It’s been a wild week here at Chez Lunday. On Tuesday I was sitting at my desk when I noticed the tornado sirens going off. Now, they test the sirens the first Wednesday of the month at 1:00, and my brain automatically thought, “There goes the siren test.” Then some other part of my brain popped up to nervously remind me that a) it wasn’t Wednesday and b) it wasn’t 1:00.

I have no reason to bemoan the next few hours–we got nothing more than heavy rain at my house. Spring storms wreak havoc across a large scale, but they’re also capricious and hyper-local. Nothing particularly scary got within miles of me and mine.

Nevertheless, it’s nerve-wracking. I had this totally irrational urge to go get my son from school and lie on top of him in the bathtub, even though he’s far safer at school, a big concrete building, than in our frame house, and certainly safer anywhere inside than driving around the neighborhood with me.

But the whole atmosphere stirs up memories. Everyone who lives in Texas for any length of time has an experience with a spring storm burned into his or her brain. I vividly recall standing in the courtyard of my office building in Austin watching the wall cloud move south. It was still, hot, and the sky was pea-green–a shade that only comes in tornado weather and instantly sets off alarms the next time you see it. (The sky was that color Tuesday.) That day in Austin, we knew the storm was coming and went outside to watch it for a few minutes before it arrived. We then went back in, I remember reading a book on learning HTML (it was the 90s) in my office with one ear listening for the rain to start. Then the power went out and we all hunkered down in an inside hallway. That was the day that an F5 tornado destroyed Jarrell, Texas, a storm so bad that when emergency vehicles reached the path of the storm nothing was there. No houses. No trees. No roads. The wind had lifted the asphalt and concrete off the ground; the grass and dirt were gone down to 18 inches. A co-worker had a friend who lived there; his entire family of five simply–vanished.

So yeah, when the sky turns green, my instincts tell me to lie on top of my son in the bathtub with a mattress over our heads.

Today, my friends, it is 68, sunny and simply stunning, and I’m meeting a friend for lunch on a patio. This is why we live here. The storms, alas, are what we pay for it.

As I tweeted about the weather (because it’s 2012), an online friend popped up with a great question: “How have storms been treated in the history of art, I wonder?” Timely! So let’s find out.

The answer: sometimes not well at all!

Pierre August Cot, "The Storm," 1880

Pierre August Cot, "The Storm," 1880

Cute, huh? And not particularly realistic. But pretty. Cot was a French Academic, very popular, very fond of women in diaphanous gowns. This is at the Met, and it’s got the brittle charm that you find in Academic art of this era.

Let’s back up a little. Some of the earliest depictions of storms in Western art are found in paintings of Christ calming the waters, a popular Biblical story. I like this version, from a manuscript:

"Storm on the Sea," Hitda Codex, ca. 1000-1020

"Storm on the Sea," Hitda Codex, ca. 1000-1020

You may remember from the story that Jesus fell asleep in the boat and didn’t wake even though a storm was raging. The terrified disciples–an they look pretty freaked out here!–go and wake him. He reproached them for their lack of faith and stills the storm. I think it’s fascinating that the boat looks (to me, at least) like a Viking warship, which were very much rampaging Europe in the 11th century. The Hitda Codex was created in Germany, which suffered greatly.

Beyond that, most artists weren’t particularly interested in painting the weather. Renaissance and Baroque painters stuck to sunny skies. Rembrandt, of course, is the exception to every rule, and did this landscape under a stormy sky:

Rembrandt van Rijn, "Stormy Landscape," 1638

Rembrandt van Rijn, "Stormy Landscape," 1638

Ominous. I’d like to see it person–I couldn’t find a very large version online, but I’d be curious to take a look at the details of the town and figures.

Beyond that, you don’t see much weather painting until you get to the 1800s and artists who were interested in depicting the atmosphere in all of its mood. J. M.W. Turner painted some magnificent storm paintings:

J.M.W. Turner, "Snow Storm - Steamboat Off a Harbor's Mouth," 1842

J.M.W. Turner, "Snow Storm - Steamboat Off a Harbor's Mouth," 1842

I do not want to be on that boat. I love how you can’t tell where the sea ends and the snow begins–it would be like that, wouldn’t it?

Jean-Francois Millet, "The Gust of Wind," ca.1865-70

Jean-Francois Millet, "The Gust of Wind," ca.1865-70

This is Millet, from a few decades later. Now that’s serious wind. You can drive through south Arlington right now and see trees to which that happened. I like the detail of the waves on the pond in the foreground and the birds high in the sky.

Corot did a painting on the same subject at the same time:

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, "The Gust of Wind," ca. 1875-80

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, "The Gust of Wind," ca. 1875-80

That poor figure needs to hurry up! I don’t know as much as I should about Corot and Millet, but I know they knew one another well, worked together and lived near one another for a time. I don’t know if there’s any significance to them both painting this subject at the same time, however. Certainly they were both interested in painting landscapes and natural phenomena.

Vincent Van Gogh, "Rain - Auvers," 1890

Vincent Van Gogh, "Rain - Auvers," 1890

This is one of the most curious of rain paintings, but the always curious Van Gogh. It’s the only work that I’ve found that makes me feel like I’m actually in the rain. Van Gogh made those vertical strokes right across the painting, streaking across your field of vision, and suddenly you’re in the rain. It’s wrong, of course–we don’t see rain as vertical streaks–but it’s right, and immediate, and powerful. I find it fascinating that he couldn’t tone down his palette even for a rain scene. Those yellows and blues are just as glowing as they would have been in full sun; surely in rain we would see them as duller, grayer. But Vincent didn’t do gray.

Winslow Homer, "The Coming Storm, " 1901

Winslow Homer, "The Coming Storm, " 1901

Crossing the Atlantic, we find this magnificent Homer that uses the watercolor medium so incredibly well. The tree is bent before the wind and the sea is changing color as the rain pounds down. That black cloud is scary stuff.

Finally, the most apropos painting for the day–and one worth some study:

John Steuart Curry, "Tornado over Kansas," 1929

John Steuart Curry, "Tornado over Kansas," 1929

It’s probably not surprising that there aren’t many paintings of tornados. They’re a highly regional phenomenon, after all. So it took a Regionalist to finally paint one. Curry was a native Kansan and used his home state as his subject. Any Kansas family would any sense would have a storm cellar–and you would know this if you’ve seen “The Wizard of Oz.” The details are fantastic–the frantic rush, the baby in the blanket, the older son trying to carry an armful of wiggling puppies as the mama dog dances at his feet, the younger son trying to keep hold of the black cat, who tries to leap away. The chicken, of course, looks unperturbed. The horses are panicking in the background, but you can’t save your horses when you’re desperately trying to save your family–a hard reality on a farm. You can almost hear the father, with that muscled, tanned arm, shouting “Forget about the damn cat! Get in the cellar, NOW”

And look at the sky. You know how I talk about the sky turning green? Curry got it right. It’s a color you never forget.

I hope this family made it. I hope the horse and the chicken and the cat made it.

What’s really remarkable about Tuesday’s storms is that no one died. I was watching TV when a half-mile wide tornado blazed through a subdivision. I saw it when the wind flipped tractor-trailers in the air like matchsticks. The whole time I was thinking, “People are dying there. Right now, people are dying.”

But no one did. Some people were injured, a few seriously. The property damage, of course, is bad bad bad. Some people’s lives will never be the same. But no one died.

And for that we must all be thankful. Because, as Curry knew, that isn’t always the case.


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