Almost everyone has a story to tell about being caught in a storm, and accounts of storms are as variable as the people who recall them. My own earliest memory of a storm goes back to the 1938 hurricane that devastated much of the New England coast. I was then 10 years old, living in my family’s house in Gloucester, Mass., on Cape Ann, a city famous for its fishing fleet, its art colony, its beautiful beaches and, along the cape’s rocky coast, the great mansions occupied by wealthy “summer people” and their servants.
Many of those mansions were badly damaged and some totally wrecked by the 1938 hurricane, and the ruined structures remained unrepaired and unattended for the duration of World War II, during which there was no possibility of rebuilding them. Those ruins were a particularly spectacular sight in the winter months, when heavy snowfalls transformed them into an eerie frozen wasteland. After the war, many of the houses that were salvageable were rebuilt as hotels or rest homes; the summer people had meanwhile opted for more benevolent locales.
I got to thinking about all this a few weeks ago when I went to see the exhibition called Into the Storm: Expressions in the American Landscape, 1800-1940 at the National Academy Museum in New York, and I’ve been reminded of it again while following the grim accounts of the most recent hurricane in Florida. What’s especially striking about the paintings in Into the Storm is their almost uniform placidity in depicting the violence of nature. There is hardly a painting in the entire exhibition that even hints at the fury and devastation that storms regularly inflict upon the populations of coastal communities. Is it really possible that storms along the Atlantic seaboard in the 19th century and the early decades on the 20th were so much more benign than, say, the recent hurricane in Florida or the 1938 hurricane in New England?
I’m not persuaded that Atlantic storms were calmer in earlier times. What’s far more likely is that the conventions of 19th-century American landscape painting were, more often than not, incapable of dealing with either the physical destruction or the psychological trauma that are the inevitable result of these violent storms. Most of these National Academy painters appear to have preferred some version of pictorial romance, allegory or the picturesque to the violent reality.
For example, Jay Hall Connaway’s A Maine Storm (circa 1940), was painted in the aftermath of the 1938 hurricane, which for many residents of the Maine coast was a horrific experience. Yet in Connaway’s painting we are given buttery, unthreatening waves and tender gray clouds. Asher Brown Durand’s Landscape (undated) is similarly a picture of perfect calm in which two figures, one standing, the other reclining, are conducting a leisurely conversation in the open air. John Frederick Kensett’s Approaching Storm (1855) is likewise unalarming, a pastoral idyll that features two cows indifferent to the “approaching” storm.
An exception to all this meteorological quietude is Jasper Francis Cropsey’s Coast Scene (1855), in which the sky is indeed full of alarming portents and the surf looks dangerous. But for the most part, one’s left wondering if a better title for this exhibition might have been The Calm Before the Storm .
We don’t usually look to painting to provide us with weather forecasts or documentary accounts of natural disasters, but if a reputable institution invites us to an exhibition focused on a specific theme, it’s reasonable to expect that the works in such an exhibition will give us a more or less reliable account of the announced subject. And it isn’t as if the history of painting is devoid of some highly dramatic pictorial accounts of great storms.
One need only think of a master like J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), who painted some of the greatest storm scenes in the history of Western art. The painters represented in Into the Storm are conspicuously lacking in the aesthetic faculty Henry James once described as “the imagination of disaster”; Turner possessed it in inexhaustible abundance. Without it, the depiction of storms is bound to remain, well, becalmed-which is to say, merely academic.
Among 19th-century American writers, Herman Melville was greatly endowed with “the imagination of disaster”, as every reader of Moby-Dick has reason to know, but among the 19th-century American landscape painters there was no comparable figure.
Adding to the placid character of Into the Storm , moreover, is a subsection of the exhibition devoted to the mostly postcard-size paintings and drawings of William Trost Richards (1833-1905), another landscapist of limited interest.
Into the Storm: Expressions in the American Landscape, 1800-1940 remains on view at the National Academy Museum, 1083 Fifth Avenue at 89th Street, through Oct. 10.