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Paintings in the Year Without a Summer


Zachary Hubbard


The world of art changed in 1816. Paintings representing the brightest of skies of the European landscape now revealed the dark sun that seemed to take heat away from the world. Artist of this time did not understand why, but the atmosphere they were trying to depict was darker than that of the past. The dawns and sunsets that were the main focal points of their art and provided light and hope became redder and darker. A sense of perpetual darkness is shown, even with the light of the sun or the shine of the moon depicted in the skies above. Regardless, artists still looked to the heavens for inspiration, and their depictions have become snapshots of history in this “year without a summer,” showing that life, though hard, continued under a depressing atmosphere. With resilience and hard work, Europeans were able to live through this time, once
again seeing the warmth of summer years later. The art created by J.M.W. Turner, John Crome, Caspar David Friedrich, and many other artists showed the changes in the atmosphere but also revealed how the lives of people were forced to continue in the face of darkness. Through their landscape paintings, common themes emerge, such as agriculture, religion, and shipping that will later have significant meaning to the people of these cold times in northern Europe.

How to Cite: Hubbard, Z., 2019. Paintings in the Year Without a Summer. Philologia, 11(1), pp.17–33. DOI:
  Published on 30 Apr 2019
 Accepted on 01 Apr 2019            Submitted on 01 Apr 2019

The world of art changed in the year 1816. Before, artists filled their skies with the light of the sun to capture the beauty of the land. The sun gave an explosion of color, warmth, and protection to the people of the world; artists used the sun to convey feelings of joy and safety throughout the world. But during 1816 and for years after, the sun was engulfed in a constant red haze that kept the daylight from penetrating to the Earth’s surface. This haze came from the eruption of Mount Tambora, located on the island of Sumbawa in the Dutch East Indies, off the coast of Indonesia. In April of 1815, this massive mountain exploded in an apocalyptic fashion, losing most of its height and killing almost everyone on or near the island. Huge amounts of ash, dust, and chemicals shot straight into the stratosphere near the equator, quickly covering the Northern Hemisphere and the rest of the planet. The ash and gasses reflected much needed sunlight away from the planet, causing the climate to cool. This cooling then caused disastrous effects on all life on the planet; it would be years before these clouds of ash and sulfur dissipated from the atmosphere, warming the Earth once again.1 This coverage influenced paintings, as the haze introduced new red hues to the atmospheres of paintings that were not present before Tambora’s ash cloud covered the Earth. The haze created a filter of sorts across the sky, and not all artists knew from where the darkness came, fearing its emergence as a sign that their worlds were coming to an end.

Paintings of the coast of England that had once represented the brightest of skies now featured a dark sun that seemed to take the heat from the world instead of providing it. The dawns and sunsets that usually provided light and hope became redder, darker, and more foreboding. The art seemed to be in perpetual darkness, even with the light of the sun or the shine of the moon depicted in the skies above. Caspar David Friedrich was one of many artists to give us a record of such a drastic change. His painting Landscape with Rainbow (1810) (Figure 1), as the name suggests, depicts a large field with contrasting shades of green, a dusky sky, and a faded rainbow across the canvas.2 Completed in 1810, Friedrich’s work gives the viewer the idea of optimism in the view of danger, with bright greens and colorful rainbows contrasted against a dark sky. Although the clouds are dark, the bright colors seem to escape from the possible danger, giving the viewer a sense of calm although the sky appears ready to storm at any time. The calmness would not last, as it would be replaced with anxiety in fewer than seven years.

Figure 1 

Landschaft mit Regenbogen or Landscape with Rainbow, 1810.

In 1817, Caspar David Friedrich created another painting called Zwei Männer am Meer or Two Men by the Sea (Figure 2), depicting two men in the center on a dark, sandy beach watching the sky.3 The bright optimism that was a sign of a greater future in Landscape with Rainbow was replaced by signs of dread, confusion, and uncertainty. The atmosphere was now dominated by a dark haze that covered everything, distorting the bright light of the sun into something murky that no one could understand or comprehend. Regardless of the darker trends in their art, artists still looked to the heavens for inspiration. Their artwork became snapshots of history under the Mount Tambora sun, depicting that life was hard, but not impossible in the “year without a summer.” With resilience and hard work, Europeans of this time lived through the cold, knowing they would see the warmth of summer again in years to come. The artworks created by J.M.W. Turner, John Crome, Caspar David Friedrich, and many others show the changes in the atmosphere and reveal how people adapted to survive in the face of darkness. Through their landscape paintings, common themes emerge, such as agriculture, religion, and the shipping industry, representing either the hope or despair of the people of these cold times in northern Europe.

