How can we know the difference between a cloud in the sky and a puff of smoke from a fire? Jacques Callot’s series of etchings Les Misères et maleurs de la guerre (1633) is not usually considered for its clouds, even though billows, plumes, and vapors accompany its scenes of bloodshed and violence. Considering the premodern print through the mutually constituted nature of environment and media, this article explores how the clouds of Les Misères compel a particular viewing practice combining radical formalism with deep contextualization. Unavailable for any direct symbolic interpretation, clouds instead structure the image and guide the viewer’s eyes; they affirm a way of viewing the prints that seek the detail and gives it both symbolic and structural meaning; they connect the materiality and technology of prints with the series’ subject matter: human violence and divine justice. Through vignettes that explore tensions in composition, technology, temporality, and scale, this essay explores how clouds help Callot’s plates pose a particular challenge to their viewers: to understand the world as a single legible, coherent and harmonious place both despite and because of the violence which rents and repairs it.
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