Paintings in The Year Without A Summer

Perpetual Darkness

The world of art changed in 1816. Paintings representing the brightest of skies of the European landscape now revealed the dark sun that seemed to take heat away from the world. Artist of this time did not understand why, but the atmosphere they were trying to depict was darker than that of the past. The dawns and sunsets that were the main focal points of their art and provided light and hope became redder and darker. A sense of perpetual darkness is shown, even with the light of the sun or the shine of the moon depicted in the skies above.

Regardless, artists still looked to the heavens for inspiration, and their depictions have become snapshots of history in this “year without a summer,” showing that life, though hard, continued under a depressing atmosphere. With resilience and hard work, Europeans were able to live through this time, once again seeing the warmth of summer years later.

Greifswald im Mondschein or Greifswald in Moonlight, 1817 By Caspar David Friedrich

The art created by J.M.W. Turner, John Crome, Caspar David Friedrich and many other artists showed the changes in the atmosphere but also revealed how the lives of people were forced to continue in the face of darkness. Through their landscape paintings, common themes emerge, such as agriculture, religion, and shipping that will later have significant meaning to the people of these cold times in northern Europe.

The Eruption of Tambora-Cold Days Begin

Before 1816, artists filled the sky with light. During 1816 and for years after, the sun was engulfed in a constant red haze that kept the daylight from penetrating to the Earth’s surface. This haze came from the eruption of Mount Tambora, located on the island of Sumbawa in the British Isles off the coast of Indonesia. In April of 1815, this massive mountain exploded in apocalyptic fashion, losing most of its height and killing almost everyone on or near the island. Vast amounts of ash, dust, and chemicals shot straight into the stratosphere from the equator, quickly covering the Northern Hemisphere and the rest of the planet.

Mount Tambora or what left today.


The ash and gasses would reflect much-needed sunlight away from the planet causing the climate to cool. This cooling would then cause disastrous effects on all life and it would be years before these clouds of ash and sulfur would dissipate from the atmosphere, warming the Earth once again. This covering affected paintings also, as the haze would add red hues to the atmosphere that was not present until Tambora’s ash cloud covered the Earth.

Inside Tambora’s Crater. Pictures provided from Top Indonesia Holidays. Who would have guessed that such a beautiful place would bring such destruction?

Unbeknownst to artists of this time who were trying to accurately display sun the way they saw it, this haze entered their work, showing the atmosphere before, during, and after the eruption. Because of this, these paintings were later chosen to be used for further scientific data on volcanoes of the past to help understand how these gasses traveled and dispersed over time through first-hand accounts.

Red Haze Takes Over The World

Through studies such as “Atmospheric effects of volcanic eruptions as seen by famous artists and depicted in their paintings,” by Physicists and Meteorologist Christos S. Zerefos, the idea of a reddening atmosphere due to volcanic eruptions is explained and used in new ways. Because of sulfur produced by volcanoes enters the atmosphere, sunsets, dawns, and even the moon become distorted for years until the gasses left the atmosphere.

Artists who painted the skies in front of them matched what they saw, adding more red to their paintings. Using this, a scale can be made with many different artworks from different times, tracking these changes for centuries. They also become primary sources for historians, as the reddening was highlighted by the artist interpretation of the world around them and the problems they faced. Focusing on 1800-1830, the reddening of the atmosphere is tracked as before, during and after Tambora’s eruption, revealing the thoughts present of artists of the time.

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The Age Of Romanticism

So why are these artworks so dependent on sunlight? Because of the new art style. Known as Romanticism, this type of design puts nature as the main character in every art piece. Running from 1790 to 1850, this period of the arts was known for its emphasis on “transient and dramatic effects of light, atmosphere, and color to portray a dynamic natural world capable of evoking awe and grandeur.”  There are also connections to history within the art, as most images seem to deliberately show the past, giving an idea that even the most recent painting seemed old in construction. This age was also characterized by its use of nature, as new developments in science were beginning to be understood and used in the arts to acquire a more meaningful depiction of landscapes and people within them. Giving deeper meaning to their craft, all the works from this time put nature on the main stage, allowing for its story to be told as well as the struggles of Europeans in the Tambora Years.

Agriculture-The Hunger Of The World

Europe in 1816, like the rest of the world, was suffering from starvation. Constant winter had caused massive crop loss across the globe, making the people of northern Europe desperate to find food. John Crome shows us his depictions of the world around him in the “year without a summer.”

A Windmill near Norwich c.1816 by John Crome 1768-1821
A Windmill near Norwich c.1816, John Crome

Through his painting A Windmill near Norwich, the sky is unquestionably dark and incredibly heavy with haze. An observer can find themselves noticing that not only is the sky dark, but the entire picture is bleak. With the darkness of starvation, poverty, and lingering death, Crome shows a darker time, instilling a feeling of dread in the viewer. But, with this darkness, there is still light. The viewer can feel the cold of the painting as the farmer again goes forward, much like all farmers at the time did, to fuel himself and his nation. The animals viewed in the foreground are still able to eat the grass growing in the field, showing that even the land itself was still finding ways to combat the cold and continue life. Through perseverance, humans and nature seemed to find ways to eat in the cold days of 1816-1820.

Religion-Questions Of Faith

With empty stomachs, some European’s looked to their God for salvation, but with heavenly kingdom filled with the darkness of ash, God seemed to be displeased with the world, calling for its destruction.  Religion was a vast and influential part of European life. Although broken into different denominations, Christianity found its way into artwork throughout this period. Some were very noticeable, such as religious scenes deliberately painted, while others were subtle in their depictions, with the massive clock towers of churches seen in the cityscape. All of these paintings still used the same lighting of the era, which was contaminated by volcanic gasses, forcing the skies to be darker even though the artist was painting scenes depicting the Lord or his home.

