now is about Joseph Wright of Derby’s awesomely cool painting Vesuvius from Portici. I’m going to go on about it for a bit, so it might as well have its own post.
I have little to no scholarly knowledge or anything more than a general interest in pre-contemporary English painting. Sure, I’m familiar with it, but it’s usually not a body of work that really turns my crank. So the painting in question and Joseph Wright existed totally outside of my knowledge until earlier today.
Normally, I’m not really one to dwell on my first impression of a single piece unless it’s work that I’m actively curating or have some personal involvement with. Encountering Vesuvius was different. Midway through a longish tour of the Huntington, seeing a lot of landscape and portrait work, much of which is pretty dry and distant from my experience, entering the room and turning right elicited only one thought from me “What’s up with the painting of Mount Doom?” (It’s easy to see why I had the reaction – compare Vesuvius with this still from the Lord of the Rings film. That vertical plume of lava is probably the key trigger to the comparison.
It was like coming upon a whale in the desert. It’s so completely out of the context of the collection that its presence seemed immediately suspicious and bizarre, and I immediately responded to it.
above – Well, that’s it in its entirety. The color is much truer in the detail shot below, I had a lot of trouble getting good colour on some of my images from the Huntington – something in the lights just wasn’t cooperating. The painting has a sort of “fantasy illustration”/Boris Vallejo quality that totally separates it from other paintings in its era. Imagine how lucky you are – you’re Joseph Wright, obsessed with light and chiaroscuro, witnessing Mount Vesuvius in almost constant activity on a trip to Naples. Putting myself in his shoes, I can only imagine that while in that environment, this subject could become one’s sole fixation, a unique opportunity. This is in an era before photographs, moving or still – an event like this can only be directly experienced – no lifetime of watching silver bunny suited scientists mill about at the hell-on-earth landscape rim of volcanoes, on the Discovery Channel.
I’m always envious of pre-photographic society. I don’t think we have the same access to the wellspring of desire that drove men to cross oceans, hack their way through jungles or otherwise directly experience things utterly alien to their context. On one hand that kind of activity – adventure, the uncertainty and danger of travel – must have been a relatively common experience. On the other hand, today far more people probably travel far further and see images and film from further still, but the context of that activity is far removed from the “unknown” that really was out there, probably less than one hundred or so years ago. Far more people strutted out into the unknown or the foreign two or three centuries ago than do so today, despite the ready availability of cheap and fast travel, and the secondary experience of our media. The opportunity no longer exists in the same way – the world is too connected, and too understood – wonder itself has changed and become more rare. Unless you’re an astronaut or work for National Geographic, you’re not really in a position to access the same kind of uncertainty that Wright and other travelers were in their era.
As noticed in the painting’s label, Mount Vesuvius is portrayed in the “far distance”, which gives you an idea of how it dominates and contextualizes the whole region around itself, becoming the center of attention. Although the volcano was in a constant state of activity at the time of his visit, Wright never saw anything close to this scene. It’s a fantasy – it’s the dream of a volcano. I’ve seen films of volcanoes erupting, and this is far more dramatic than anything I’ve seen, but it’s how I imagine a volcano to look. In this painting, Mount Vesuvius embodies the total symbolic weight of a volcano. Uncontrollable, mysterious and alien, it’s a reminder of the limits of our understanding and of our power over nature.
One of the details of this painting that I really appreciate, from both a technical and a visual standpoint is the rising moon. I love how he handles the interaction between the soft, familiar light of the moon and the electric, alien light of the eruption. The inclusion of the moon also makes a bit of a comparative statement. I spend a fair amount of time looking at the moon when I have the opportunity. The moon has a kind of magic quality that puts one in touch with the entire history of moon-gazers when looked upon. Here the moon is displaced from its center in the night sky by an eruption. The eruption not only alters and dominates the landscape, it’s legacy of fire and ash destined to permanently alter its surroundings, but it dominates and transforms the night sky as well. Wright really captures the enveloping quality of a natural disaster – the eruption of Mount Vesuvius affects everything it touches, land and sky.
The fact that it’s the Pompeii destroying Vesuvius just adds to the weight of the painting. This painting was painted between 1774 and 1776, only three decades after the discovery of the buried Herculaneum and Pompeii. I imagine that any interested traveler of a scientific bent, as Wright was, would be well aware of the massive destructive potential of Mount Vesuvius, and that awareness must have informed the drama of this painting. It’s not just rooted in artistic fantasy sparked by a smoking mountain, this painting’s narrative weight is likely rooted in the busy imagination of a world awakening to the scientific method, with archeology still in its clumsy infancy.
above – Closeup of the eruption and Mount Vesuvius. The color in this shot is very true to the real painting. Time has made the painting a little “dry”, but the eruption and the frenzy of shadows and light around it look amazing after over two centuries. This is the “action area” of the painting. Looking at this painting, my eyes can’t take themselves away from this center section. It’s only the amazing management of the border between the brilliant light of the center of this painting and the night sky and landscape surrounding it that allows this piece to be as good as it is. If you look closely at this piece, especially at full zoom, you can see these tiny little flakes of falling ash that bring the viewer into the painting. Although the actual volcano is miles away from the vantage point of this painting, the viewer is amidst the falling ash. Wright places the viewer within the physical presence of the volcano’s eruption by placing the in near physical contact with its effects, something rarely, if ever, achieved in the landscape paintings of his day.
In conclusion, I’m in love with this painting, and those are my discombobulated/immediate thoughts on it. I find much of English landscape painting to be almost disturbingly out of touch with reality as I know it. Besides being incredibly well executed and just drop dead gorgeous, this painting functions outside of that tradition, and engages the viewer – any viewer with its fantastic presentation of the power of nature. Vesuvius from Portici was painted in a time of cultural and scientific revolution that changed the landscape of European powers and their colonial assets forever, a period where things which had been certain were suddenly becoming less so. The years during which this painting was worked on saw English power successfully challenged by its own subjects in America, the coronation of Louis VXI, who would be the last king of France, the invention of James Watt’s steam engine and the last official execution for witchcraft. It’s easy for me to see the sudden and violent eruption of Mount Vesuvius as portrayed in this painting as an allegory for the turbulence of the time. While Joseph Wright, lacking historical hindsight, may not have had real awareness of the significance of those events, it’s interesting to imagine this painting as infected by the spirit of his era, as well as a fantastic elaboration following the observation of an amazing natural event.