Winslow Homer (American, 1836–1910), Eight Bells, 1887; probably printed c. 1940. Etching on paper. Clark Art Institute, 1955.1479
A morbid interest in nature’s unrelenting fury developed into a fascination with disaster in the nineteenth century. Rapid industrialization contributed to the growth of major metropolitan centers, where fires became an increasing threat. A simple spark could result in days of burning, destroying the homes and jobs of thousands as a result, while floods could immobilize cities for days or weeks. Perils of travel by sea also riddled newspaper headlines as stormy waters and turbulent oceans claimed seafarers’ lives. Though powerful, human intervention through scientific and technological innovation failed to harness and control the untamed might of nature.

Media spectacle transformed these events into cataclysms, and images of disaster transfixed viewers who yearned to see the destruction with their own eyes. Artists and illustrators responded to this desire, often rendering natural destruction as an eerily beautiful occurrence.