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The Aesthetic Atmosphere  

Stanley David Gedzelman This course presents a view of the atmosphere as depicted by artists and understood by scientists. It is a cultural and natural history of artistic and scientific discovery (with demonstrations) of the atmosphere's colors, optical phenomena, clouds, signs of changing weather, and marks of climate. Sky paintings and photographs are compared and analyzed with a scientific perspective. Prevalent meteorological themes in paintings are related both to the climate and societal milieu. As one example, I will explain why Leonardo's Mona Lisa is one of the very first European paintings with a hazy sky. As I bring the artists’ skies out of their background oblivion, worlds you may never have noticed will open up before your eyes, Artists are keen observers. Some, like Thomas Cole, were quite open about portraying the landscape and sky with near photographic accuracy to preserve a record of the vanishing sublime wilderness. Always sensitive to beauty, artists were there to record the atmosphere’s most magnificent displays. Their portrayals of the sky also provide a glimpse into their various eras, which impels us to use a historical approach. In the century before the Mona Lisa, the air in almost every painted sky was pure, visibility unlimited, and clouds, small and peaceful, No painted storms or fog dared darken or obscure the pristine clarity of the optimistic Renaissance vision. By contrast, storm, stress and obscuration were lifeblood to the Romantics’ artistic vision in wake of the turmoil of the French Revolution. We’ll cover it all on our grand tour through time and space of the aesthetic atmosphere. WEEK #1 BEFORE THE SKY: THE EPIC VACUUM: Prehistoric Art: Up from the Ice Age, Ancient Art: Weather Elements in a Vacuum THE SKY APPEARS: Sky Color and Aerial Perspective; Roman and Hellenistic Painting THE ETERNAL SKY: Early Christian Art and the Byzantine Demise, The Divine Light of Natural Halos WEEK #2 THE EBB AND FLOW OF NATURE'S WIND: ASIAN SKY PAINTING: The Birth of Chinese Sky Painting, The Youth of Chinese Sky Painting: Marking the Monsoonal Flow of Air, The Zenith of Chinese Sky Painting, Looking Backward - Sky Painting Reaches Persia IDEAL CLOUD FORMS IN A CRYSTALLINE SKY: Prelude to Rebirth: Earthly Shocks, The Ideal Forms of Clouds, The Celestial Curtain Rises North of the Alp, The Aerial Renaissance in Italy, WEEK #3 THE TURBULENT AND MYSTERIOUS SUBSTANCE OF AIR: Storm and Smoke, Rainbows, Coronas, Glories: No Beauty without Disturbance, Twilight and The Little Ice Age WEEK #4 A MEASURED WORLD OF LIGHT AND MOTION: The Enlightened Dutch Overview, Weather and Clouds of Extratropical Cyclones (Winter Storms), The Dutch Weather and Cloud Atlas, Pastoral Restraint and Beauty, Divine and Diabolic Mists WEEK #5 THE CAPTIVE SKY: Pleasures and Monsters of the Misty Womb, From Efficiency to Exploration: Fire, Fury and Ice: Waterspouts and Lightning, Conquest of the Air THE CROWNING OF NATURE: Infinite, Romantic Skies; Realism: The Camera, a New Eye America's Banner in the Sky; Skies of Other Lands WEEK #6 BEYOND NATURE: Impressionism: Light in the Powder Puff Skies of Progress; Nature's Roadmap to the Beyond THE IRREPRESSIBLE SKY: The Slender Thread of Reality; Casting off the Yoke of Europe; Wide Open Skies of the Wild West; Conclusion: New Skies to Conquer Growing up in Far Rockaway, NY heightened Dr. Gedzelman’s sensitivity to the weather. Combined with his love of mathematics, the outdoors, and teaching, this set his path to a Ph. D. in Meteorology and teaching at Massachusetts Institute of Technology among many other varied accomplishments. His love of the atmosphere's power gradually broadened to include its beauty. A published author and editor, he recently retired to San Mateo near his daughter.


  • Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at San Francisco State University
    835 Market Street, Sixth Floor, San Francisco, CA 94103
    Phone: (415) 817-4243 Website: