Umbrellas In Art And Storytelling

The oldest umbrellas, as we know them today, were used not to keep off the rain but to avoid the sun.

The basic umbrella was invented more than 4,000 years ago. There is evidence of umbrellas in the ancient art and artifacts of Egypt, Assyria, Greece, and China.

These ancient umbrellas or parasols were first designed to provide shade from the sun.

Thought.co
Parasols by Rea Irvin (1881-1972)
Parasols by Rea Irvin (1881-1972)

Umbrellas feature heavily in East Asian art (and life), partly because of the heavy rainy season which, unlike my hometown in the South Island of New Zealand, falls hard without the accompanying wind. Umbrellas are a good choice.

Parasols feature large in 19th and 20th century art featuring white women, too, back when being ‘fair’ meant being very white. Parasols were a fashion accessory.

George Wolfe Plank (1883–1965) December 1913 illustration for Vogue magazine umbrella
George Wolfe Plank (1883–1965) December 1913 illustration for Vogue magazine

In the composition of an illustration, the umbrella is super useful. It provides a frame to draw ta viewer’s eye. In this way, it functions as another kind of archway, heavily utilised by artists.

Mushrooms and toadstools have such a strange shape that in the golden age of fairies, they featured large in children’s illustration, used variously as houses, seats, tables, and sometimes umbrellas.

Illustration by Ida Rentoul Outhwaite from CHIMNEY TOWN - 1934
Illustration by Ida Rentoul Outhwaite from CHIMNEY TOWN – 1934
Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, also known as Ida Sherbourne Rentoul and Ida Sherbourne Outhwaite fairy mushroom umbrella
Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, also known as Ida Sherbourne Rentoul and Ida Sherbourne Outhwaite

The connection between mushrooms and umbrellas is clear. Grandville’s image below goes further.

Grandville A walk in the sky A Stroll in the Sky, The Picturesque Store, 1847
Grandville A walk in the sky A Stroll in the Sky, The Picturesque Store, 1847

There is a strong connection between the umbrella and the circus, and the circus often indicates the carnivalesque. Umbrellas ostensibly help a tightrope walker to maintain balance. (Is that actually true?) I suspect it simply provides the tightrope walker a little false reassurance, that the umbrella would function as a mini parachute should they fall.

From Do you know Pippi Longstocking (1947) by Astrid Lindgren illustrated by Ingrid Vang Nyman (1916-1959) circus
From Do you know Pippi Longstocking (1947) by Astrid Lindgren illustrated by Ingrid Vang Nyman (1916-1959)

The umbrella allows a young child freedom, to go outside and play, even in the rain. They are also associated with beach scenes, all good fun. An umbrella in the bath is comically ridiculous.

James Tissot holding umbrellas on a small ship
James Tissot
Yoshio Markino (Japanese,1874-1956) - Autumn, c.1904 umbrella
Yoshio Markino (Japanese,1874-1956) – Autumn, c.1904
Gramophone advertisement Illustrated by John Hassall (1868-1948) umbrella
Gramophone advertisement Illustrated by John Hassall (1868-1948)
JUFFROUW SPITS OP REIS [c. 1948] Piet Broose time train umbrella
JUFFROUW SPITS OP REIS [c. 1948] Piet Broose
John Burningham London travel poster for London Transport Museum
John Burningham London travel poster for London Transport Museum
1955

Symbolically, like the child characters using an umbrella in the bath, they can be used to visually convey the idea that small measures make no difference in a deluge of problems. In English we use ‘Band-aid’ in a similar way, as in ‘Band-aid over a gaping wound’. The umbrella is less gory.

CHARLES DANA GIBSON New Cartoons
Hercules Against The Elements
Hercules Against The Elements
Gerhard Glück (German, b.1944) - Cats & Dogs umbrella
Gerhard Glück (German, b.1944) – Cats & Dogs.
Swedish illustrator Oskar Andersson (1877-1906) Mannen som gör hvad som faller honom in (the man who does whatever comes into his head)
Swedish illustrator Oskar Andersson (1877-1906) Mannen som gör hvad som faller honom in (the man who does whatever comes into his head)
GREAT DAY IN NORWAY THE SEVENTEENTH OF MAY (1962) Malvin Neset umbrella
GREAT DAY IN NORWAY THE SEVENTEENTH OF MAY (1962) Malvin Neset
DE DIERKUNDIGE DICHTOEFENINGEN VAN TRIJNTJE FOP (1955) Bertram umbrella
DE DIERKUNDIGE DICHTOEFENINGEN VAN TRIJNTJE FOP (1955) Bertram. Honestly, I don’t even know what this is.
Umbrella by Taro Yashima
Umbrella by Taro Yashima

If anyone’s ever tried jumping from a high space holding an umbrella you’ll already be aware that the umbrella won’t make you float softly onto the earth. It cowardly turns itself inside out, leaving you to crash land. Perhaps these boy had been to the circus and seen the tightrope walker use one.

When an umbrella works it’s pretty impressive. But there are few things more pathetic looking than a broken umbrella. They can look almost batlike.

Umbrellas have other practical uses, especially for the hook at the end. As storytellers, the options are endless.

Georges Pavis (1924) umbrella
Georges Pavis (1924)
Jeanna Bauck (Swedish painter) 1840 - 1926 owl umbrella
Jeanna Bauck (Swedish painter) 1840 – 1926. By giving the owl shelter beneath an umbrella, he now seems anthropomorphised.
Il giornalino della Domenica cover by Della Valle, 1906 umbrella goose dog
Il giornalino della Domenica cover by Della Valle, 1906

Header art by Theodore Levigne (1848 – 1912).