Looking at the Masters: Fireworks (2024)

Fireworks began with the setting off of firecrackers in China between 202 BCE and 220 CE in the Han dynasty. Roasting a bamboo stalk in a fire would cause a loud bang when the air pocket in the hollow bamboo expanded and exploded. One Chinese legend tells of Nian, the word meaning year, a frightening monster that appeared on the night before Chinese New Years Eve. Nian ate people and destroyed crops. When the Chinese people discovered that Nian feared fire and loud noises, they began using bamboo firecrackers to scare away the New Year’s monster.

Looking at the Masters: Fireworks (1)

“Firecrackers in Honor of the Kitchen God” (1930)

“Firecrackers in Honor of the Kitchen God” is a painting made in China in 1930. Although it is not a piece of ancient art, it illustrates the significance firecrackers played. The Chinese belief system grew to include monsters who were said to be afraid of fire, sparks, loud noises, bright lights, the color red, and smoke. Firecrackers were used to drive away bad luck and scare evil spirits. The smoke made Yang energy, a positive life energy. Strings of firecrackers became popular during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) when an alchemist accidentally discovered gunpower while trying to make the elixir of life. By the Song Dynasty (960-1279), gunpowder packed in a paper roll with a tissue paper fuse resembled modern fireworks.

One of the most popular fireworks in China continues to be the firecracker, composed of several small firecrackers strung together. “Firecrackers in Honor of the Kitchen God” (1930) is a painting of the man of the family holding a string of red firecrackers on a pole. A single red firecracker, placed on a rock in the garden, shoots high into the air. The women and children of the family look on from a window with varying degrees of surprise. A woman in the garden comforts a frightened child who clings to her. Another little boy is having a great time. Use of fireworks expanded rapidly beyond driving away evil spirits and protecting the many Chinese gods to celebrating weddings, births, birthdays, moving to a new house, opening businesses, to name a few.

Gunpowder made its way from China to the rest of Asia and to Europe by the 13th Century through missionaries and European diplomats. Europeans developed muskets, cannons, and advanced the development of fireworks. Aerial fireworks were limited to the color of orange. Firemasters and their assistants, known as green men, set off the fireworks. “The Green Men” (1634) is the cover for The Second Booke, a guide to making and using fireworks. The green men were so-called because they wore fresh green leaves on their heads and clothing to protect themselves from the sparks, Before the celebration, they told jokes while they prepared for the display. The profession was dangerous, and many green men were injured or died when the fireworks malfunctioned.

Looking at the Masters: Fireworks (3)

“For his Grace the Duke of Richmond at Whitehall on the River Thames, on Monday, 15 May 1749’’

“For his Grace the Duke of Richmond at Whitehall on the River Thames, on Monday, 15 May 1749’’ (hand colored etching) is a depiction of the fireworks display dedicated to King George II upon his signing the Treaty of Aix la Chapelle in 1748, ending the War of the Australian Succession. The fireworks presentation was produced by the Ruggieri family, five Italian brothers, who pioneered dramatic firework productions for European and other royalty. The event was produced by the Ruggieri brothers, who moved from Italy to France at the invitation of King Louis XV. They mounted fireworks on moving and fixed iron armatures to be set off during the theatrical performance. The fireworks depicted here were still limited to one color, orange. However, the armatures were used to create different shapes as depicted on the borders of the print. Later the Ruggieri brothers introduced color into fireworks with a more spectacular effect. The Ruggieri family business continues in France today.

King George II commissioned a German composer, who settled in London in 1712, to create music to accompany this celebration. The composer was George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) and the music was titled Music for the Royal Fireworks. The work continues to be a popular accompaniment to fireworks today.

Looking at the Masters: Fireworks (4)

‘’Pyrotechnic Celebration following Napoleon’s Marriage to Marie Louise’’ (1821)

Fireworks displays were loved by rulers world-wide, and the Ruggieri family provided many of them. The ‘’Pyrotechnic Celebration following Napoleon’s Marriage to Marie Louise’’ (1821) (broadside print) is a depiction of the event hosted by the City of Paris. The wedding celebration lasted for the month in June in 1810. This print by Pierre Benard describes the final act of this performance that took place on June 14, 1810, at the residence of Princess Paulina Borghese at the Palais De Neuilly. The event consisted of three acts and employed over 500 actors. It began with a mock battle that took place between the two large columns. The ship City of Paris arrived and anchored between the two forts which erupted with fireworks. The second act of the performance concentrated on the Temple of Peace at the center of the composition. The seated figure inside, wearing gold robes, is most probably a copy of the figure of Zeus in his temple at Olympus. There were fireworks. The third act took place at the Temple of Hymen, the Greek god of marriage, at the top of the mountain. A man and a women stand hand in hand at the front of the altar. And then there were more fireworks

Looking at the Masters: Fireworks (5)

“The Grand Display of Fireworks and Illuminations at the Opening of the Great Suspension Bridge between New York and Brooklyn on the Evening ofMay 24, 1883.” (1883)

Makers of fireworks added strontium to create deep reds, barium for bright greens, copper for blues, and sodium for yellows. Modern fireworks were born in the 1830’s. “The Grand Display of Fireworks and Illuminations at the Opening of the Great Suspension Bridge between New York and Brooklyn on the Evening ofMay 24, 1883.” (1883) (color lithograph) (12”x17,5”) was published by Currier & Ives. Built by John Augustus Roebling, a German engineer, to connect Manhattan and Brooklyn, the Brooklyn Bridge was the longest suspension bridge at 1,595.5 feet The fireworks were set off from boats in the East River and from the tops of the two stone and concrete towers that stand 276.5 feet over the water. Fireworks were also set off from balloons. The event included canon fire. The view is from Manhattan looking toward Brooklyn

President Chester A. Arthur and New York Mayor Franklin Edison made the first crossing as a part of the ceremony. They were greeted by Brooklyn Mayor Seth Low at the eastern end of the bridge. On the next day, 1,800 vehicles and 150,000 people crossed the bridge.

“This day will be most memorable in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival…It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, bonfires and illuminations [fireworks]…from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore.” (John Adams’s letter to his wife on July 2, 1776, two days before the Declaration of Independence was signed.)

Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring to Chestertown with her husband Kurt in 2014, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL and the Institute of Adult Learning, Centreville. An artist, she sometimes exhibits work at River Arts. She also paints sets for the Garfield Theater in Chestertown.

The Spy Newspapers may periodically employ the assistance of artificial intelligence (AI) to enhance the clarity and accuracy of our content.

Looking at the Masters: Fireworks (2024)

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