How an 1815 Volcanic Eruption Affected Mary Shelley and Visual Art Alike 

In Depth

What do Frankenstein and many vivid early nineteenth-century artworks, including paintings by J.M.W. Turner, have in common? Supposedly, that would be the 1815 eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora and its climactic repercussions.

The New York Times has a piece drawing on Gillen D’Arcy Wood’s Tambora: The Eruption that Changed the World, a recent account of the catastrophe and its global implications, due out in paperback in September. Tens of thousands of people (at the very least) died in the eruption and its immediate aftermath, but the impacts didn’t end there:

The repercussions were global, but no one realized that the widespread death and mayhem arose from an eruption halfway around the world. What emerged was regional folklore. New Englanders called 1816 “eighteen hundred and froze to death.” Germans called 1817 the year of the beggar. These and many other local episodes remained unknown or unconnected.
It was scientists who began to stitch together the big picture, especially the peculiar link between fiery volcanism and icy weather.

Wood pulls together a fair bit of evidence and works to connect the dots between the eruption, the ensuing chill, and several disasters that followed, such as crop failures and an 1817 cholera epidemic. He also goes into the lingering impact on the arts. You’ll see Tambora haunting art from the period, if you look closely:

His book reprints an 1816 oil painting of Weymouth Bay, a sheltered cove on England’s south coast, by John Constable — the sky above churning with dark clouds. “Everywhere,” Dr. Wood said, “the volcanic winds blew hard.” He noted that both history and computer models speak of fierce storms back then.
The particles high in the atmosphere also produced spectacular sunsets, as detailed in the famous paintings of J.M.W. Turner, the English landscape pioneer. His vivid red skies, Dr. Wood remarked, “seem like an advertisement for the future of art.”

And, of course, Mary Shelley famously began writing Frankenstein while cooped up with her husband, Percy, and Lord Byron during “the year without a summer.” Presumably it beat the hell out of hearing yet another story about opium and naked women.

Contact the author at [email protected].

Image of the house where Shelley started “Frankenstein” via Getty.

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