Hotspot volcanoes

From eruptions to sunsets, volcanoes have left their mark on paintings


A new volcanic site in Iceland made headlines this week, with photos and videos allowing everyone to see volcanic activity in Geldingadalur. People have always been fascinated by volcanic activity and have captured it in writings and paintings. These eyewitness accounts are one of the ways we know historical volcanic activity, but the volcanic sky has in turn left its own mark on famous paintings.

Geologists use a wide range of monitoring equipment to track current volcanic activity, but to get information about eruptions before measurements started, researchers had to pull together information from different sources. This includes geological evidence of a volcano eruption, but also personal testimonies of people who were there. This is how we know, for example, that Vesuvius erupted in August 79 AD – this has been documented in letters written by Pliny the Younger, 17 years old.

Historical volcanic eruptions have also been documented in paintings. An active volcano on the Caribbean island of St Vincent has erupted several times in recent centuries. One of those moments was in 1812, which a local lawyer Hugh Perry Keane captured in notes and sketches. His notes were used in media coverage of the event, and artist JMW Turner used his sketches as the base material to paint the eruption of 1815.

But several of Turner’s other paintings also included evidence of volcanic activity. In 2014, scientists analyzed the color of the sunsets in several of Turner’s paintings in the digital collection of the Tate Gallery in London. They were able to measure a difference in the color of painted sunsets after a volcanic eruption, where particles would have affected the color of the sunset even from several kilometers away.

The same phenomenon appears in The Scream by Edvard Munch. In 2004, astronomer Donald Olson identified the exact location and momentous event that inspired Munch’s famous work. He suggested that Much had seen the sky turn red after The eruption of Krakatoa in 1883. Even though the volcano was in Indonesia, it sent particles into the sky that changed the color of the sunset for several months all over the world, even as far as Norway where Munch was.

When Eyjafjallajökull erupted in 2010, it also caused the sunsets to take on an impressive red color. through Europe. However, the latest Geldingadalur eruption did not cause the type of ash cloud that would change the color of sunsets, so we are unlikely to see the effect of this new volcanic activity on the painted landscapes this week.

However, we also don’t have to rely on the written notes and sketches of the locals to find out what the eruption looked like. We can see all of this happening in real time on a webcam, or through the many photos and videos taken in recent days, including drone images it almost seems to take you straight inside the volcano.

Not much has changed since Turner’s time – we still love to watch footage of active volcanoes!