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Exhibition reveals how artists incorporated the science behind new lighting discoveries into their artistic practice
George B. Luks, American, (1867-1933), Closing the Café, 1904, oil on hardwood panel, 8 1/2 X 10 5/8 in. Edward W. Root Bequest, 57.175.


UTICA, NY.- From out of the darkness came light, and art changed forever.

“Astonishing Brilliance: Art, Light, and the Transformation of American Culture,” at Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute Museum of Art August 3 though March 15, 2020, features paintings, works on paper, and decorative arts from the Museum’s permanent collection. This is the first time some of these work are on public view. The kaleidoscope of objects in the exhibition reveals how artists incorporated the science behind new lighting discoveries into their artistic practice. Discover how the quantity and quality of light—as Americans gained in their ability to produce and control it—affected perception itself.

For the majority of Americans living in the early 1800s, the candle, fireplace, and moon were the only light available at night so their days ended when the sun set, often plunging them into complete darkness. The impact of artificial lighting in the 1800s was more profound than digital technology is today.

Developments in artificial light and new lighting methods changed how Americans perceived color, depth, and brightness—changing forever how they lived. Painters and designers responded to ground-breaking innovations in lighting technology and the changes they wrought. The art they produced played a crucial role in helping Americans negotiate and celebrate the cultural transformations that each new lighting device ushered in.

“Astonishing Brilliance” explores three broad themes: the changing conception of night during the 1800s, the various lighting devices and the plethora of decorative objects they inspired; and the transformation of sunlit scenes of nature as painters became increasingly curious about the shifting qualities of light.

This night-time journey begins with a spooky, moonlit painting in which Narcisse Virgilio Díaz de la Peña (1807–1876) depicts a young woman and a witch. Diaz’s painting dramatically contrasts with George Luks’ oil sketch from 60 years later of two young women enjoying urban nightlife. Luks utilizes the brilliant, glittering effects of electric lighting to underscore their frivolity.

Next, explore various innovations in lighting technology including lighting devices and burning fuels as diverse as the Argand whale-oil lamp and the Bradley and Hubbard kerosene lamp. The changing aesthetics of fans, rugs, jewelry, and other decorative arts suggest the complex inter relationship between art, science, and industry.

The science driving these innovations fascinated painters. It fueled their exploration of how sunlight under differing conditions—weather, season, time of day—affects our perception of color and depth. The final section of the exhibition charts the shifting use of light in landscape paintings—from symbolic and dramatic in the Hudson River School era to the very subject of painting itself for Impressionists.





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