For Immediate Release
October 7, 2022
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(Williamstown, Massachusetts)—Over the course of the nineteenth century, scientists, artists, and society at large developed a deeper understanding of air. Earlier, natural philosophers had demonstrated that the ambient atmosphere was not an “airy nothing” but an entity of substance, with distinct properties and capacities. This material conception of air and atmosphere continued to evolve in the nineteenth century as meteorologists turned their attention skyward. On the Horizon: Art and Atmosphere in the Nineteenth Century examines how artists and image makers incorporated new scientific and technological understandings of the atmosphere into their works and creative practices. The exhibition is on view in the Eugene V. Thaw Gallery of the Clark’s Manton Research Center November 19, 2022 through February 12, 2023. 

“The notion of creating an exhibition about something you cannot necessarily see, but which engages many other senses, is particularly intriguing,” said Olivier Meslay, Hardymon Director of the Clark. “We think this project will provide a surprising and provocative look at the many ways in which artists worked out the challenges of portraying atmosphere and, in some cases, used the atmosphere as a muse throughout their careers. John Constable, for instance, is revered for his cloud studies, while artists like Honoré Daumier ingeniously found ways to capture the effects of wind in an immediately recognizable way. We are impressed by the work that Rebecca Szantyr did in creating an exhibition that is playful, informative, and imaginative.” 

On the Horizon tracks the artistic understanding of the scientific and physical dimension of the earth's atmosphere across the long nineteenth century.  Artists faced a representational challenge: how to visualize a subject that is often invisible, or at the very least, taken for granted?  The objects in this exhibition showcase how the air was conceived as active components in pictorial compositions, indicating the vitality--and vulnerability--of the elements in our own lived environment,” said Rebecca Szantyr, exhibition curator and former curatorial assistant for works on paper at the Clark. Szantyr joined the staff of The New York Public Library in the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs after completing her tenure at the Clark. 


Scientific studies of changing air pressure and movements explained climatological effects such as clouds, wind, and weather patterns from the perspective of the earth’s surface. Progress in early aeronautics in the nineteenth century also permitted humans to imagine future possibilities of flight. Ideas about the airspace, both as a realm and as a physical frontier, signaled novel artistic possibilities. Suddenly, the atmosphere had a visual role to play in art––the aerial dimension came to be recognized as an essential and active pictorial element. To artists in that period, air offered a major representational challenge: How is it possible to portray something typically characterized by its transparency? 

Through the forty-six works featured, the exhibition chronologically charts the visual response to the ideation, use, and eventual misuse of air in the nineteenth century. In their respective enterprises, both scientists and artists adopted a forward-looking perspective to study and describe the expanding knowledge and conceptualization of the atmosphere. In turn, this shaped how audiences—both in the past and in the present day––came to observe and express the aerial dimension through different modalities.


In the eighteenth century, natural philosophers promoted the idea that air, a seemingly ethereal element, was neither immaterial nor static, but instead was composed of several gases, and, as a type of matter, had its own potentialities. These early scientists spread their findings through their writings, texts, and staged demonstrations, radically revising popular notions of air. Since air is not visually perceptible, artists relied on alternate pictorial strategies to describe and convey these new theories such as depicting experiments or using air as a metaphor for other noncorporeal ideas. “Airy” subjects such as wind and bubbles were deployed as metaphorical vehicles to communicate more universal themes related to the human experience.  

In 1800, artist and teacher Pierre Henri de Valenciennes (1750–1819) expounded the importance of working en plein air, or outdoors. According to Valenciennes, it was only through the practice of painting and drawing in the open air that artists could accurately register the details of a landscape, which were subject to changing atmospheric and climatic conditions. Working en plein air, he argued, was the best method for capturing the essence of a landscape, particularly for amateurs. But for more serious students, he outlined the principles of linear and aerial perspective, which, when combined, made for the most “faithful representation of Nature.” Valenciennes’s instructions for linear perspective, showcasing the accurate scaling of figures receding in a landscape, are on view as part of the exhibition. Two watercolors from the sketchbooks of Auguste-Xavier Leprince (1799–1826), Woman Sketching and Man and Woman Sketching (c. 1816–26), depict amateurs practicing plein air drawing and also reflect Leprince’s own practice of venturing to the countryside to draw from nature.  

