Clouds serve as muses for painters, musicians, photographers and writers
They are ephemeral. And seasonal. In summer, Florida’s clouds are transformed into mountain ranges. My friend, Iris Ingram, called them Florida’s Alps.
Most mornings, puffballs drift across a pale blue summer sky. As the day heats up, these cumulus clouds build and take on fantastical shapes. Many evenings, they give up their water in thunderstorms.
Cloud formations please the eye and lift everyone’s spirits especially in Florida, where verticality is welcome. We have taken down many of the pines, the tallest features in our landscapes.
Clouds are born from water, and Florida has plenty of it, especially in summer. Rivers such as the Myakka spread out. Some of the water percolates down to the Floridan Aquifer, which is sorely in need of it. That aquifer is our source of fresh water. The rest empties into the Gulf of Mexico.
We live on a water-filled limestone peninsula floating on two huge bodies of water, the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.
Clouds are not just geographical features of a landscape. They are part of the culture. Painters, poets and musicians reflect their surroundings in their art.
As a child, Leonardo da Vinci lay for hours in the hills of Tuscany, watching the clouds growing and changing. According to Jean-Pierre Cuzin, curator of the Louvre Museum in Paris, Leonardo considered his paintings to be an expression of his observations. Cloud formations in the backgrounds of his works complement the subjects.
In the Annunciation, the artist invokes heaven with a cumulus cloud. Angry storm clouds mirror the agony of Saint Jerome in the Wilderness. Leonardo set the Mona Lisain a landscape of sky, mountains and valleys, a river and, yes, a cumulus cloud, which is visible in the upper right-hand corner. Unlike portraits by earlier artists, in this case, the human figure and the landscape blend with one another.
Clouds permeate Vincent van Gogh’s paintings, including The Hill of Montmartre with Stone Quarry and A Wheatfield with Cypresses. In Olive Trees with Alpilles in the Background (Museum of Modern Art in New York), clouds take on a life of their own. In Wheatfield under Thunderclouds, painted at the end of his life, a cloud races across the canvas — just as I have watched thunderheads bear down on me some summer evenings in Florida.
One of the first scientific interpreters of clouds was Luke Howard. As a child growing up in London, he sat for hours by the window of his house noting how different types of clouds created different kinds of weather. As a young man, he incorporated his findings into a paper, Essay on the Modification of Clouds, which he presented in 1803 to the Askesian Society. Adopting the Linnaen naming system, he included three basic types of clouds: cirrus (Latin for curly), stratus (layers) and cumulus (heaped up). He added cirrocumulus and cirrostratus modifications. We can see all of these in Florida, sometimes several in one day.
Acquainted with the work of Luke Howard, plein air painter John Constable also became interested in meteorology. He called it “skying.” All of nature was his passion. He made clouds not just a part of his magnificent paintings, but the focus. Look at The Leaping Horse (1825) or Chain Pier from the following year and you cannot help but think that “Florida’s Alps” would have delighted him.
Constable’s cloud painting Wivenhoe Park (1816) hangs in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., but you can walk through most any museum to see clouds interpreted by other artists from other times.
In the permanent collection at Sarasota’s Ringling Museum, you will find clouds in paintings such as A Harbour by Jean Baptiste Pillement, Arcadian Landscape by Juriaan Andriessen and Cows in a Landscape by Paulus Potter.
Some 17th century portraits include landscapes in the background. The contrast of styles is startling: a meticulously rendered portrait in a static setting with a softly rendered landscape in the background. I envision apprentices lined up in the master’s studio, vying to fill in trees and clouds while the artist tries to meet the exacting expectations of the subject of the portrait.
Walk through the Ringling on a summer afternoon and inventory clouds in the permanent collection. Do not miss the stormy sky of Ecstasy of Saint Paul (1643) by Nicholas Poussin. (If you cannot visit, take an online virtual tour of the museum at ringling.org/collections. After your tour, step outside and look for similarities between what you just saw inside and what you are seeing now. Notice how the setting sun colors towering cumulus clouds with pinks and golds, with bits of blue sky peaking through. Sometimes as the light fades, the clouds dissipate and the sky is that familiar pale blue.
At St Petersburg’s Dali Museum (thedali.org,), a tour of the permanent collection yields plenty of clouds in paintings from the very beginnings of Salvador Dali’s career, through the height of surrealism and afterwards. Clouds figure prominently in Fountain of Milk Spreading Itself Uselessly on Three Shoes, Homage to Crick and Watsonand Puzzle of Autumn. The artist plays with us and is lavish with whimsy even in his landscapes.
Musicians, too, have been inspired by clouds. At Curry Creek Preserve in Venice at midday, the clouds take on the fantastical shapes of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now. As I sit among the longleaf pines, “Rows and flows of angel hair, and ice cream castles in the air, and feather canyons everywhere, I’ve looked at clouds that way” drifts through my mind. Her folk song was written in1969, a time of ferment but a hopeful era with endless possibilities.
Under far bleaker conditions, during the occupation of Paris in 1940, Romani gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt composed Nuages (Clouds), which became a kind of anthem for the beleaguered residents of the city. No one knows how Django composed great music while managing to evade the Gestapo at a time when 1 million Romani were being exterminated in the concentration camps.
In this era of climate change, I have become wary of storms. No longer are skies the neutral backdrop they were 30 years ago. “Ice cream castles” morph into ferocious hurricanes fueled by rising water temperatures. Thunderstorms are common. Walking a trail at Oscar Scherer State Park in Osprey, I will see veils of falling water off in the distance, and then suddenly they are upon me. Huge raindrops splatter on the sand. Sometimes it is just a passing shower; other times, a deluge. I run for cover, cramming my camera into a plastic bag.
Another time, I am sheltered under a dome of pale blue sky while storms rage all around me on the periphery. It is like being in a state of grace.
Last night, I was treated to Florida’s most spectacular cloud display of all, a lightning show — cloud-to-cloud lightning with little thunder and no rain. Sitting on my back porch, I was in almost a hypnotic state watching the heavens blink on and off, revealing clouds in strange and beautiful shapes. As the clouds moved closer, they became brighter and brighter. On again, off again, for what seemed like hours.
This morning, all is calm. Just a splash of meringue across a bright blue sky. Who knows what the evening will bring?
Fran Palmeri is the author of “Florida Lost and Found,” a book of essays and photographs available on Amazon.