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Wind, from "The Man at the Helm," a painting by Theo van Rysselberghe

Subthemes: Meteorology, Ships Under Sail, Power Jobs

Van Rysselberghe’s “The Man at the Helm” (L’Homme á la barre) captures salty sea air whipping the wave tops white and filling the sails. The wind has freshened, and the stolid sailor at the helm steers so that it pushes his craft rapidly. The scene looks stormy, especially around the frigate on the horizon. Several subthemes of Wind waft from this painting.

The Man at the Helm by Théo van Rysselberghe
from the website of the National Gallery of Australia where the painting was on tour from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

Meteorology: The helmsman wears rain slickers and viewers can feel the cold, nipping drizzle. Why is it windy in the painting? Wind picks up due to differences in temperature between two regions, which causes different atmospheric pressure. Air flows horizontally from a higher-pressure region (warmer) to a lower-pressure region (cooler). Convection is the term that describes the vertical lifting flow of heat and moisture, usually from a warmer area (the surface) to a cooler one (aloft).

Winds also respond to the Earth’s rotation. Because the Earth turns on its axis to the east, circulating warmer air headed north is deflected toward the right in the Northern Hemisphere and toward the left in the Southern Hemisphere (called the Coriolis effect). Combining heat differentials (pressure) and rotation (nudge of direction) means that as warm air rises near the Equator, it flows toward the cooler (lower pressure) poles. In the Northern Hemisphere, these warm air currents are deflected to the right (east) as they move northward. That gives rise to the trade winds (the prevailing easterly winds that circle the Earth near the equator) and the vast blowing in the Eastern Pacific that causes El Niño. The massive flows of curving air fuel the jet streams that are so important to weather patterns, polar vortexes, and airplane speeds. At a more micro level, the turbulence makes possible rotating cyclones and twisters.

Ships Under Sail: van Rysselberghe included two sailing ships in his painting. We have explored this subtheme extensively in the series of comments on the theme Sailing Ships. We drew on four genre of art: a movie about rebellion on a South Seas voyage, a song about a vacation’s charter ruined, a poem to save an historic warship, and a painting of commercial ships in port. The 14 subthemes include a variety of perspectives on sailing ships. Here is a portion of the comments on “Wind.”

“Wind is to sails as water is to mills, the source of power. If a sailing ship were not becalmed, the person at the helm had to read the winds, avoid luffing the sails, keep an eye on the wind indicator and adjust accordingly. When there was no wind to fill the sails, sailors would float with the tide until the wind returned. … Too much wind brought stormy danger, but the right amount from the right direction could send the properly-spread ship racing across the waves ….

Power: Perhaps the earliest instances of harnessing the wind were to push the sails of ships. Also in ancient times, windmill structures were developed to turn grindstones. Nowadays, huge wind turbines with blades longer than a football field spin serenely above our hills and offshore sites. In 2020, wind turbines were the source of about 8.4% of total U.S. utility-scale electricity generation. The electricity generated by wind joins solar, thermal, and hydroelectric as renewable power, but it is not very dependable. There is no answer about the local reliability blowin’ in the wind.

On the topic of wind power, we should recognize as another manifestation the air flowing over wings that creates lift for airplanes, not to mention the force of propellors on planes and helicopters. Wind resistance creates vital design considerations. For example, planes land best into the wind and their design tries to minimize wind resistance; sixteen-wheel trucks carry wind deflectors to reduce the drag. For both planes and trucks, wind tunnels test drag and aerodynamics to improve their fuel efficiency and speed.

Jobs: The helmsman, and the larger ship in the distance suggest to us the number of jobs that depend on the wind: farmers who look to it to bring rain and warmth, pilots and others who enable planes to carry freight and passengers, fishers and their industry colleagues who process and sell their catch, meteorologists, forest fire fighters, and anyone who works on climate change. The count of wind-related jobs could be in the billions.


This wonderful painting brings the viewer into the world of salt-spray and ocean waves, where weather and its cousin wind constantly concerns those who sail. Wind propels them and also powers our homes and factories when converted to electricity, all of which winds up as essential to the employment of huge swathes of people worldwide.

If you are interested in further thoughts on the concept “Wind,” consider other subthemes that don’t fit as directly to the poem, painting, rock song, and movie written about in this series. For an overview, this article explains Themes from Art or click on the navigation bar, “About.”

We invite you to read about other paintings discussed on this blog, and their themes. Here they are:

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