Figure 2 

Zwei Männer am Meer or Two Men by the Sea, 1817.

Through their work, artists of the time tended to display their surroundings as naturalistically as possible. This realism gives the viewer a better account of what the land looked like to the artist at the time the painting was created and what the world seemed like to the people of 1816. Since artists had been painting what they saw around them before and after the explosion, a timeline of sorts can be created from the art to better understand the explosion of Mount Tambora. Because of this, these paintings were later used as scientific data on volcanoes of the past to help understand how these gasses traveled and dispersed over time through firsthand accounts. Physicist and meteorologist Christos S. Zerefos studied the reddening of the atmosphere and published his results in “Atmospheric Effects of Volcanic Eruptions as Seen by Famous Artists and Depicted in Their Paintings.”4 His study showed how pollution traveled around the planet through gaseous form, like the ash that Mount Tambora released. These gases, mostly sulfur, were ejected out of volcanoes and wreaked havoc on the atmosphere. Called “volcanic aerosols,” these gasses in high enough concentrations caused the red sky that artists saw at sunset and dawn. Using past scales as references, such as the Dust Veil Index (DVI), the Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI), and the ice core index, Zerefos created a theoretical scale of aerosol concentrations using the artist’s depiction of the sun. By selecting paintings from the 1500s to the 1900s that featured sunsets or sunrises, Zerefos studied the paintings’ connections with significant eruptions like Tambora by checking the amount of red hue that is needed to replicate the landscape accurately. Through this method, he correlated the amounts of red hue present in paintings and the frequency and quality of volcanic eruptions. This method provides valuable information to scientists and historians for periods when scarce to no data exist on these explosions and the ash clouds followed.5

To do this, Zerefos checked the red to green ratio of paintings, measured on digitized versions of the pictures. He also tested the height and angle of the sun to show the distortions that the gasses made to the atmosphere. These tests showed that light was affected by the gasses released by volcanoes, and their effects usually lasted for years. These gases slowly dissipated until the next explosion sent more ash to darken the skies once again. The conclusion of this experiment provides a new scale that could be used to find more information on ash clouds of past eruptions. Zerefos’s study thus opened new scholarly opportunities to see natural phenomena through the eyes of artists who lived at the time of eruptions. The artists in this study depict the sky accurately enough for historians and scientists to understand atmospheric and human living conditions in 1816.

The paintings in Zerefos’s study included many great artists of the time, some of whom even lived through multiple periods of volcanic activity. Zerefos divided the paintings into two categories, calling landscapes created during volcanic events such as Tambora “volcanic paintings,” and paintings before or after the atmosphere no longer contained volcanic material “non-volcanic paintings.”6 An example of a non-volcanic painting is Joseph Mallord William Turner’s The Lake, Petworth, Sunset (1827–1828) (Figure 3).7 Containing an abundance of white light, the brightness of the picture is almost overwhelming. With a sky less affected by volcanic sulfates, a non-volcanic atmosphere is shown, with all the hues of a traditional sky. This scene contrasts strongly with Turner’s later work, Sunset (1830–1835) (Figure 4), where the atmosphere is dense in red, almost to the point that no different colors are visible.8 Even thought this was painted years later during another volcanic event following Zerefos’s analysis, the redness shows an atmosphere filled to the brim with volcanic dust, darkening the sky due to a distant volcanic eruption just like Tambora, only on a smaller scale.

Figure 3 

The Lake, Petworth, Sunset, c. 1827–1828.

Figure 4 

Sunset, c. 1830–1835.

The usefulness of these paintings and the great detail of the world they display represents a new style of art that was made during this time. Known as Romanticism, this type of art put nature as the main character in most art pieces. Running from 1790 to 1850, this period of the arts was known for its emphasis on “transient and dramatic effects of light, atmosphere, and color to portray a dynamic natural world capable of evoking awe and grandeur.”9 There are also connections to history within the art, as most images deliberately show the past, giving an idea that even the most recent painting seemed to be constructed in the era of the events depicted. This age of art was also characterized by its use of nature, since new developments in science were beginning to be understood and used in the arts to acquire a more meaningful depiction of landscapes and people that lived within in them. J.M.W. Turner, Caspar David Friedrich, and John Crome all showed great prowess in this genre and were able to convey to the viewer their interpretation of the light and the meaning they derive from it, be it feelings of depression or hope.

