Under Umbrellas’ Reign: A Hidden History and The Implications of Umbrella Art

As a species, we have spent a decent portion of our history trying to stay out of the rain.

We have dwelt in caves, built structures, and manufactured a variety of accessories (ranging from rubber boots to plastic ponchos) all in a unifying effort to stay dry. But of all the weather-related gear, the quintessential and most time-cherished example is the umbrella.

Between its odd sounding name and even more odd looking shape, the handheld inclement weather accessory has a hidden history and rich artistic tradition that we are celebrating with the “Best Of: Umbrellas” Collection.

Since they are typically only considered in a “bad weather” forecast or a belated remembrance, umbrellas have significance and relevance, not matter the weather.

Like any product of ages of evolution, every detail of the umbrella we know today has been evolutionarily-chiseled by eras of various value systems. Traces of religious histories are in each spokes. There are relics of class structure and gender construction in its circumference and collapsibility. And, there is a residue of industrial revolutions in its waxy proofing.

So, the next time you flare out your umbrella before stepping out into showers, know that you are carrying the torch of history.

With that in mind, it is not surprising that artists portray the subject with such a remarkable frequency. And so, without further ado, here is the hidden history of Umbrellas: 

The word “umbrella” is a fossil in and of itself. Its etymology points to the fact that it’s original function was actually not to protect people from the rain.

From “umbra” the Latin word for “shade,” it is likely that some of the earliest versions umbrellas were used to protect their employers from the sun’s rays, rather than raindrops. Further bolstering the argument, the undeniably similar accessory “parasol” literally would translate in several Romance languages to “for the sun.”

Yellow Umbrella by Joanna Pechmann

Yellow Umbrella by Joanna Pechmann

But to get the truest sense of the umbrella’s role throughout history, we look to art. From ancient Assyrian bas-relief carvings, all the way to contemporary artists’ paintings of umbrellas, the way we portray umbrellas have proven to be the best indication of cultural values and rain-gear psychology.  

The earliest discovery of umbrellas in art, or at the very least evidence of energy towards a similar climate shielding device, was in Assyrian bas-relief carvings. These date back to 1400 B.C. and were used exclusively used for the sun and exclusively for the royal or elite class.

This is, perhaps, one of the earliest examples of the longstanding link between class structure and materialism. In this way, the material object and culture becomes a way of underscoring a class structure that outlined an early civilization.

Years later, the Egyptians began carving images of their own umbrellas, which were democratically used to cover both ordinary citizens and gods alike. In fact, the ancient Egyptian sky goddess, Nut, was, in essence an umbrella that protected the universe on a cosmic scale.

The first to waterproof the umbrella were the Chinese in the year 300 A.D. who used a waxy lacquer to repel raindrops. They were also the first to invent a collapsible umbrella. Before this pivotal innovation, users would have to hire others to assist in carrying the umbrella. But, by making the device portable, the user to carry his or her own umbrella. Both innovations opened it up to more variety of uses and expanded its accessibility.

Since its earliest history, the umbrella has been on a trajectory to cover nearly everyone. For an object that was once the embodiment of a god, this expansion is remarkably uplifting. Its artistic documentation has a similar effect. 

The fact that so many artists, contemporarily and historically, portray forces them into the prism of significance where we can draw certain parallels between art and umbrellas.

All art, especially paintings and photography, have an umbrella-like quality. Resting on the thin layer that separates the real world and a smaller world of self-containment and peaceful protection, both paintings and umbrellas cultivate an introspective mindset.

Every time we admire a painting, we huddle under the artist’s umbrella where anxieties, worries, distractions and other pelts of reality are reduced to a tapping. Whether in admiring art or standing under an umbrella, this quiet drumming of the outside becomes a reminder everyone deserves to stay out of the rain.