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Exhibition that explores artistic responses to light over four centuries opens at Vassar College
Edward Hopper (American 1882-1967), Night Shadows, 1921. Etching on dark cream wove paper. Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College. Gift of Julia C. Van de Water, in memory of her father C. K. Chatterton.

POUGHKEEPSIE, NY.- What impact has light had on art? A new exhibition, curated by the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, explores artistic responses to light by European and American artists from the sixteenth through the early twentieth centuries. Mastering Light: From the Natural to the Artificial is on view from April 11 through June 29.

Lighted candles, electric lamps, a full moon, starlight, and the brilliant rays of the sun attract the eye with their magnetism. Artists throughout the centuries have used these attention-getters as pictorial devices and potent metaphors. “They have literally turned the eyes of viewers and, in effect, left us with not only arresting works of art but also with a deeper understanding of aesthetic, social, and technological histories of lighting,” says Patricia Phagan, the Philip and Lynn Straus Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Art Center.

Visitors to Mastering Light will take a journey from natural light to nocturnal light and, finally, to artificial light as they move through the temporary exhibition galleries devoted to this show. With a selection of forty-nine works, including paintings, watercolors, drawings, prints and photographs, Mastering Light is part of a recent and growing body of museum exhibitions and literature on the study of artistic reactions to artificial light and to nocturnal scenes. This particular exhibit is a first of its kind in terms of the wider historical range of works included. Works were selected from the Art Center’s permanent collection and borrowed from the Museum of Modern Art, the Lewis Walpole Library at Yale University, the Library of Congress, and two private collections. Mastering Light features works by such famed artists as Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), Edvard Munch (1863-1944) and Edward Hopper (1882-1967).

Phagan explains the role of different types of light in the works on view. “Artists are drawn to shifting light effects and they frequently edit and exaggerate and experiment with them in pictorial images, creating their own illusions of natural light with symbolic and emotional moods and meanings. Natural daylight comes from the sun or sky, and it radiates through a window or over land and water, filling the atmosphere, and reflecting onto surfaces, casting an ageless symbolic significance or a fresh immediacy, or both,” she says.

Some depictions of natural light in the show include the Northern Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer’s (1471-1528) Saint Jerome in His Study (1514), in which Dürer placed the first-century scholar in a fifteenth-century domestic interior reading at the end of the room. A sacred light emanates from his head, while a natural light enters through the windows, landing at angles and in pools, interlocking with shades of darkness. Rembrandt made a beautiful etching Jan Six, of 1647, showing his sophisticated Amsterdam patron and friend reading and leaning against the rug-cushioned sill of a domestic window. The mesmerizing golden, airy light that one perceives behind Six is actually the un-inked, warm beige paper of this particular impression.

Also included in the natural light showings is the painting Shadow Decoration by American artist Charles Courtney Curran (1861-1942). Natural daylight, artful design, and a Japanese-inspired, decorative play of shadows underlie the great attraction of Shadow Decoration—one of the Art Center’s most popular works of art. In his oil, a young model in the guise of a laundress or housemaid hangs sheets on a line in bright sunlight and so close to a tree that the leaves cast their distinct shadows onto the white sheet.

Moving from day to night, there’s a notable shift in tone. “Nocturnal light reveals scenes and moods,” says Phagan. She notes that fourth-century theologian Cyril of Jerusalem (ca. 315-386), saw nighttime as a time to rest and replenish and tend to spiritual things. The fifth-century Syrian theologian Denys of Areopagite fostered the belief in nighttime spiritual revelation and inspiration. “This idea regained a foothold much later during and after the Reformation in the sixteenth century when persecuted European Christians found the night a refuge. Night, so long tethered to darkness and sin, came to have a heightened spiritual value in the seventeenth century across Europe,” Phagan explains.

The connection between the nocturnal and the spiritual is seen in the seventeenth century in the Netherlands, where artists sometimes used nocturnal light in order to uncover spiritual mysteries as in Rembrandt’s Annunciation to the Shepherds, from 1634. The Dutch master’s first and most ambitious nocturnal etching is included in this show. Francisco de Goya (1746-1828) often used nocturnal light in his prints to suggest harm or wickedness. An oppressive scene reigns in his etching, When day breaks we will be off, from the folly-rich series Los Caprichos, first published in Madrid in 1799 and presented in the exhibition. Here, starlight reveals a fantastic, nighttime cabal of witches. Goya created the series while he was making a series of witch images for the summerhouse of the Duke and Duchess of Osuña. Witches were associated especially in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with the diabolical night. With this theme, Goya accessed the keen interest in witchcraft, demons, and magic then current among Spanish cultured classes.

In the artificial light section of the exhibition a full range is explored, from candles and fires to the modernization of lighting.

Rembrandt’s The Star of the Kings: A Night Piece shows a nocturnal view of children standing in front of a couple and carrying a candle-lit lantern in the shape of a large star. A few artificial lights shine in the darkness in city buildings beyond. Both the etching and its original copper plate are on view.

Artificial light evolved rapidly in the nineteenth century with numerous innovations in lighting. What was the result? “Longer working days and new working shifts came for many,” explains Phagan. “A new activity called nightlife developed with theater, opera, ballet, and other entertainments burgeoning.”

Thomas Rowlandson’s (1757-1827) print A Peep at the Gas Lights in Pall-Mall, published in 1809 and on display here, pictures passersby in front of Carlton House, home to George, Prince of Wales, commenting on the famous new phenomenon. A host of Londoners of various social stations visit the busy site, including a prostitute fearing the bright light will ruin her business and a minister warning against the new light’s spiritual uselessness.

Edward Hopper was a master of depicting the various qualities and intensities of artificial light. He used it to isolate and pinpoint a person, story, or situation, using distances and high or low viewpoints to suggest a kind of voyeurism. He apparently pictured the shadow of a tall, intense, electric arc light in one of his most well known etchings, Night Shadows, on view here. A tall light-post casts brilliant shine and deep blacks on a nocturnal sidewalk and almost swallows up the walker in this richly inked impression. A close friend of Clarence K. Chatterton, the Vassar College art professor, Hopper dedicated the impression to the Chattertons.

In the mid-1910s the American modernist Joseph Stella (1877-1946) conveyed the furious plethora of electric lights on buildings and rides at Coney Island’s Luna Park with his circular, pointillist painting Battle of Lights, which is on loan to the exhibition from the Museum of Modern Art. With this avant-garde work and related ones, Stella not only celebrated a new lighting phenomenon. He also celebrated a groundbreaking American technology—a successful, long-lasting incandescent light bulb.

“Overall, these works show that light can connote deeper meanings—symbolic, moral, intellectual, or nationalistic,” says Phagan of Mastering Light. “Daylight diffused into a room may carry a particular effect just as moonlight may softly limn a narrative scene or the radiance from lampposts may reveal life at night.”

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