On 8 August 1588 the English navy defeated the invading Spanish Armada. Over two centuries later, in the middle of another war, émigré Frenchman Philip James de Loutherbourg painted his interpretation of the great sea battle. As a theatre designer and special-effects expert, de Loutherbourg had created spectacular naval battles onstage; this painting gives a flavour of his visual style and approach to colour.
Defeat of the Spanish Armada, 8 August 1588 depicts a boat-load of English sailors fighting their way into a Spanish ship, which is silhouetted against a hellish tumult of bright red flames and deep black smoke. It is realistic: there are no heroic gestures, no classical allusions, and no angelic figures; nor is there even any thrilling and awful violence. What makes de Loutherbourg’s rendering of the defeat of the Spanish Armada so unusual is how the painting achieves the “realistic sublime,” engaging the viewer viscerally and emotionally.1 This sublime is invoked by the almost shocking use of colour, along with de Loutherbourg‘s use of diagonal lines to divide the picture. The strongest diagonal is from the top right to the bottom left dividing the picture into two colour fields: green-blue and strong shades of red. The red section depicts the Armada fleet being burned by English fireships. The green section – the roiling, churning water – represents another kind of horror. The colours themselves offer up a kind of violence rhetorically proffering two dreadful fates: death either by water or fire. Here, de Loutherbourg’s insistence on a naturalistic style is combined with lurid colour to create a sublime that nevertheless remains plausible.
I have been researching de Loutherbourg as part of my PhD on Realism and the Sublime in the depiction of history in cinema and painting. He is a strange, but essential footnote in the history of cinema and his ideas about colour are both radical and relevant to the history and practice of film spectacle. As stage designer at Drury Lane, he created realistic stage sets and spectacular effects, the like of which had never been done in Britain.2 The peculiar use of colour is often mentioned by his admirers, although Diderot had some reservations about the intensity of his colour. The use of coloured filters and fabrics on stage, resulting in dramatic coloured light effects, combined with his insistence on realism in productions such as “Omai; or a Trip Around the World” (1785) transformed the London theatre.
As well as designing for Drury Lane, de Loutherbourg invented his own commercial moving-picture show, which he named the Eidophusikon, which combined lighting, sound and a painted scene that moved to replicate sublime landscapes. Subjects included a shipwreck and, in the season finale of the Eidophusikon, Hell from Paradise Lost. (McCalman 2006, p.341). Combining painting, lighting, sound and technology in popular entertainment, the Eidophusikon is clearly part of the prehistory of cinema, but his paintings and theatre scenography also reveal “cinematic” thinking.3
What is particularly odd about de Loutherbourg is that he was a dedicated alchemist, a follower of the occultist Cagliostro, and even, for a time, a faith healer (Stott, n.d.). His interest in colour came about from his alchemical work; he became an expert in colour chemistry.4 As Iain McCalman (2005, pp.194-195) points out, the paintings demonstrate “the dynamics and idiosyncrasies of occult colour theory” and in Defeat of the Spanish Armada appear so overwhelming and aggressive whilst conveying meaning so eloquently.
One of the most useful readings for any filmmaker, and one I always recommend to students, is Wassily Kandinsky’s passages on colour in Concerning the spiritual in art (1910) It’s not that Kandinsky was “right” about colour, but that he articulates ways in which we can think about colour. Kandinsky links colour to the spiritual due to his immersion in Theosophy and the mysticism that was so prevalent at the time, but also shows how colour connects to and manipulates our emotions, causing a physical reaction and therefore – pragmatically – how it may be used.
In film especially, colour can enhance, support or even challenge the other aspects of the film – its story, characters, dialogue. It can invade the composition and wrest the meaning away from the dominant meaning of the scene: think of how the red Confederate flag suddenly rises above the dusty green-brown dead and wounded in Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939).
A study of Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now, I would suggest, utilises aspects of de Loutherbourg’s sense of colour to express violence in the depiction of conflict. According to cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, the technical study of colour must be applied to the emotional practice of colour (Writing with Light: Vittorio Storaro, 1992). Like de Loutherbourg’s pursuit of colour through alchemy and occult study, Storaro’s interest in colour is more than simply functional or decorative. As he put it. “I spent a long time researching the meaning of colour, what kind of response the human body has to it, how we can visualize sentiment and emotion with colour, how this all relates to the physiology and psychology of the human”(Storaro and Gentry 1994, p.4).
Like Defeat of the Armada, Apocalypse Nowused strikingly coloured smoke as a stunning visual effect. In a 2001 interview, Storaro remembers “I thought it would be wonderful because when these artificial colours were placed next to the natural colours of Vietnam it created that sense of conflict that I wanted” (Burum and Pizello, 2001 p.96).
The connection to the psychedelic is explicit in the film in the depictions of drug use and the soundtrack. Partially influenced by the “very aggressive colours” of Henri Rousseau’s jungle paintings, neither Storaro nor director Francis Ford Coppola wanted the colour of the jungle to be naturalistic. For example, Coppola commented that he wanted “to create a conflict between beauty and horror” (Burum and Pizello 2001, p.100). The conflict between beauty and horror is also integral to de Loutherbourg’s vision of the Armada.
So what links Apocalypse Now and The Defeat of the Spanish Armada is their unusual approach to colour in the war picture/ war film. Over-dramatic, lurid colours that pull the image away from realism, yet deliver strong and clear meaning.
