Sunday, August 06, 2006

Hurricane before Saint Malo

The BBC website has an enjoyable virtual exhibition, ‘Painting the Weather’, with an audio tour in which you can hear the soothingly authoritative voice of Neil MacGregor describing some of the pictures. However, the site also has some no-nonsense comments by weather forecaster, Bill Giles, which are well worth a listen. Looking at Canaletto’s Old Walton Bridge Over the Thames (1754), for example, Giles imagines himself there with his family, forecasting a rain shower on the evidence of the cloud pattern above the bridge. Whistler’s Green and Silver: The Great Sea (1899) reminds him of winter walks after a big Sunday lunch. Sometimes he is a doubtful about the artists’ meteorological accuracy: Louis-Gabriel-Eugène Sabey’s Hurricane before Saint Malo (1860) actually shows a storm giving “hurricane force winds” rather than an actual hurricane (these tropical revolving storms not being found off the Brittany coast).

My favourite Bill Giles contribution is his analysis of Courbet’s L’Eternité (c1865). This painting is described on the site as ‘intense and melancholy… painted over a dark ground (or underlayer) which explains its sombre tone; as Courbet himself said: ‘Nature without the sun is also dark and black. I do as the light does, I illuminate the parts that project and the picture is done’. The title (Eternity) draws our attention to the vast expanse of sea and sky, its timelessness and our own relative inconsequence.’ In splendid contrast, here’s how Bill Giles describes this brooding seascape.

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