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Saturday Volcano Art: Joseph Rebell, ‘Eruption of Vesuvius at Night’ (1822) 2 May 2009

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Joseph Rebell, 'Eruption of Vesuvius at Night' (1822)

The Austrian painter Joseph Rebell (1787-1828) spent much of his career in Italy and painted many Italian landscapes, including this dramatic image of Vesuvius erupting at night. For painters such as Rebell, interested in landscape art as an embodiment of imaginative and emotional engagement with the natural world, such events as volcanic eruptions offered the opportunity to explore the power and grandeur of nature in extreme forms. In choosing here to represent Vesuvius not only erupting, but doing so at night and during a storm, Rebell creates an image of elemental forces in conflict.

In the centre of the canvas is the volcano, spitting fire high into the sky and raining ash down onto the land from its dark eruption cloud. Vesuvius’s jet of blazing incandescence both echoes and dwarfs the lighthouse that juts up from the rocky headland beneath, symbolizing the powers of nature overpowering the works of man. A pale light reflects on the storm-tossed sea, contrasting with the fiery summit of the volcano and the dark masses of rock and earth on either side. Earth and air, water and fire are hurled against each other in a cloud-strewn, storm-tossed tumult that suggests the chaos of creation itself.

The eighteenth-century tradition of depicting Vesuvius had emphasized the overall harmony of the scene: even in eruption, the volcano was balanced with the elements of the human and natural landscape around it, while the onlooker was distanced, viewing the scene with detachment, from outside. The power and energy of Rebell’s erupting Vesuvius, by contrast, demands an emotional and imaginative response from the onlooker, who is encouraged to become involved with the image, to react with spontaneity and honest feeling to the elements of nature depicted, and thus to achieve a greater degree of engagement with the external world. Rebell is not particularly interested in topographical or indeed volcanological detail in this picture. His Vesuvius is a visionary reinterpretation, rather than a representation, of reality: a romanticized symbol of the power of nature, transformed through the action of the individual imaginative sensibility.

Joseph Rebell’s ‘Eruption of Vesuvius at Night’ is in the Liechtenstein Museum, Vienna.

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