What can volcanoes signify in art? Sometimes the aim is just to show volcanoes informatively, some artists want to explore their cultural significance, whilst on some occasions they’ve even been used symbolically. Volcanoes aren’t always just there to look spectacular – delve into their deeper meanings, and you might never look at them in the same way again…
The majestic grandeur of volcanoes and the destructive power of their eruptions have long made them a fascinating subject for artists. This was especially true in the 18th and 19th centuries when the growing popularity of landscape painting meant that artists increasingly turned their attention to the natural world. Volcanoes could, however, be depicted in very different ways that reflected the interests of different artists and cultures.
Some painters adopted a scientific view, seeking to depict volcanoes and their environment as accurately and as informatively as possible. The German explorer and leading naturalist Alexander von Humboldt was one such. He travelled extensively in the Americas between 1799 and 1804 recording the geographical features and the flora and fauna of the continent. His engraving of Ecuador’s famous Chimborazo volcano (Fig. 1), which appeared in a book published after his return to Europe, shows clearly both the form of the mountain and the ecology of its surroundings. It also shows Humboldt himself and his traveling companions – a kind of early ‘selfie’ – as well as some of the indigenous people of the area. In other images von Humboldt took an even more scientific approach (Fig. 2), charting the composition of the earth’s crust in the vicinity of volcanoes and the various flora and fauna to be found on their slopes.
Others were less interested in a scientific understanding of volcanoes than in exploring their cultural significance. When the Japanese artist Hokusai created his great series of 36 woodcuts that show Mount Fuji from a range of different viewpoints – including, in the most famous of the series, from a stormy sea (Fig. 3) – the volcano was for him something like a sacred landmark, a constant presence that stood as the symbol of Japan’s identity. When painting the smoke that sometimes rose from the volcano’s summit (Fig. 4), Hokusai tied this natural phenomenon to the dragon that figured so prominently in the legends of his homeland.
Perhaps the most often pictured volcano in the world is Italy’s Vesuvius, which famously buried the Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum during a catastrophic eruption in 79 CE. The volcano remained active in the modern period, erupting no fewer than six times in the 18th century and again in the 19th. Tourists flocked to view the spectacle of its lava flows and ash clouds, among them the British artist Joseph Wright of Derby. He did not, in fact, witness an eruption, but he allowed himself to imagine the volcano’s destructive power in a painting after his return to England (Fig. 5). The fiery glow of the lava stands out against the dark clouds and night sky, whilst in the foreground two figures carry away a lifeless body, presumably overcome by the volcano’s noxious fumes. Wright’s image aligns itself with the Romantic poets’ fascination with the sublime power of nature, as does J. M. W. Turner’s dramatic vision of an incandescent eruption that threatens to overwhelm the diminutive figures who stand in awe before its power (Fig. 6). Turner’s contemporary John Martin also conjured an apocalyptic vision of Vesuvius’s devastating force, but here the scene he imagines is historical: the terrified figures in the foreground are ancient Romans fleeing the 79 CE eruption (Fig. 7).
Vesuvius’s eruptions were so well known in the period that the volcano could be used as a symbol of wider cultural and historical events. The French printmaker Auguste Desperret used the volcano to capture what he felt to be the irresistible power of the common people which would, he declared, soon erupt again in a repeat of the 1789 Revolution’s search for ‘liberté’ (Fig. 8). In a calmer image the American painter Robert S. Duncanson meditated on the impermanence even of man’s grandest ventures: Vesuvius, for the moment dormant, provides the backdrop to the ruins of Pompeii, the great town that had nearly two millennia earlier been laid waste by nature.
The 79 CE eruption of Vesuvius provides the subject for another European painting, this one perhaps the most interesting of all. Angelica Kauffmann’s image shows Pliny the Younger, the Roman writer who penned a detailed account of the volcano’s eruption which he witnessed first-hand, being urged to beat a hasty retreat instead of recording the event (Fig. 10). Even as he writes, his uncle, Pliny the Elder, is sailing towards Vesuvius and will die attempting to save a friend. The painting poses the question: how should one respond to the eruption? Should one watch from afar, fascinated – which is how Wright of Derby, Turner, and Martin’s pictures seem to ask the viewer to respond – or should one see the volcano not as an intriguing spectacle but as a real life event that demands action?
Professor Alastair Wright teaches modern art and visual culture within the History of Art course at Oxford. Alastair regularly leads visits to collections in Oxford and beyond, having curated museums himself, and encourages students to engage closely with works of art in his teaching practice.