Wanderer in the Storm – a favourite painting

Quite a lot of people of a certain age (ahemm!) are looking back on the Great Storm of 1987 with mixed feelings this week upon its 30th anniversary. By international standards it was not a particularly powerful storm – not exactly your typical Caribbean-Hurricane experience, for instance – but nonetheless, for the normally mild and temperate south-east of England, it was a big one; one of the biggest for a couple of centuries and the devastation was dreadful.

black and white phote of storm damaged old house and gardenAfter The Storm ( courtesy Harwich & Dovercourt)

It claimed 18 lives and flattened 15 million trees before it passed along quietly into the North Sea. And anyone who lived thought that night, as I did, watching the roof-tiles peeling off the buildings like playing cards, still cannot experience a regular windy evening, no matter how innocuous, without a slight pang of apprehension.

storm damage tree having fallen on car Aftermath of the Great Storm (photo David Wright)

Historically, in most of Europe, October is usually a windy month, of course. And today, as if in homage to that outburst of nature 30 years ago, the skies have turned an amazing dark, golden brown colour outside even during the middle of the day. It is just beautiful. It reminds me of one of my all-time favourite paintings. Here is it is …

old painting of man wandering in stormy landscape

Entitled Wanderer in the Storm, it was painted in 1835 by the German artist Julius von Leypold (1806 – 1874). Currently housed in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, it is the epitome of the German Romantic School of art, most notably the work of von Leypold’s contemporary Caspar David Friedrich. But it was not just in painting that Gothic Romanticism of this kind found expression. It was a universal impulse – everywhere from the writings of Goethe to the music of Franz Schubert. We see it in architecture and design, and we hear it in poetry. It embraced all that was dramatic and emotionally intense.

Here, a gentleman, leaning somewhat into the wind, strides out alone into the stormy weather. The pathway takes him past ruined buildings and beneath bare trees, likewise straining in the wind. It is an overt, unapologetic celebration of everything that is mysterious, dark and tempestuous – the ultimate Gothic sentiment of human feelings set amid the unrelenting grandeur of nature.

A matter of choice

The wanderer has complete freedom. He can wander out into the storm if he wishes, or walk away from it. He can shelter or take a risk. More significantly, perhaps, he can react in thought just as he wishes, too, to allow himself to be cowered and afraid or, more likely, to be strong and courageous. Unlike his compatriots battening down the hatches or hiding indoors, he retains the ability to confront extremes. He is able to move as a free spirit in time and space and to choose his destiny.

It was a metaphor that was not wasted during the turbulent early years of the 19th century, at the close of the Napoleonic era when most of the continent was still recovering from decades of warfare and revolution and was also, many people suspected, approaching further decades of small-scale upheavals in the German states and even, once again for a third time, in France.

I love this painting. It has bravery and defiance, but also modesty and simplicity. It encapsulates the notion that it is not always what happens to us in life that is important, but how we respond to it. I wonder where he is heading, and what he is thinking, the wanderer in the storm?

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