By comparing non-volcanic Romantic art to the art from 1816, we as the interpreter can see how these pictures portrayed the lives of the people who lived during the cold days of summer. For example, in Caspar David Friedrich’s early painting The Summer or Der Sommer (Lanschaft mit Liebespaar) (1807) (Figure 5), the viewer can see non-volcanic nature on display through rolling green hills, a distant river in the background, and land tilled for farming in the middle of the painting.10 There is some humanity located in the picture as well, with a couple embracing under a tree and some flowers on what looks to be a warm, sunny day with blue skies and gentle clouds. By minimizing the human element, artists asserted the dominant forces of nature within the work, illustrating that no one has control of the world. The people depicted are small in comparison to everything else, showing our insignificance, implying that even though we as humans can do so much to our planet, we are still at the mercy of the natural world.

Figure 5 

Der Sommer (Landschaft mit Liebespaar) or, The Summer, 1807.

In a more somber painting, J.M.W. Turner shows the world through a lens of terror and destruction. In his painting, The Shipwreck (1805) (Figure 6), the power of nature is on full display.11 In this work, dark clouds and raging seas cover the world as the sailor tries desperately to survive the storm. Barely visible through the waves’ intensity, the ship that challenged nature has capsized and is quickly sinking. For if it were not for the lifeboats, these men surely would have found themselves in dire straits as their lives were under the control of the ocean’s might. The viewer can take away many concepts from this painting’s story, one of which is that even human-made objects designed to circumnavigate the barriers of the world are still not strong enough to withstand the power of nature. For the viewer, the wrath of the ocean is frightening within the painting and implies that the ocean is as dangerous as the air above.

Figure 6 

The Shipwreck, 1805.

Though not as dark, but massive in scale, John Crome’s Slate Quarries (1805) (Figure 7) again shows just how small humans are to the natural world.12 Crome depicts what appears to be two men looking at a mountain in the distance, one climbing a small hill, the other sitting alone looking towards the valley. They are minuscule in comparison to the great mountain in the distance and the dark waters of the river in the valley below. The dark browns and size of the mountain give way to wonder, as most of the light in the valley is shaded by the mountain. The clouds are dark grey, almost as if a storm may strike, with the mountain scrubbing them as they pass by. While showing the majesty of such a large mountain, the painting also shows the power and the respect the mountain demands. For the viewer, the title of the painting helps to understand the art. These men may be miners, using the mountain for resources. Though they use the mountain for their own gain, Crome shows through his artwork that we as people are still no match for the mountains or nature, as both tower above us and constantly dictate our passage through life. Humans are dependent on nature, including the weather, for survival, if we do not respect this and adapt to it, we as a species will not survive. But these men show we can adapt, and through persistence and strength, can live through troubling times.

Figure 7 

Slate Quarries, 1805.

The paintings discussed depict the sky as it was before the Tambora eruption, giving a view of the atmosphere before it was filled with ash. For the paintings during and following the explosion, a scale of the sky’s darkness and the views of the artist’s world is on display in many paintings. Artists’ views of humanity changed much like the sky above their heads, as people were forced to deal with the darkness and cold, re-emerging once again into the light. Looking at the time when Tambora’s eruption happened to when the atmosphere returned to normal, these artists again showed their view of nature. For historians and scientists, this was a great time to have such a revolution in art. It is this love of nature and self-interpretation expressed by artists that allowed the creation of Zerefos’s study. The meanings behind the paintings give us an idea of how these Europeans saw the world after Tambora. Through art, artists can communicate their ideas of the world around them, which places more focus on the artists’ interpretation rather than the world itself. Opening a direct communication from the artist to the viewer, the viewer is transported to the world of the artist’s choosing. Even though artwork displays a view of the material world, the artists use paintings to convey their perception of the world.

Artists showed the dark skies around them as the people of Europe struggled with the cold. As Zerefos focused on how the ash influenced paintings, the atmosphere also caused strange weather and climate change in Europe in 1816, heightening the fear of the unknown. William K. and Nicholas P. Klingaman, authors of The Year without Summer, discuss this time of great disturbance as the ash of Tambora covered the entire world, altering the light reaching the surface and making the planet colder than in the recent past. The abnormal weather phenomena that began because of this drastic change in temperature strained the Europeans and the rest of the world even further than they already were. The climate almost seemed to go against the natural order, as summer acted like winter and winter became even colder throughout Europe. All over the world, the seasonal weather was interrupted as temperatures dropped due to the ash cloud, providing fewer crops for the nations of Europe and causing many to die of starvation. Focusing on 1815–1820, themes like this and others that were significant to Europe’s suffering can be seen throughout the list of paintings used by Zerefos in his study. These paintings communicate common ideas of farming, religion, the shipping industry, and how Europeans would defiantly live through Tambora’s wrath.13

Food was and is one of the most essential necessities of humanity’s survival, but under Tambora’s sky, food was more difficult to find. Europe in 1816, like the rest of the world, suffered from starvation. Constant winter caused massive crop loss across the globe, making the people of northern Europe desperate for food.14 With a seemingly eternal winter, painters still depicted the countryside of farms that were actively growing food in such drastic conditions. John Crome, a landscape artist from Norwich, England, created scenes like this in his paintings. He made a name for himself through his great ability to depict the separation between the earth from the heavens.

