The Sky and the Soul: 19th-Century Norwegian Artist Knud Baade’s Transcendent Cloudscapes
By Maria Popova
Nothing on Earth appears more divine yet attests more fully to the materiality of being than clouds — enchanting emblems of the water cycle that makes this rocky planet a living world, drifting across our shared dome as if exhaled by some lovesick god. That we should have such a ready supply of wonder hovering above us at all times is one of those daily mercies never to be taken for granted.
Like trees, clouds are sovereign wonders, but they are also mirrors — silver-lined portals to contemplation, windborne prayers for the conciliation of the ephemeral and the eternal in us. Whenever we look up, we are looking in. The shapes we see in them slake our ancient yearning for order in the chaos. Their tenderness awakens our own. Their beguiling evanescence affirms Octavia Butler’s insistence that “God is change.”
“Clouds are thoughts without words,” the poet Mark Strand wrote in his love letter to clouds. Two centuries before him, Goethe found great artistic inspiration in the young science of meteorology. In his passionate search for wholeness in nature, he saw clouds as a way “to find yourself in the infinite.” When he encountered the pioneering cloud classification system devised by a young English meteorologist, poems poured out of him that popularized the cloud names we use today.
A generation after clouds became the subject of science, the Norwegian artist Knud Baade (March 28, 1808–November 24, 1879) rendered their enchantment in a way no photograph ever could.
Anyone who has photographed a sunset with a smartphone has watched the soft, subtle pinks vanish in the digital image, replaced by harsh, flat orange. Part of this is due to the optical superiority of the human retina, whose dynamic range of color and light sensitivity vastly exceeds that of a camera — the eye is constantly moving between different regions of the view, dynamically adjusting to variations in brightness and darkness, while the smartphone camera relies on a static algorithm for color adjustment; as the blue light of dusk enters the sky, it attempts to auto-correct the white balance by overcompensating in the opposite direction, adding extra yellow that turns the pinks orange. “The Sun’s Light when he unfolds it,” Blake wrote, “Depends on the Organ that beholds it.”
But much of it is due to the entwined history of vision and consciousness — it is consciousness, not optics, that ultimately renders the breathtaking beauty of a sunset. Unlike a camera lens, the human eye moves dynamically across a scene, taking in not a single image but a multitude of images with varying exposures and color balances, which the brain then composites and superimposes near-instantaneously into the sunset you see.
A camera paints with optics, but an artist paints with consciousness.
Too poor to afford finishing his education at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Baade dropped out at the dawn of his twenties and began his career painting traditional landscapes and portraits — technically good, unexceptional paintings that put food on his table. He moved with his father to a small parish in the Norwegian countryside, where he walked long hours under the open skies, drinking in the majesty of the mountains and the fjords.
And then, in his mid-thirties, something broke open in him. He looked up, looked in, and, a year before the invention of photography, began painting transcendent cloudscapes — storms and sunsets, wisps of cirrus over treetops and stratus blankets over the Moon.
He called them his “cloud studies” — a lovely reminder that every act of observation, whether channeled in a painting or a poem or in the private chamber of the mind, is both an act of reverence and an act of scholarship, for we spend our lives learning to see more clearly and feel more purely. (Georgia O’Keeffe knew this when she contemplated the art of seeing: “To see takes time, like to have a friend takes time,” she wrote.)
Like Beethoven, who went on composing even as he began losing his hearing, Baade went on painting his cloudscapes even as an eye disease began savaging his vision when he was only in his thirties — a poignant testament to how the mind’s eye is our only real lens on beauty, on wonder, on the transcendent in the everyday.
Complement with the enchanting moonscapes of Baade’s reclusive American peer Albert Pinkham Ryder, then revisit the story of how the clouds got their names and the poetic science of how clouds helped us discover cosmic rays.
Published December 12, 2023