When someone refers to painting nature, our first implication is that of the landscape. And, indeed, the first studies of nature were in the realm of the ideal, Arcadian meadows with idealised streams, picturesque trees, flocks, maybe a few shepherds, all carefully balanced to soothe the senses and instil a feeling of gentle, secure, loveliness. The painters, Jacob van Ruisdael and Claude Lorrain come to mind. But those who live near the sea, towering mountains, active volcanoes, or great rivers, know that nature is not always so docile. As the early nineteenth century progressed and the Romantic era of painting, music, and literature developed, it was the heroic, demonic, or dramatic violence of nature's extremes that began to capture the imagination of artists of the time.
In England there was J.M.W. Turner exploring the land, the sea, and the forces of nature illuminated by a sort of heroic, eternal light. At about the same time, Henry Fuseli, William Blake, James Barry, and John Martin were probing the more sinister nature of these forces, using them to demonstrate the dreaded depths of men's souls, their nightmares, and their psyches. Fuseli's Satan Calling to Beelzebub over a Sea of Fire, painted in 1802, is a good example of this type of painting. Blake chose to explore the area of divine planning and intervention in these elements of nature, while James Barry tried to delve into nightmares, using the chaos of nature at its worst to give shape to man's worst fears and frustrations. And John Martin demonstrated these forces of nature by painting them in terms of biblical and Oriental themes such as his 1812 canvas, Sadak Looking for the Waters of Oblivion, or The Fall of Babylon, painted in 1819, both based on Persian sagas.
Perhaps the most incredible painting of this type however, was Karl Pavlovitch Bryullov's horrifying Last Days of Pompeii, painted over the course of three years from 1830 to 1833. Now hanging in the Russian State Museum in St. Petersburg, it's an enormous canvas, bringing to mind some of this century's great disaster movies, replete with a seeming cast of thousands and special effects to boggle the mind. The sky is black, the scene illuminated in a red glow only by Vesuvius itself as the mountain reigns death and destruction of cataclysmic proportions upon the hapless Roman men, women, and children fleeing before its vengeful wrath. There is a supernatural quality on an apocalyptic scale to most if not all these paintings which are as far removed from tranquil Arcadian landscapes as Poussin's chaotic Rape of the Sabines is from David's noble Oath of the Horatii. The comparison of nature's tranquillity against her turmoil to that of man is most apt, as if man were, at times, trying to imitate nature's turbulence in his own affairs.