Crome’s attention to the skies allowed him to give an accurate view of the “year without a summer” in his painting, A Windmill near Norwich (c.1816) (Figure 8).15 Within this work, the view is blocked by a lingering darkness. The sky is unquestionably dim and heavy with haze. The volcanic sulfates surrounding the world at this time obstructed the view. Looking at the art as it is now, an observer will notice that not only is the sky dark, but the entire picture is bleak. Crome illustrates a dismal time with the darkness of starvation, poverty, and lingering death, instilling a feeling of dread in the viewer. The browns and blacks of this painting culminate in the atmospheric conditions, contrasting against the brightness of the times before Tambora. Here, the volcanic paintings are seen as becoming naturally darker, as affirmed by Zerefos. As paintings are artists’ expressions of the moments of their creation, Crome masterfully shows what he sees while viewing the sun’s domain. But with this darkness, there is still light. The animals viewed in the foreground are still able to eat the grass growing in the field, showing that even the land itself was still finding ways to combat the cold and continue life, much like the rest of world at this time. Through perseverance, humans and nature seemed to find ways to survive in the cold days of 1815–1820, as idealized through Crome’s art.

Figure 8 

A Windmill near Norwich, 1816.

Caspar David Friedrich also shows an excellent understanding of nature and how humans are part of something greater, even though humans are small in comparison to the rest of the world. Through the painting Frau vor untergehender Sonne (Sonnenuntergang, Sonnenaufgang, Frau in der Morgensonne) or Woman before the Setting Sun (1819) (Figure 9), Friedrich presents nature’s vastness and power.16 In the foreground, browns depict the dead grass and crops from years of severe weather, along with paths used for travel for centuries. Yet the woman looks into the distance where she can see hope in the hills and valleys that are still covered in green as life slowly comes back and the atmosphere returns to what it was. The sky still has a reddish tint, ordinary for paintings during volcanic eruptions, but life seems to be recovering in the areas where it was once struggling to survive. The woman in the forefront of the artwork appears to be in amazement of the beauty on display, as light adds color once again to the valley and mountains around her. Her presence shows just how small humans are to the landscape and how little control we have, but at the same time, in the context of Tambora’s explosion, she shows resilience to the cold and darkness of the past and the optimism of a future where summer may return. Through the act of standing in awe of nature, one can see that the people who survived, though wary of the environment, were able to stand in the light of the sun and bask in its beauty as life comes back to the planet once again.

Figure 9 

Frau vor untergehender Sonne (Sonnenuntergang, Sonnenaufgang, Frau in der Morgensonne) or Woman before the Setting Sun (Woman before the Setting Sun), 1818.

The ash cloud produced by Tambora not only affected the sky during the day but also caused the moon to be hazy and dark in appearance. The moon acted as a mirror for the sun, directing its light to the earth and illuminating the night. The night was affected by the distortion of light as the day was. In John Crome’s Moonrise on the Yare (c.1811–6) (Figure 10) the moon is visible through the clouds just behind the buildings in the middle of the painting.17 The minimal amount of light that is produced still lights the night, giving the landscape a small amount of color and accenting the objects that are usually visible during the day, such as the ships and the windmill. Most importantly, in the bottom left corner, we see a person working on a small boat. Even in darkness, the person is still required to do what needs to be done to survive, even in the face of uncertain conditions caused by Tambora.

Figure 10 

Moonrise on the Yare, 1811–1816.

Even in other paintings, such as Casper David Friedrich’s Greifswald im Mondschein or Greifswald in Moonlight (1817) (Figure 11), finished a year after Crome’s Moonrise, the haziness still existed long after Tambora’s eruption. With the sulfates taking time to dissipate, it forced Europeans and the rest of the world to adapt for an extended period of abnormal atmospheric conditions.18 In Friedrich’s depiction of Greifswald, the view shows the city in the background with boats and a possible fishing area to help supply food for the people. All is still visible and not as dark as Crome’s depictions, as the gasses of Tambora have had enough time to dissipate within the atmosphere. However, the appearance of the fog-like glow around the city shows that the ash was still in high enough concentrations to affect the world, interfering with crop growth and people’s lives for years to come.

