The erupting volcano is the bright focus of Volaire's painting. Our eye moves from this hot explosion down the mountain in a zigzag motion, following the ooze of the molten lava. Our attention comes to rest on a village and port at the base of the volcano. Townspeople flee across a diagonal bridge to safety on the other side of the bay. The scurry of activity increases the drama of the event and connects us emotionally with the scene. The painting demonstrates Volaire's careful observation of the volcano's physical characteristics, as well as the human response to disaster.
Who was this made for?
Volaire created more than thirty scenes of Mt. Vesuvius for British travelers who traveled to Naples, Italy, to visit the ruins of Pompeii and witness the awesome spectacle of the active volcano. These paintings, like today's picture postcards, were souvenirs of the travelers' visits to this popular destination. Some of them simply document the physical features of the erupting volcano, while others like this one represent the volcano's menacing effect on local townspeople. Volaire's painting was commissioned by a British patron, who also owned a large collection of ancient sculpture.
Why was the volcano so popular?
Mt. Vesuvius erupted periodically throughout the 1770s. Tourists, scientists, and artists traveled to Naples to marvel at and document this natural phenomenon. At the time, Enlightenment thinkers promoted the careful examination of nature in order to understand its awesome character and frightening potential. Visitors to Naples usually observed details of the volcano from a safe distance, removed from the heat and spew of the crater. However, a few like Volaire were brave enough to climb up the volcano to investigate and document the features of this fiery mountain.
Two sharecroppers struggle to load their meager belongings--mattress, cast-iron stove, and blanket--into a mule wagon before rising floodwater reaches their small home. A darkening sky and lightning add a sense of urgency to their actions. Deep furrows in the mud and high water in the background suggest escape will be difficult. Benton used compositional elements, such as color, line and shape, to increase the drama of his painting. He squeezes the activity of the scene between two wooden structures--the white house on the left and the red barn on the right. He crops our view of these buildings, as a photographer does when zooming in on the action. This helps narrow our focus on the rectangular wagon, which repeats the shape and texture of the buildings. Benton also uses color to direct our attention to the wagon. The yellow of the man's shirt and the orange blanket catch our eye and encourage us to take inventory of the items being loaded. The artist also repeats round objects, such as the white jug, wagon wheels, metal tub, and horses' bodies, to move our eye from the foreground to the middleground of the painting. Diagonal lines in the mud and streaks of lightning suggest action and heighten anticipation about the outcome of this story. This drama is accentuated by the contrast of dark clouds on the left and clear sky on the right.
Does this painting document a real occurrence?
This painting is based on drawings Thomas Hart Benton made on travels in the Midwest during the Great Flood of 1937. He was hired by the Kansas City Star newspaper to document this natural disaster, which ravaged much of the Ohio River Valley. He traveled through Missouri making sketches of the flood's effect on the land and its residents. He wrote, "The roads of the flood country were full of movers... Every once in a while seepage from under the levee would force the evaculation of a house and you would see a great struggle to get animals and goods out of the rising water."
What is Thomas Hart Benton's background?
Thomas Hart Benton was born in Missouri and went to art school in New York. Rejecting the abstract style popular in modern Europe and America, he chose to paint in a more illustrative manner. He is part of an art movement called American regionalism, characterized by images of everyday subjects that celebrate the virtues and struggles of rural America.