Man-made vs. Natural in the works of Loutherbourg

Coalbrookdale by Night (1801) and An Avalanche in the Alps (1803) both by Phillip James de Loutherbourg have opposite subject matter but strikingly similar compositions. This similarity draws comparisons between the two works and can be seen as either praise for or critique of the Industrial Revolution.

Phillip James de Loutherbourg, “An Avalanche in the Alps,” 1803

Phillip James de Loutherbourg, “Coalbrookdale by Night,” 1801

Both compositions are made up of strong diagonal lines. The lines of the painting create a powerful tension in each piece. There is a prominent form breaking the skyline in the top left corner with misty clouds or smoke behind it.  The composition is broken up into three main sections. There is the background, the outcropping in the top left, and the people are in the bottom left. Also, even some of the details draw parallels. The shape of the rocks in Avalanche is very similar to the houses in Coalbrookdale. Even the pine trees in the top image are mirrored in the tree peeking out from behind the house in the bottom one. On a more abstract level, both works present a huge and potentially destructive force, whether it is natural, like an avalanche, or man-made, like a factory. It also shows the effect the force presented has on the people around it. In the top painting, the people are standing back from it, afraid, while in the bottom painting most of the people shown are doing some sort of physical labor or work in connection with the factory.

After looking closer at the paintings outside of class, I noticed an even smaller similarity between the two paintings. In the bottom right corner, there is an even more overt representation of destruction. In Avalanche it is a pile of snow with a stereotypical “storm-blasted tree,” while in Coalbrookdale it is a pile of what looks like pipes or other discarded metal objects. Each sums up the ideas presented in the work.

An Avalanche in the Alps is typical of the idea that nature is this all-powerful, destructive force. It is sublime and makes onlookers feel as if they’re in the presence of some divine being, but it’s not a pleasant feeling. It’s almost terrifying. The people in the painting aren’t staring at nature in wonder, but holding up their hands and leaning away from the avalanche.

Since Coalbrookdale at Night has such a similar composition to An Avalanche in the Alps, it is hard not to draw comparisons between the two. It could either be seen as praise or critique, depending on how you look at it. At first, I took the similarities to be a negative thing. I saw the painting as a criticism of the new industrial era. Comparing it to how Loutherbourg painted nature, industrialism can be viewed as something with huge potential to destroy, and rightly so. It can be seen as destroying the environment or forever altering people’s way of life, just as an avalanche destroys and alters everything in its path.

The more I thought about it though, the more I saw a different point of view. While nature at the time was seen as a sort of all-encompassing, supernatural thing, that wasn’t really a bad thing. It was destructive but also divine. Looking at industrialism through those eyes (and looking at Coalbrookdale after analyzing Avalanche), it is placing it up on a pedestal. It’s like Loutherbourg is implying that the factories and other man-made things are on the same end of the scale as mountains, geysers, and waterfalls. That’s a big claim to make. It places man on almost the same level as God, which, intended or not, is a pretty heavy comparison to draw.

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About Hannah S.

I'm a Graphic Design student pursuing a BFA at the University of Montevallo with minors in Art History and Math. On the off chance that I'm not doing schoolwork, I love funny tv shows, serious books, most genres of music and all kinds of animals. I'm also interested in environmental issues, coding and programming and making lists for everything.

One thought on “Man-made vs. Natural in the works of Loutherbourg

  1. This is a good comparison of the two paintings. I think it would be interesting to look at other works by him to see if this composition is typical in his paintings. If so, it could just be that this is his formula for how to arrange objects in a picture, if not, then that would make you observations here even stronger. Regardless, your summation of seeing these images as equating nature/God and man is really provocative.

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