What, then, is the connection with mysticism? I think that there is work to be done on acknowledging the role of mysticism or esoteric ideas in the development of ideas about colour. I mentioned Kandinsky, yet, Natale suggests esoterica as common to the publics of modernity rather than marginalised.5 De Loutherbourg’s dalliances with Cagliostro might have given his Royal Academy friends pause, but does not seem to have harmed his art career. Moreover, de Loutherbourg made enough money creating an immersive theatrical presentation of Milton’s “Hell” for the Gothic novelist and sybarite William Beckford to finance the final season of the Eidophusikon.6 From Baudelaire’s poetic invocations to Satan to silent film’s occult links – e.g. Kandinsky’s contemporaries, cinematographer Charles Rosher and the Golden Dawn or Alban Grau’s dedicated occultism – the role of mysticism in the history of art and of cinema is not always acknowledged.7
As for Apocalypse Nowand The Defeat of the Armada, both offer the visceral horror of war presented as an emotional and physiological journey into the colour spectrum. They both harness the strange power of colour to create compelling and memorable images. If de Loutherbourg’s colour vision was too odd for later audiences, and his paintings remain ignored today, his notion of a realistic sublime, rooted in a mystical and deeply emotive sense of colour, is one which cinema has embraced.
- “Realistic sublime” is a term I am using to describe the work made by de Loutherbourg in his theatre design and his paintings, which present sublime imagery, particularly – but not exclusively – landscapes, rendered in a style of acute pictorial naturalism that nevertheless moves from the realistic into the sublime. He was primarily concerned with building special effects which appeared as real as possible, but excited and even upset his audiences by their force and drama. De Loutherbourg may not be the first to create a realistic sublime but he was probably the first to do it do systematically and extensively across painting, proscenium theatre, immersive theatre and the Eidophusikon. See McCalman (2007) on De Loutherbourg’s immersive theatre work for William Beckford.
- The principal researcher on de Loutherbourg is Iain McCalman, who has hypothesized that the painter left France because of debts, having accrued “a reputation for debt, profligacy, and libertinage that eventually tried the patience of even indulgent Diderot.” (McCalman 2006, p.344)However he does not seem to have had the same problems in London Like the rest of de Loutherbourg’s pictures, Defeat of the Spanish Armada, which is at the Royal Museums Greenwich but not on display, is very little known. The painter had previously designed a staging of the Armada as a spectacular scene in Sheridan’s comedy ‘The Critic’ at Drury Lane, so the painting may give a sense of what the theatrical staging may have looked like.
- See for example the painting Coalbrookdale by Night(1801; The Science Museum), where the factory is rendered as a sublime, overwhelming apocalyptic vision, while still being clearly a working factory.
- Unfortunately, he didn’t leave behind any writing on the subject that we know of.
- Simone Natale (2016) describes a popular culture of mesmerism, séances and spiritualism that is missing from the history of art and cinema.
- McCalman (2006) and (2007) discusses de Loutherbourg’s occultism and his work for Beckford, the author of the Gothic novel Vathek. De Loutherbourg also illustrated various versions of the Apocalypse for publication.
- Actually I am not really sure about Rosher. There are some references to his membership of the Golden Dawn (Knowles, 2007, p.53), and he may well have been part of it as a young man, but the evidence is so far very thin.
Baugh, C. (2007) Philippe de Loutherbourg: Technology-Driven Entertainment and Spectacle in the Late Eighteenth Century’. Huntington Library Quarterly, 70(2), pp.251-268.
Bermingham, A. (2016) Technologies of Illusion: De De Loutherbourg’s Eidophusikon in Eighteenth-Century London. Art History, 39, pp. 376–399.
Bergery, B.(1989) Reflections 10: Storaro, ASC. American Cinematographer; Hollywood, 70(8), Aug., pp. 70-72,74.
Burum, S.and Pizello,S.(2001) A Clash of Two Cultures: Vittorio Storaro Interview. American Cinematographer, (February).
Knowles, C.(2007) Our Gods Wear Spandex: The Secret History of Comic Book Heroes. New York: Weiser Books.
Writing with Light: Vittorio Storaro. (1992) Directed by Matthew Bradshaw. UK: Happy Valley/BBC.
McCalman, I.(2005) Mystagogues of Revolution. In:Chandler, J.and Gilmartin,K.(eds.) Romantic metropolis : the urban scene of British culture, 1780-1840. Cambridge [etc.: Cambridge University Press.
McCalman, I.(2006) Spectres of Quackery: The Fragile Career of Philippe de Loutherbourg. Cultural and Social History, 3(3), pp. 341–354.
Mccalman, I. (2007). The Virtual Infernal: Philippe de De Loutherbourg, William Beckford and the Spectacle of the Sublime. Romanticism on the Net, (46). https://doi.org/10.7202/016129ar
Natale, S.(2016) Supernatural Entertainments: Victorian Spiritualism and the Rise of Modern Media Culture. Pennsylvania State University Press.
Storaro, V.and Gentry,R.(1994) Writing with Light: An Interview with Vittorio Storaro. Film Quarterly, 48(2), pp. 2–9.
Stott, A.M.Stage Light: The life of artist and scenographer Philippe Jacques de De Loutherbourg, and the role of the occult in the history of special effects.[Online] Lapham’s Quarterly. Available from : https://www.laphamsquarterly.org/magic-shows/stage-light [Accessed 14/05/18].
BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE: Gillian McIver is the author of Art History for Filmmakers (Bloomsbury 2016). Drawing on anecdotal evidence from filmmakers, as well as film theory and art history, she demonstrates how paintings are used by filmmakers in a myriad of innovative and sometimes surprising ways. McIver studied History at the University of Toronto, and studied Film at the University of Westminster. Her current research at Roehampton is on the visual representation of history in cinema and painting. Contact: Gillian McIver, University of Roehampton; firstname.lastname@example.org Website: gillianmciver.org