Figure 11 

Greifswald im Mondschein or Greifswald in Moonlight, 1817.

With empty stomachs, some Europeans looked to their God for salvation. They looked to the sky for signs of God’s love and mercy only to find it filled with the darkness of ash. For many, the dark sky indicated to many that God was displeased with the world, calling for its destruction. Religion was still a vast and central part of European life. Although broken into different denominations, Christianity still found its way into the art throughout this period. Religious ideas sometimes were clearly noticeable in paintings, such as religious scenes deliberately painted, while others were subtle in their depictions, such as having the massive clock towers of churches seen in the cityscape. All of these paintings still used the same dark lighting of the era from the explosion’s effects, even though the artists were painting scenes depicting the Lord. It was a struggle within art and the world, as many people felt abandoned by the heavens above, which were thought to be filled with such anger.

Historian and author Cosmo W. Monkhouse described this struggle with loneliness within famous artist J.M.W Turner in his book Joseph Mallord William Turner. According to Monkhouse, Turner chose to show how the darker skies influenced his art and his thoughts of loneliness in the world.19 Born on April 23, 1775, Turner was believed to have had a lonely childhood, later showing this through his actions as an adult as a recluse known for being intensively private. His art career started when he was nine years old by drawing the buildings around his local church. His talents were recognized by the elite painters of London in 1789. Enrolled in the Royal Academy of the Arts, Turner learned how to be a professional. At 21, he received the honor to display some of his work in the prestigious school of art, officially kicking off his career as an artist. Turner then opened a gallery in 1804, showing and selling his paintings to the elites of London. At the same time, he became the professor of perspective at the Academy until 1828. Sadly, his brilliance slowly faded towards the end of his life. After the death of his father, he began to lose himself in seclusion and died on December 19, 1851. Throughout his life, his artwork depicted grand scenes of nature, a medium that seemed to quell his loneliness both as a child and as an adult.20

Some of his paintings depicted great scenes of religious importance, such as St. Peter’s and the Vatican from the Gardens of the Villa Barberini, Rome (1819) (Figure 12) that showed St. Peter’s Basilica from atop a hill in Turner’s landscape style.21 The sun, shown on the left side, is bright but still contains interference from the atmosphere that was plaguing the time. The buildings and the people Turner depicts on the canvas shows the distortion of light of the volcanic atmosphere through darker hues. St. Peter’s seems to be in a fog, almost as if what was known and expected of the time was no longer the way it should be. It was as if the person sees a certain amount of confusion as God allowed the light to be distorted, destroying the crops around the world, forcing thousands in Europe to die. The people of this time were forced to wonder why their God allowed something like this to happen, even going as far as suggesting that this is how the apocalypse was going to begin.22 Turner, however, depicts people who do not look worried. They seem to be enjoying each other’s company as they look at the valley with the Vatican below. It appears these outsiders are not concerned about the events nearby, that through years of survival in the shadow had hardened their resolve to the events around them. Instead of wavering in their faith, which may have happened in the past, these people were going about their days as if everything were normal. By this time, the effects of Tambora were dissipating to the point that the ash and gasses were no longer such a threat to the lives of Europeans.23 With the atmosphere clearing, a newfound confidence in life began to show itself in these people, as they returned to a pace of life that existed before Tambora and in turn responded to their faith once again.

Figure 12 

St. Peter’s and the Vatican from the Gardens of the Villa Barberini, Rome, 1819.

