One of many books I’ve been referring to quite often these days, both in personal conversations and during desk-crits with my students, is Michael Welland’s Sand, newly released in paperback.
I’ll be mentioning many things from his book throughout the coming days and later; for now, I simply want to call attention to a comment Welland makes about Vincent Van Gogh‘s habit of painting en plein air—that is, outside, with fresh paint, in the windswept meadows and fields near the Mediterranean, where dust storms were an expected part of an afternoon.
This regional meteorology often resulted in sand grains being blown onto Van Gogh’s still-wet canvases—and thus becoming a permanent part of art history.
Indeed, in some cases, Welland writes, citing Van Gogh’s own letters, the sand could get so dense and accumulate so thickly that he would have to scrape preliminary images from the unfinished canvas and start again. That intrusive terrestrial presence—pieces of the very thing his paintings were meant to represent—was thus removed.
More interestingly, though, passing meteorological events of the 19th century left behind what we might call aerial fossils: traces of violent wind patterns and minor climatologies that have been frozen into place on the surface of plein air paintings.
The result is a kind of storm archive—an unintentional core sample of 19th-century weather—housed in museums around the world. Squint long enough, perhaps, and beneath those swirling mists and pixelations you will see traces of the Sahara, of building dust, of pollen, of the wheat-sprouting soil of the region, all recorded for good measure through time.
Like some unexpected variation on Jurassic Park—in which it is not the DNA of dinosaurs extracted from ancient amber that we use to reconstitute a missing being—perhaps an army of art historians and scientists, equipped with microscopes and tweezers, could pull from the surface of every painting by Vincent Van Gogh a catalog of lost weather systems, mapping the moving sands of his era.