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Volcano Watch — Volcanoes-a source of artistic inspiration?

January 14, 2010

In celebration of Volcano Awareness Month (January 2010), we examine the influence of volcanoes on human society, beginning last week with religion. This week, we will explore the impact of volcanoes on art.

Too often, art and science are seen as mutually exclusive endeavors. A common misconception is that artists are creative and inspiring, while scientists are cold and logical, with little overlap between the two groups. In fact, there is a surprising amount of science in art, and art in science. Painters study color and light to better translate their visions into reality. Likewise, scientists must be creative in their study of complex problems. Historically, volcanoes have proven to be fertile ground for interactions between the artist and scientist, each drawn by inspiration and curiosity.

The earliest known visual representation of a volcano is from central Anatolia (present-day Turkey). Archeologists excavating an ancient city near Hasan Dagi volcano-which has been inactive for several thousand years-discovered a wall painting that depicts the mountain in eruption. The painting, sometimes referred to as the "first landscape" by art historians, provides evidence for an eruption of Hasan Dagi that occurred about 9,000 years ago, and corroborates geological studies of ancient eruptive activity.

Artistic interest in volcanoes continued into the Renaissance. Paintings of volcanoes from that period indicate that artists directly observed eruptions, and may have even understood the volcanic processes at work. For example, paintings of the 1631 eruption of Vesuvius show ground-hugging clouds now known to be pyroclastic surges-a phenomenon that was not recognized by volcanologists until the 20th century.

During the 18th and 19th centuries (before cameras were invented), artists were essential members of exploration parties who created visual records of new discoveries. Artist Robert Dampier visited Hawai`i as part of a British expedition in 1825, while Titian Ramsay Peale (son of Charles Wilson Peale, who painted the famous portrait of George Washington) was part of an American expedition to Hawai`i in 1840-1841. Their paintings, along with the drawings and illustrations of Reverend William Ellis, are the first visual record of Kīlauea and are invaluable today as evidence of the volcano's appearance in the 1800s.

Even after the invention of the camera, many artists continued to record realistic depictions of volcanic activity. The growth of Paricutin volcano, which started erupting in 1943 in Mexico, was extensively documented by Dr. Atl, a self-named and self-titled Mexican artist, philosopher, politician, and writer. Dr. Atl promoted the practice of painting outdoors, and volcanoes were among his favorite subjects. In fact, Dr. Atl's observations of volcanoes convinced him that the theory of continental drift (the forerunner to modern plate tectonic theory) was applicable to volcanic activity around the world"”something that was not recognized by geologists for another 20 years.

Of course, scientific observation is, at best, a secondary motivation behind most paintings of volcanoes. The primary purpose is that of capturing the inspiring and dramatic sight of primal creative forces at work in nature. The beautiful form of Vesuvius and its infamous eruptions are, perhaps, the reason that it is the most painted volcano in Western art. Similarly, the veneration that the Japanese feel for Mount Fuji explains its frequent depiction in Eastern art, perhaps most famously in Hokusai's series of woodblock prints, "Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji."

Looking at the impacts of eruptions, it is apparent that volcanoes have provided indirect artistic inspiration. The 1815 eruption of Tambora, Indonesia, ejected so much gas and ash into the atmosphere that the colors of sunsets and sunrises around the world were intensified for many years thereafter. These displays may have motivated the fiery skies of the English artist Joseph Turner. Similarly, the 1883 eruption of Krakatau, also in Indonesia, created worldwide spectacular atmospheric effects. The British painter William Ashcroft and the American painter Frederic Church painted and sketched the spectacular sunsets in the years that followed the eruption.

There can be no doubt that volcanoes are important elements in art-but this should be no surprise to Hawai`i residents and visitors. The sight of snow-capped Mauna Kea, the experience of a sunrise from the summit of Haleakalā, and the spectacle of a Kīlauea lava flow are everyday artistic inspirations in Hawai`i.

Next week, in the third part of out series on volcanoes and society, we will investigate the relation between volcanoes and literature.


Volcano Activity Update

This has been a quiet week on Kīlauea's east rift zone, with no sign of lava erupting from the TEB vent. Pu`u `O`o had begun to re-inflate as of this writing (Thursday, January 14), and may result in new surface flows above the pali as portions of the lava tube become reoccupied.

At Kīlauea's summit, a prolonged deflation through the first half of the week was accompanied by a withdrawal of lava to a deeper level. As a result, night-time glow above the collapse pit inset within the floor of Halema`uma`u Crater was relatively weak. The glow became brighter during the second half of the week, however, as the summit began to re-inflate and lava rose back up to a shallower level in the pit. After the lava rose back into view, the Webcam revealed a churning and spattering lava surface often with minor fluctuations in height. Volcanic gas emissions remain elevated, resulting in high concentrations of sulfur dioxide downwind.

One earthquake was felt this past week. A magnitude-3.1 earthquake occurred at 8:27 p.m., H.s.t., on Wednesday, January 13, 2010, and was located 27 km (17 miles) W of Kawaihae at a depth of 22 km (14 miles).