While some paintings emphasize resilience under darkened skies, others highlight the desperate circumstances, such as drought, famine, and extreme cold that Europeans endured. In Turner’s earlier paintings, such as The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire (1817) (Figure 13), a battlescape is filled with death, shadowed by a red sky and murky sun.24 This lighting, although bright, highlights the destruction and beauty of a beaten city desperately trying to protect itself. Compared to Turner’s painting of St. Peter’s Basilica, which shows the light of humanity, this painting shows more of the uncertainty humans had. As religious faith became less trusted, Europeans’ fear of the unknown began to control them, forcing them to find ways to survive no matter what it would take. The warring parties and the destruction they brought with them can be a representation of how the people of the world saw the darkness as war on humanity. The dead man in the bottom left section of the painting is depicted holding not a weapon, but an instrument, showing the fact that not even the innocent, holding an instrument rather than a weapon, could get away from death in this world. Broken vases, statues, columns, and other items that were of great value can be found thrown on the ground at the bottom of the painting, giving the idea that the city itself was being torn apart as people fought for their lives, and in turn, destroyed what they had and loved in the process. The city’s beautiful classical architecture disappears among the ugliness of the warring parties, showing the desperate struggle the people of the Carthaginian Empire experienced up until its collapse. This could be interpreted as Turner’s view of Europe and the rest of the world as the planet seemed to strangle its inhabitants. This depiction gives a glimpse of how desperate Europeans were in 1817. Divides became more and more common, and the people, lacking in resources, were forced to do what was necessary to survive. In the end, nature took its course, and gradually the weather went back to the way it was before. No longer did Europeans have to fear the wrath of their God, and most praised him for allowing them to survive such hard time.

Figure 13 

The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire, 1817.

Struggling with the idea of religion at this time, many people may have felt that they were out of place. For many centuries, Europeans had many different faiths. Conflicting views sometimes reached boiling points with each other, and the weather from Tambora did not help this. Casper David Friedrich’s Neubrandenburg (1816–1817) (Figure 14) features a high tower of a local church above a town with mountains in the background and two people in the front.25 The colors of the sky are brighter around the city, possibly showing brightness coming from the church. Above the sunny skies, darkness is visible, seemingly held at bay by the field of light. With a view like this, it seems that the church in the city is holding back the darkness. It is through the city’s devotion to religion that people felt protected from darkness and experienced light. For the religiously devout, this painting gives hope for faith, that even though their God seemed angry at his creation, they are protected within the walls as they have not angered him. The two men seem to be walking away from the city, raising the question: why leave the protection of the Lord that is so substantially on display? Different ideas on religion gave different interpretations of the world. These men could have been of a different sect or viewpoint, causing them to think of the world differently. If this is the case, then instead of seeing salvation they may see the fires of hell, with light not depicting protection, but instead depicting the yellow flames of damnation. Whatever the viewer’s interpretation, it comes down to what people believe and whether what they see is salvation or the end of the world as they know it.

Figure 14 

Neubrandenburg, 1816–1817.

Turner’s other paintings reversed these thoughts of separation from God and showed light coming back to the world. The Roman Campagna from Monte Testaccio, Sunset (1819) (Figure 15), gives another depiction of light coming back to the world.26 The atmosphere here is clean, with white clouds and a sun that is bright in the sky. The land is green, with a river crossing the middle of the painting. The people within the painting are in the process of building along old fortifications, possibly showing that the loneliness began to fade from the world when people were forced to work together.

Figure 15 

The Roman Campagna from Monte Testaccio, Sunset, 1819.

Turner is one of the few painters to not only add the light of the sun but to add texture as well. Turner had learned that the sun has an exterior by listening to lectures from Sir William Herschel, who theorized that sun had a surface just as distinct and diverse as Earth’s.27 This is when Turner began to display the sun more as a ball and less as a disc in the sky. Focusing closely on Turner’s later works, from 1804 onward, he painted his sun in different ways to add to the idea that it was not just a two-dimensional figure, but a three-dimensional sphere with multiple bumps and blemishes.28 Turner’s attention to detail goes to show just how adept he was as a painter and how necessary it is to view his paintings in the light of day.

With all of the hardship faced by Europe, there was one seemingly small advantage through the shipping industry that allowed the world a better chance for survival. Years of colonization built up the shipping empires of England, France, Germany and many other nations to allow them to import food into the country, saving many lives in the process. The importance of shipping is shown in many artists’ paintings, both for trade and empire building. Caspar David Friedrich shows ships in many cityscapes of his paintings. The German painter, born September 5, 1774, found his calling in making landscape art. Friedrich studied at the Academy of Copenhagen, under several famous painters. While at the academy, Friedrich made a name for himself and eventually opened a studio in Dresden, Germany. His focus in his earlier works was on the idea of the search for meaning in nature and how human life is insignificant of humankind.29 An example of this is shown paintings like Zwei Männer am Meer or Two Men by the Sea (1817) (Figure 2).30 In it, there is a depiction of two unidentifiable men looking at the sea, dominated by the darkness of the sky and the rough waters of the ocean. It is here that Friedrich’s brilliance shines. Subtle clues within the painting suggest what life was like at this moment in time for Europeans. The men in the painting do not look at each other or even seem to acknowledge one another‘s presence. These men, experiencing the same things, are still alone in their struggle to live. They seem to just exist, living life the best they can in their own worlds.31 Being together, but alone is how many in Europe saw themselves at this time; they were alone in their survival, but together in their struggle. The vast and dark ocean is turbulent to show how the world is rough on humankind, while the sky blends in with the waters, showing the vastness of the heavens in their dark, cloudy domain. Through resilience and strength, these men still stand, the same as the rest of the world in the face of darkness. The message that this painting is giving to the viewer is that even though we all face our own individual struggles, we all must work together to sail through the turbulent seas of life.

Shipping was an important way to help others overcome struggles of cold. Through trade deals with other nations that had food or that could still produce, countries affected by Tambora’s explosion hoped to save as many people as they could from starvation. John Crome’s Moonrise on the Yare shows this with great detail as ships are even sighted in rural areas, showing the necessity of shipping in areas with little water. He shows the importance of harbors in Yarmouth Harbour-Evening (c.1817) (Figure 16).32 The mood of this painting is brighter than most other works of this time. The skies are still dark, and light is spread out from possible clouds and gasses from Tambora. However, it gives a more bright and optimistic feeling as shipping and commerce continue to be a significant part of the nation’s economy. With this hope, life could fight back against angry mother nature. In Caspar David Friedrich’s Greifswald im Mondschein ships are seen within the haze of the city, whether bringing food to the town or collecting riches to pay for this valuable material.

Figure 16 

Yarmouth Harbour-Evening, 1817.

As the Tambora years came to a close in 1820, Europe began to heal from years of cold, wet weather. Painters started to depict the sky with an atmosphere cleaned of its containments.33 In Turner’s Rivaulx Abbey, Yorkshire (1825) (Figure 17), painted five years after the atmosphere cleared, the landscape was largely depicted to be light once again, and there is nothing but bright and colorful landscape capped with a blue sky.34 The animals are enjoying their time out to pasture as livestock feed from the fields and drink from the river. People are seen playing and looking into the river, carefree and relaxed. Scenes like this were just a memory back in 1816 but now are common as the skies allowed for life once again.

Figure 17 

Rivaulx Abbey, Yorkshire, 1825.

With all of this light coming back and the reemergence of human activity, people of this time had to remember what had happened. Famine, cold, and other factors contributed many deaths all around the globe, including Europe. In Der Friedhof or The Cemetery (1825) (Figure 18), Caspar David Friedrich gives the viewer a reflection of what happened in this time, while still depicting the light that was returning to the world.35 With the graves inside representing the loss of life not just in this time, but also over the course of history, the viewer remembers that life is short and that the only thing that is permanent is nature itself, as the tall trees loom in the distance. Nature was the mechanism of change for all life on Earth. Europeans were religious at the time and believed that God controlled destiny, but it was through nature that his power was on display. Just as he made the Earth and its beauties, so did he make the storms and cold that controlled the life or death that people had to face and that painters depicted in their artwork.

Figure 18 

Der Friedhof or The Cemetery, 1825.

Although Europeans faced many hardships in the years of 1816–1820, they were still able to live during these harsh times. Cold, starvation, and many ailments were able to kill many, but it was through resilience and strength in the face of uncertainty that humanity was able to survive this trying time. Art from the period features a dark and destructive atmosphere that sucked the life out of the people below. There seemed to be no hope coming from the skies as challenges with agriculture and religion were always a constant in both life and art in the Tambora years. But with the help of perseverance and ingenuity, such as shipping, humans were able to feed themselves and live through this time. Although many died, in the end, many more survived, and these people would go on to live another day remembering those who could not. It was through hard work, a resilient spirit, and the need to stay alive that the world was able to endure the ash clouds until they dispersed into history, leaving only humans, nature, and paintings to show that they even existed.


1Gillen D’Arcy Wood, Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World (New Jersey: Princeton Univ. Press, 2015). 

2Caspar David Friedrich, Landschaft mit Regenbogen, 1810, oil and canvas, 59 × 84, missing since 1945, 

3Caspar David Friedrich, Zwei Männer am Meer, 1817, oil and canvas, 51 × 61 cm, Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin, Germany, 

4C.S. Zerefos, V.T. Gerogiannis, D. Balis, S. C. Zerefos and A. Kazantzidis, “Atmospheric Effects of Volcanic Eruption as Seen by Famous Artists and Depicted in Their Paintings,” Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics 7, no. 15 (2007), pp. 4027–4042. 

5C.S. Zerefos, V.T. Gerogiannis, D. Balis, S. C. Zerefos and A. Kazantzidis, “Atmospheric Effects of Volcanic Eruption as Seen by Famous Artists and Depicted in Their Paintings,” pp. 4027–4042. 