The effects of those journeys out into nature provided an opportunity for artistic commentary as seen in two of Philibert-Louis Debucourt’s (1755–1832) aquatints in the exhibition. Early nineteenth-century fashions, particularly the lightweight muslin dresses that were in vogue, were no match for strong winds. Debucourt provided a humorous look at the effects of a passing breeze, yielding titillating glimpses of the female figure. The prints’ titles (which translate to “wind ahead” and “wind behind”) jokingly assign the natural world a role in creating what would have then been considered a suggestive scene.  


Armed with a new understanding of the atmosphere’s materiality and dimensionality, nineteenth-century artists turned their attention upward. John Constable (1776–1837) and Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) recorded the momentary effects of cloud formations and movements. Their closely observed studies served multiple purposes: as drawing activities rooted in artistic curiosity, as exercises to perfect technique, and as studies for much larger compositions in oil. British and French printmakers throughout the century utilized different intaglio techniques—etching, drypoint, and mezzotint—to convey a tactile heft and volume to the clouds and ambient airspace in their respective prints. Although modest in scale, these printed impressions convey the seeming boundlessness of the skyscape. 

Between 1821 and 1822, Constable embarked on a series of isolated studies of cloudscapes, a practice he referred to as “skying.” Working quickly to record fleeting conditions, he reportedly spent less than an hour on his oil studies; works such as High Clouds (c. 1821–22), in watercolor and captured in a sketchbook, may have taken mere minutes. The catalyst for Constable’s sudden commitment to this brief project may have been his exposure to recent theories by meteorologist Luke Howard (1772–1864). The names that Howard assigned to different cloud forms in his system of classification are still in use today. 

The theme of humanity’s struggle with nature, particularly at sea, absorbed J. M. W. Turner throughout his career. Turner’s watercolor Entrance to Fowey Harbour, Cornwall (c. 1827) conveys the dynamic and dangerous weather and water conditions of the south coast. Turner’s drawing highlights the changeability of weather along the English Channel. Waves whip the rocky shore while sheets of rain cross the sky. A light patch above the horizon signals a break in the squall, imparting hope that the tilting ship might reach safety.


Building on earlier scientific discoveries about air and gases, the 1780s saw successful experiments and demonstrations with aerostats––lighter-than-air vessels that could travel in the atmosphere. By the mid-nineteenth century, the wondrous possibilities presented by hot air balloons loomed large in both meteorological study and the popular imagination. For scientists, balloon voyages into higher elevations in the atmosphere furnished opportunities to better observe weather patterns. Artists similarly recognized this novel transport as a means to transcend one’s earthbound state and visualize one’s surroundings anew.

With a genuine interest in expanding photography’s capabilities—and wishing to distinguish himself from other practitioners—the artist Nadar (1820–1910) took the first aerial photographs while flying in a hot air balloon in 1858. In the lithograph Nadar Elevating Photography to the Level of Art (1862), the graphic satirist Honoré Daumier (1808–1879) lampooned his friend’s efforts to literally and metaphorically raise the stature of photography, which would not be considered a “fine art” for several more decades. On the ground below, the abundance of signs for photography studios comically alludes to the medium’s ubiquity by the mid-nineteenth century.  


During the second half of the nineteenth century, artists and illustrators increasingly adopted elevated vantage points for their compositions. Although they were following in the centuries-old tradition of bird’s-eye and prospect views, their highly specific perspectives were borrowed from a more modern invention: the panorama, a form of spectacular entertainment invented in London in the late eighteenth century that quickly spread to the rest of Europe and the United States. After climbing a series of stairs in these purpose-built attractions, visitors reached a viewing platform that allowed close study of an unobstructed 360-degree painted view.

With their oblique vantage points, foreshortened architectural details, and visual access to expansive land- and cityscapes, the artworks included in the exhibition demonstrate how the experience of the panorama’s viewing platform lingered well past the spectacle’s heyday. French printmakers associated with the etching and woodcut revivals—Charles Meryon (1821–1868), Maxime Lalanne (1827–1886), and Auguste Louis Lepère (1849–1918)—used the panoramic view to create innovative scenes of Parisian life. Across the Atlantic, the magazine Harper’s Weekly regularly relied on panoramic views to introduce armchair travelers to more far-flung sites. 

With its muted palette, George Rowe’s (1797–1864) color lithograph conveys the expanse of the Worcestershire countryside on a cloudy day in The Malvern Hills from the Summit of the Worcestershire Beacon (c. 1832–52). The topography of the surrounding area is more pronounced via the vantage point accessed from the largest hill—the beacon of the title––relaying the dimensionality of the ridge. Because of its height, the hill had long been a natural site for signaling beacons. 

