Monday, December 21, 2009

Art Break: Cloudscapes - Albert Bierstadt

Albert Bierstadt’s painting Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast at the Seattle Art Museum is an epic swirl of cloud, coast and cliff. Jonathan Raban said the painting turned Puget Sound into “a brand name for the dreadfully picturesque.”

However, Bierstadt never visited Puget Sound or the Washington Coast before he painted it. His traveling partner became ill and their trip was aborted in Portland. Bierstadt’s Puget Sound is an imagined landscape, one that paints the area’s cloudscape grandiosely, ludicrously wrong.

Bierstadt’s clouds are cumulonimbus – great roiling carbuncles swelling into the stratosphere. Cumulonimbus are convection clouds formed when warm temperatures evaporate surface moisture. They create massive columns of cloud rising 25,000 ft, sometimes up to 60,000 ft. Judging from the peak visible in the upper right, Bierstadt painted these thunderheads at an implausibly low altitude. They soar, they threaten, they’re nice to look at. But they aren’t the accurate choice (if you care about accuracy). They are not valley clouds or Pacific Northwest coastal clouds.

The Puget Sound region is a cauldron of different cloud formations, but it is not particularly rich in cumulonimbus. Maybe if Bierstadt had visited the area he would have depicted a more boring stratus layer – though his painting would have been less impressive for it.

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