The Fall of an Avalanche in the Grissons by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851). 1810. Oil on Canvas. 90.2 x 120 cm. Courtesy of the Tate Gallery, London.


The structure of crisis and cataclysm also informs J. M. W. Turner's Cottage Destroyed by an Avalanche (c. 1810, Tate Gallery), which is also known as The Fall of an Avalanche in the Grissons. Turner's image of natural disaster depicts the instant at which a gigantic boulder and mass of snow crash into a small Alpine dwelling. He freezes time at the moment of crisis, for although the rock has already touched the cottage, it has not yet crushed it, and, similarly, the painter has suspended in mid-air the snow and smaller rocks that will obliterate the building and the people inside it. Like Poe's tale, this painting contrasts a quiet, peaceful, essentially static world with one of crisis. "MS. Found in a Bottle," we recall, begins with the pre-crisis world, and the destroying sea transforms this calm existence into a perilous kinetic one. Turner's Cottage Destroyed by an Avalanche, which must work with the means available to the pictorial image, juxtaposes the pre- and post-crisis worlds spatially rather than by temporal succession. The bottom fifth of the picture thus depicts the quiet world of mountain, trees, and cottage upon which the avalanche bursts from above. To this peaceful world, which occupies such a small portion of the image, Turner juxtaposes a series of visually opposing natural forces: the giant boulder that has just reached the cottage inclines on an axis that parallels a line drawn from the picture's upper left corner to lower right, the snowslide behind the boulder forms a sharply opposing diagonal, and the storm in the left distance parallels the axis of the boulder. — Landow, Images of Crisis


Landow, George P. Images of Crisis: Literary Iconology, 1750 to the Present. Boston and London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982. [Complete text on this site]

Last modified 9 September 2015