In contrast, the “view” in Charles Meryon’s (1821–1868) etching La Galerie de Notre Dame, Paris (1853) is playfully partial, as the cathedral’s Gothic stonework impedes a wide prospect. Instead, the etcher intimates the singularity of this elevated perspective: the viewer is in the realm of birds, among warm sunlight, a rare commodity at street level in Paris’s medieval core. 


The Industrial Revolution of approximately 1760–1840 altered humanity’s relationship to labor and the production of material goods, while leaving behind widespread air (and water) pollution. Earlier deforestation in Europe and North America precipitated coal’s rise as the dominant energy source for domestic use and manufacturing. Although fossil fuels produced less smoke and carbon dioxide than burning wood, by the second half of the nineteenth century, emissions from steam-powered engines and coal-fired furnaces entered the airspace at unprecedented levels. With factories and foundries operating around the clock to maximize production, emissions compromised air quality, creating harmful conditions. These technological developments also drastically reshaped the horizon, with the stark verticality of factory chimneys punctuating once-open vistas. Artists and photographers included these befouling architectural elements in their compositions, at times naturalizing or aestheticizing environmental changes in their depictions of modern life.

James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) did not overlook the conspicuous air pollution in his urban subjects. Instead, the artist incorporated this reality into his compositions, veiling his views by selecting printmaking mediums that furthered the dark mood of his creations. In his lithotint titled Nocturne: The River at Battersea (1878), Whistler conveys the heavy, dusky dampness of the smoggy night falling over an industrial area of the city. In his later etching Nocturne: Furnace (c. 1886), Whistler uses plate tone—ink intentionally left on the printing matrix—to indicate the industrial fog floating over Venice’s working districts, while a metalworker’s workshop emanates heat.

As a proponent of Realism, Jean-François Raffaëlli (1850–1924) strove for verisimilitude in his representations. Eschewing the familiar subjects of fashionable Paris, Raffaëlli turned to the city’s outskirts in order to showcase factories and industry, workers and peasants. The gulf between these two sides of Paris is explicit in La Bièvre (1880), where the suburban smokestacks are juxtaposed with the graceful domes of center city landmarks. A sliver of the river that gives this print its title lies in the left foreground, overshadowed by the polluting tannery vats lining its banks. 

Beverly Bennett Dobbs (1868–1937) speculated in the Alaskan gold rush, not as a prospector but as a photographer. His album of the Seward Peninsula chronicled miner and Inuit life in and around the boomtown of Nome, a remote coastal settlement that saw its population temporarily balloon to over 20,000 inhabitants during the stampede. Located less than 150 miles south of the Arctic Circle, Nome was accessible by steamships only four months out of the year. Dobbs’s photograph Ship in Ice Floe (1903–6) records the difficulty of this passage for the many ships that traversed the waters from Seattle and San Francisco to western Alaska. Contrasting starkly against the white ice and sky, the vessel and its exhaust appear out of place, forming a scene that present-day viewers may interpret as a metaphor for the larger overall environmental impact caused by the region’s rapid growth and the extractive enterprises that enabled it.  

On the Horizon: Art and Atmosphere in the Nineteenth Century is organized by the Clark Art Institute and curated by Rebecca Szantyr, former curatorial assistant for works on paper.

The Clark Art Institute, located in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, is one of a small number of institutions globally that is both an art museum and a center for research, critical discussion, and higher education in the visual arts. Opened in 1955, the Clark houses exceptional European and American paintings and sculpture, extensive collections of master prints and drawings, English silver, and early photography. Acting as convener through its Research and Academic Program, the Clark gathers an international community of scholars to participate in a lively program of conferences, colloquia, and workshops on topics of vital importance to the visual arts. The Clark library, consisting of more than 285,000 volumes, is one of the nation’s premier art history libraries. The Clark also houses and co-sponsors the Williams College Graduate Program in the History of Art.

The Clark, which has a three-star rating in the Michelin Green Guide, is located at 225 South Street in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Its 140-acre campus includes miles of hiking and walking trails through woodlands and meadows, providing an exceptional experience of art in nature. Galleries are open 10 am to 5 pm Tuesday through Sunday, from September through June, and daily in July and August. Advance tickets are strongly recommended. Admission is $20; free year-round for Clark members, all visitors age 21 and under, and students with a valid student ID. Free admission is available through several programs, including First Sundays Free; a local library pass program; and EBT Card to Culture. For information on these programs and more, visit or call 413 458 2303.

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