Published earlier this week, Evan Firestone's book, Mist and Fog in British and European Painting, uniquely combines artworks and literary culture to give new insight into well-loved artists, via the study of mist and fog...
The book shows the metaphorical meanings that have accrued to mist and fog, encouraged by their indeterminate and transitory nature, and the emotions to which they give rise, are variously evident in the work of major visual artists and their contemporaries in other disciplines.
Read on for the author's reflections on the overlap and interplay between art and literature, as concerns the depiction of mist and fog:
Claude Lorrain, Coast Scene with Europa and the Bull, 1634, oil on canvas, 170.8 × 199.7 cm (67 ¼ × 78 3/5 in), Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, TX. Image courtesy of Wikimedia, public domain.
Henry Fuseli, The Night-Hag Visiting Lapland Witches, 1796, Oil on canvas, 40 x 49 3/4 in. (101.6 x 126.4 cm), Purchase, Bequest of Lillian S. Timken, by exchange, and Victor Wilbour Memorial, The Alfred N. Punnett Endowment, Marquand and Charles B. Curtis Funds, 1980.
The Introduction of my new book Mist and Fog in British and European Painting presents quotations from Homer and other ancient authors that suggest associations with mist and fog and confer meanings to these atmospheric phenomena. Later authors are quoted in the following chapters, including Shakespeare and Milton, and writers contemporaneous with the periods covered. More quotations were available than could be accommodated in the text, but some notable examples are cited here.
Through the dull mist, I following – when a step,
A single step, that freed me from the skirts
Of the blind vapour, opened to my view
Glory beyond all glory ever seen
By waking sense or by dreaming soul!
The appearance, instantaneously disclosed,
Was of a mighty city ...
Fabric it seemed of diamond and of gold,
With alabaster domes, and silver spires,
And blazing terrace upon terrace …
Right in the midst, where interspace appeared
Of open court, an object like a throne
Under a shining canopy of state …
But vast in size, in substance glorified;
Such as by Hebrew Prophets were beheld
In vision – forms uncouth of mightiest power
For admiration and mysterious awe.
A vision by The Solitary, a character in ‘The Excursion’
from the unfinished The Recluse (1814)
The mists boil up around the glaciers; clouds
Rise curling fast beneath me, white and sulfury,
Like foam from the ocean of deep Hell,
Whose every wave breaks on a living shore
Heap’d with the damned like pebbles …
Manfred: A Dramatic Poem,
Act, 1, Scene 2 (1816–17)
I compare human life to a large room of Many Apartments, two of which I can only describe, the doors of the rest being yet shut to me – The first we step into we call the infant or thoughtless Chamber, in which we remain … a long while, and not withstanding the doors to the second Chamber remain wide open, showing a bright appearance, we care not to hasten to it; but are at length imperceptibly impelled by awakening of the thinking principle – within us – we no sooner get into the second Chamber, which I shall call the Chamber of Maiden-Thought, then we become intoxicated with the light and the atmosphere, we see nothing but pleasant wonders … However, among the effects … is that tremendous one of sharpening one’s vision into the nature and heart of Man—of convincing one’s nerves that the World is full of misery and Heartbreak, Pain, sickness and oppression—whereby This Chamber of Maiden Thought becomes gradually darken’d and at same time on all sides of it many doors are set open – but all dark – all leading to dark passages—We see not the balance of good and evil. We are in a mist – We are now in that state—We feel the burden of the Mystery.
Letter to J. H. Reynolds, 13 May 1818
Last night returning from my twilight walk,
I met the grey mist of Death, whose eyeless brow
Was bent on me, and from his hand of chalk
He reached me flowers as from a withered bough
O Death, what bitter nosegays givest thou!
‘A Ballad of Past Meridian’, Modern Love (1862)
Albeit it was simply a Sunday in autumn, I had been born again, life lay intact before me, for that morning, after a succession of mild days, there had been a cold fog which had not cleared until nearly midday: and a change in the weather is sufficient to create the world and ourselves anew … The mist, from the moment of my awakening, had made of me, instead of the centrifugal being which one is on fine days a man turned in on himself …
[T]he new world , in which the mist of this morning’s fog had immersed me was a world already known to me (which only made it more real) and forgotten for some time (which restored all its novelty). And I was able to look at several of the pictures of misty landscapes which my memory had acquired …
‘The Guermantes Way’, In Search Of Lost Time (1913–1927)
When an opening appears in the mist Wordsworth’s The Solitary sees a vision of Heaven and the Almighty’s throne. Byron in this excerpt has Manfred link mist with evil and damnation. Uncertainty and mystery are expressed by a youthful Keats as he confronts an unknown future. The spectre of Death rises out of nocturnal mist in Meredith’s grim sonnet and vapourous atmosphere evokes forgotten memories in Proust’s novel. Such associations also were fertile ground for visual metaphors in numerous paintings executed from the late 18th to the early 20th centuries.
The artists featured in this book were enamoured with mist and fog. Caspar David Friedrich observed, ‘When a landscape is covered in fog, it appears larger, more sublime, and heightens the strength of the imagination and excites expectation'. Many of his paintings shrouded in mist and fog allude to the other side, and the expectation for eternal life. JMW Turner declared ‘Atmosphere is my style’, which he used to suggest the expansiveness and magnificence of nature. Monet said, ‘I love London … It is the fog that gives it its marvellous breadth. Its regular massive blocks become grandiose in this mysterious cloak.’
In addition to the general sense of mystery and sublimity, mist and fog are the stuff of dreams, supernatural visions, and metaphors of evil, death and the passage of time. Depictions of mist and fog, their significance and atmospheric effects, as well as a number of literary parallels, are discussed in depth in Mist and Fog in British and European Painting.
Claude Monet, Effet de brouillard (Fog Effect), 1872, oil on canvas, 48.2 × 75.2 cm (19 × 29 5/8 in), private collection.
Find the book HERE.