6Zerefos, Gerogiannis, Balis, Zerefos and Kazantzidis, “Atmospheric Effects of Volcanic Eruption as Seen by Famous Artists and Depicted in Their Paintings,” 4027–4042. 

7Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Lake, Petworth, Sunset, 1827–1828, oil on canvas, 63.5 × 138.7 cm, Tate-Britain, London, United Kingdom, 

8Joseph Mallord William Turner, Sunset, 1830–1835, oil on canvas, 66.7 × 81.9 cm, Tate-Britain, London, United Kingdom, 

9The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, “Romanticism,” Encyclopedia Britannica, 2017, accessed March 1, 2018, 

10Caspar David Friedrich, Der Sommer (Lanschaft mit Liebespaar), 1807, oil and canvas, 71.4 × 103.6 cm, Neue Pnalothek, Munich, Germany, 

11Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Shipwreck, 1805, oil on canvas, 170.5 × 241.6 cm, Tate-Britain, London, United Kingdom, 

12John Crome, Slate Quarries, 1805, oil on canvas, 123.8 × 158.7 cm, Tate-Britain, London, United Kingdom, 

13William K. Klingaman and Nicholas P. Klingaman, The Year without Summer: 1816 and the Volcano That Darkened the World and Changed History, (New York: St. Matins Griffin, 2014). 

14Wood, Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World. 

15John Crome, A Windmill near Norwich, 1816, oil on oak, 111.1 × 91.4 cm, Tate-Britain, London, United Kingdom, 

16Caspar David Friedrich, Frau vor untergehender Sonne (Sonnenuntergang, Sonnenaufgang, Frau in der Morgensonne), 1819, oil on canvas, 22 × 30 cm, Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany, 

17John Crome, Moonrise on the Yare, 1811–1816, oil on canvas, 71.1 × 111.1 cm, Tate-Britain, London, United Kingdom, 

18Caspar David Friedrich, Greifswald im Mondschein, 1817, oil and canvas, 22 × 30.5 cm, National Gallery, Oslo, Norway, 

19Cosmo W. Monkhouse, Joseph Mallord William Turner (London: Sampson Low Marston, 1929). 

20Cosmo W. Monkhouse. Joseph Mallord William Turner (London: Sampson Low Marston, 1929). 

21Joseph Mallord William Turner, St. Peter’s and the Vatican from the Gardens of the Villa Barberini, Rome, 1819, gouache, graphite and watercolor on paper, 23 × 37 cm, Tate Britain, London, United Kingdom, 

22Klingaman and Klingaman, The Year without Summer: 1816 and the Volcano That Darkened the World and Changed History. 

23Wood, Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World. 

24Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire, 1817, oil on canvas, 170.2 × 238.8 cm, Tate Britain, London, United Kingdom, 

25Caspar David Friedrich, Neubrandenburg, 1816–1817, oil and canvas, 91 × 72 cm, Pomeranian Sate Museum, Greifswald, Germany, 

26Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Roman Campagna from Monte Testaccio, Sunset, 1819, gouache, graphite and watercolor on paper, 25.2 × 40.2 cm, Tate-Britain, London, United Kingdom, 

27James Hamilton, Turner (New York: Random House, 2007). 

28Mark Brown, “Turner Used Science to Paint the Sun,” The Guardian (Novemeber 13, 2011), 

29Klingaman and Klingaman, The Year without Summer: 1816 and the Volcano That Darkened the World and Changed History. 

30Caspar David Friedrich, Zwei Männer am Meer, 1817, oil and canvas, 51 × 61 cm, Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin, Germany, 

31Nina Amstutz, “Caspar David Friedrich and the Aesthetics of Community,” Studies in Romanticism 54, no. 4 (2015). Academic OneFile (accessed April 1, 2018), 

32John Crome, Yarmouth Harbour-Evening, 1817, oil on canvas, 40.6 × 66 cm, Tate-Britain, London, United Kingdom, 

33Wood, Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World. 

34Joseph Mallord William Turner, Rivaulx Abbey, Yorkshire, 1826, water color on paper, 28 × 40 cm, Turner Worlwide London, United Kingdom, 

35Caspar David Friedrich, Der Friedhof, 1825, oil on canvas, 143 × 110 cm, Galerie Neue Meister, Dresden, Germany, 

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    Primary Sources

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    3. Crome, John. Slate Quarries. 1805. Oil on canvas, 123.8 × 158.7 cm. Tate-Britain, London, United Kingdom. 

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