Casper David Friedrich’s Neubrandenburg (1816-1817)

For many centuries, Europeans had different faiths all around. Conflicting views were sometimes reached boiling points with each other, and the weather from Tambora did not help with this.  In Casper David Friedrich’s Neubrandenburg (1816-1817) a high tower of a local church stands above a town, with mountains in the background, and two people in the front. The colors of the sky are brighter around the city, possibly showing brightness coming from the church. Above the sunny skies, turbulence is shown, seemingly to be held at bay by the field of light. With a view like this, it seems that the church in the city is holding back the darkness that was in the world at this time, that their devotion to religion gave protection from darkness and produced light. For the religiously devout, this painting provides hope towards faith, that even though their God seemed angry in his kingdom up high, they are protected within their walls as they have not angered him. However, the men seem to be walking away from the city, raising the question of why leave the protection from this light of the Lord that is so substantially on display. With different ideas on religious ideas, these men may be of a different sect, and instead of seeing salvation they may perceive the fires of hell, with light not depicting protection, but instead that of yellow flames of damnation. With this, it is all about the eyes of the beholder, much like all the different religions of the time, whether what you see is salvation or the end of the world as they know it.

Shipping-Importance Of Transportation

With all of the hardship faced by Europe, there was one advantage, however small it seemed, through shipping that allowed better chances for survival. Years of colonization built up the shipping empires of England, France, Germany and many other nations to enable them to get food imported into the country, saving many lives in the process. The importance of ships is shown in many artists’ paintings, demonstrating the importance of shipping, both for trade and empire building.

Yarmouth Harbour - Evening c.1817 by John Crome 1768-1821
Yarmouth Harbour – Evening c.1817, John Crome

Through trade deals with other nations that had food or from distant colonies that could still produce, countries hoped to save as many people as they could from starvation. John Crome’s shows the importance of harbors in the painting Yarmouth Harbour-Evening (c.1817). The mood of this painting is brighter than most other works of this time. The skies are still dark, and light is spread out from possible clouds and gasses from Tambora. However, it gives a more bright and optimistic feeling as shipping and commerce continue to be a significant part of the nation‘s economy. It is through this hope that life can fight back against angry Mother Nature.

Return Of Summer-Remembering the Lost

As the Tambora years came to a close in 1820, Europe was beginning to heal from years of cold, wet weather. Painters began to depict the sky as it was when the volcanic ash fell from the sky and atmosphere cleaned of its contaminants. In Turner’s Rivaulx Abbey, Yorkshire (1825), five years since the atmosphere was allowed to be bright once again, there is nothing but bright and colorful landscape capped with a bright blue sky.  Optimism once again existed as Europe began to get back on track.

Rivaulx Abbey, Yorkshire c. 1826 Joseph Mallord William Turner
Rivaulx Abbey, Yorkshire c. 1826 Joseph Mallord William Turner
Der Friedhof by Caspar David Friedrich (1825)

But, Europeans also came away from with something else. Famine, cold, and other factors contributed many deaths all around the globe at the time, including Europe. In Der Friedhof or The Cemetery Entrance (1825), Caspar David Friedrich address this by giving the viewer a reflection of what had happened in this time, while still depicting the light that was to the world.  With the graves inside representing the loss of life not just in this time, but also over the course of history, the viewer remembers that life is short and that the only thing that is permanent is nature itself, depicted as tall trees looming in the distance, in defiance of the individual gravestones. Nature is recognized as the mechanism of change for all life on Earth. Even the devout had to realize that God controlled this destiny, but it was through nature his power was on display. Just as he made the Earth and its beauties, so did he make the storms and cold that controlled life or death.


Survival Through Strength and Resilience

With what European’s faced in the years of 1816-1820, they were still able to live through harsh times. Cold, starvation, and the many ailments suffered by the people of the world was able to kill many, but it was through resilience and strength in the face of uncertainty that humanity was able to survive this trying time. Through art, the atmosphere was shown to be dark and destructive, sucking the life out of the people below. There seemed to be no hope coming from the skies as challenges weighed on Europeans throughout the Tambora years. But, with the help of perseverance and ingenuity, humans were able to live. They would live on for the people who were lost, remembering the harsh times as they moved to a brighter future. It was through hard work, a resilient spirit, and the need to stay alive that the world was able to wait out the ash clouds until they dispersed into history, leaving only records of their appearance.

What Does This Mean For Us?

The world is always changing, either naturally or by interactions of outside forces. Humans have always been able to step up to the challenges nature has given us, and Tambora was a great example of this. It is through our resilience to change that we as a species have been able to make it as far as we have. We have also continued the to document this through art through pictures and video, showing just how far we have come as a species in our interactions with nature.

Climate Change
Found on NASA’s Global Climate Change website

However, resilience will not be enough in the future. Some of our decisions about the world have been questionable at best and we need to be better. The world treats us the same way we treat it. If we could use the same strength we use for self-preservation, we could also use it to make the hard choices to ensure we as a species can continue to survive. If we do not, nature will have its very own grave in the cemetery of time and there will be no one to say goodbye.


*This Article Was Written By Zachary Hubbard, Undergraduate, History Major, Virginia Tech

For further reading on the “year without a summer” please look at the other articles on this site.Also, check out these books to get more information on the Tambora Years:
The Year Without Summer: 1816 and the Volcano That Darkened the World and Changed History by By William K. Klingaman and Nicholas P. Klingaman
Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World by Gillen D’Arcy Wood



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