Published Tuesday, June 17, 2003 in the San Jose Mercury News

Weather Corner

Art through the ages has featured elements from dramatic weather

Meteorologists aren't the only people who watch the sky. So do artists -- for ideas, subjects and inspiration.

Art through the ages shows many representations of the weather. Some are relegated to the background, and some add great depth and beauty, and even manage to be scientifically accurate.

There were crude symbolic representations of the sky as far back as prehistoric cave drawings. Egyptian hieroglyphics had symbols for a number of sky features, such as the hot Egyptian sun. The first documented artistic clouds and a lightning bolt were in a Turkish painting in approximately 6200 B.C. The Renaissance brought more realistic clouds and weather to the art world.

Jan van Eyck, a 15th century Flemish painter, used puffy cumulus clouds in the backgrounds of many of his works. Of particular note is ``The Crucifixion,'' done in 1435, which has at least four different cloud types in the background of this very striking painting. The clouds were reproduced in great detail, similar to what would be found in a cloud atlas.

In the early 19th century, English painter John Constable was renowned for his realistic skies. Two of his better-known works were ``Landscape with Clouds'' (1821-1822) and ``Study of Clouds'' (1822). Impressionist Claude Monet showed the dynamics of the weather in his paintings of Sainte-Adresse. In ``Regatta at Sainte-Adresse'' (1867), the sky is bright blue with a mix of clouds, and the water is full of sailboats, while ``Beach at Sainte-Adresse,'' done in the same year, depicts a darker sky, thickening clouds and boats returning to port.

One of the most dramatic paintings using weather as a key element is Vincent van Gogh's ``The Starry Night,'' created in 1889. The magnificent swirl in the sky is a nearly perfect mountain wave cloud known as a Kelvin-Helmholtz wave cloud. It is very likely that van Gogh saw this type of pattern when he painted ``The Starry Night'' during his stay at a mental asylum at Saint-Rémy in the French Alps.

Clouds aren't the only weather phenomena to show up on canvas. Jean-François Millet painted ``The Gust of Wind'' (1871-1873) with a dramatic windswept landscape. To see Millet's work, go to

Artist Frederic Church painted a shimmering sky of green and red in his ``Aurora Borealis'' in 1865.

Canvas isn't the only medium that has been used by artists to display the weather. In Newton, Kan., Phil Epp's ``Blue Sky Sculpture'' is composed of two large panels that are decorated with a mosaic of blue and white tiles that show the sky and clouds.

Many of these images can be found at an online art exhibit called ``Painting the Weather'' from the National Gallery in London. You can find links to some of the works and to the National Gallery's exhibit at

I am indebted to the work of Dr. Stanley David Gedzelman of City College of New York for his inspiration and writings on this topic.

Q The Mercury News and many other newspapers report the daily highest and lowest temperature in the continental United States. On June 5, it was reported that the previous day's high was 120 in Death Valley and the low was 24 in Stanley, Idaho. That's a difference of 96 degrees. Some of us weather data hounds are wondering if that difference was ever 100 or more degrees. Furthermore, we doubt if there are too many countries in the world with such a large temperature variation. Besides China and Russia, what other countries do you suspect may have such an extreme temperature difference?

Dinesh Desai
Los Altos

A I don't know that a definitive record exists worldwide, but a search of nationwide extremes back to 1995 shows that on Feb. 2, 1996, the low in Tower, Minn., was -60 deg F and the high in Orlando and Melbourne, Fla., was 85 degrees F for a difference of 145 degrees! Likewise, a quick search of California records since 1990 showed a day with a 106-degree difference between the hottest and coldest reading. This occurred on Aug. 19, 2000, when Death Valley peaked at 119 degrees and Bodie dipped to 13 degrees.

Q Do other parts of the world have severe tornado-like conditions like our Midwest? What are these ``tornadoes'' called?

Susan Bigelow

A There have been tornadoes in all 50 states and many countries of the world, however, the United States has more than any other country, with an average of about 1,000 per year. There are also significant numbers of tornadoes in the plains of south central Canada, Western Australia and parts of China.

The United Kingdom averages 33 tornadoes per year but because of its small land area ranks first in the world with the highest number of storms per square mile.


Jan Null, founder of Golden Gate Weather Services, is a retired lead forecaster with the National Weather Service. Send questions to him c/o Weather Corner, San Jose Mercury News, 750 Ridder Park Drive, San Jose, Calif. 95190. You also can telephone questions at (510) 657-2246, fax them to (510) 315-3015 or e-mail them to or fill out a form online at