Sunday, August 10, 2008

Painters of Light

Who are my favorite painters? my favorite artists from history, alive or dead, mortal and immortal?

One group of favorites are those painters who worked directly with light. Those who portrayed natural light with remarkable clarity. Those whose subject, no matter what else going on in the painting, was light itself. Perhaps this is a photographer's bias, and I have always been fascinated with light. A lot of my own favorite photographs are of light, and the sky, no matter what else is going on in the photograph.

Jan Vermeer

The subtleties of Vermeer's lighting, the soft gray light typical of The Netherlands in northern Europe, is what I love about these paintings. Vermeer is all about the subtleties of light, the delicate shading of indirect light on subjects, the tones of natural indirect light, the illumination of the spirit within the person reflected by the illumination of their surroundings. Many of Vermeer's surviving paintings are of women performing tasks of the everyday; but in the paintings, the everyday takes on spiritual significance. The moments are only apparently random moments during the day. What the paintings capture, and the lighting both subsumes and supports, are quiet moments of inwardness in otherwise ordinary, eventful lives. Moments of contemplation and perfect attention. Moments wherein the smallest action, the tiniest detail, takes on the significance of the the Divine.


Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was the master of chiaroscuro, the qualities of shadow and darkness in painting. His style was innovative and controversial during this lifetime, and was influential on generations of painters after. He also painted ordinary people as models for sacred subjects, bringing the sacred down to the secular level; this was sometimes considered blasphemous, but ushered in a level of realism in painting that again was highly influential. Caravaggio's use of shadow, in which his canvases are often more dark than light, serves to focus the attention on the characters. Caravaggio's life and personality were tempestuous; the moods in his paintings are often dark moments that had traditionally been painted brighter by previous generations of painters; the point is that Caravaggio carried the dramatic moments of life into his art. His people are ordinary, sometimes with unbecoming dirt on their feet and clothes, and the dimly-lit interiors in which they appear only suggest or hint at the significance of the moment being painted.

It's interesting to me to contrast Caravaggio with Vermeer: the brightly-lit paintings of Vermeer were painted in a cold, dark climate, while Caravaggio's darknesses were all painted in sun-drenched Mediterranean cities. The opposition of light and shadow is intriguing, and the reversals of what one might naturally presume the environment of each painter would reflect or enhance.

John Singer Sargent

I've written about Sargent before, in appreciation. This time I just want to point out how his figures, even in the formal portraits for which he was best-known, seem to glow from within. The lighting in Sargent always has a personality of its own, and whether the figures are bathed in the indirect reflections of bright sunlight, or the softer skylight shades of twilight, the illumination brings out the inner self. The light is not of surface only, but comes from within. Sargent was often thought of as a superficial painter: superficial in the technical sense, an artist of surfaces and appearances. What's intriguing to me is the depths of character he conveys in the subjects of even his most formal and comely posed portraits. Here there's a shadow lurking in the eyes; there, an actual shadow subtly darkens a face, turning the meaning more inward than might be expected in a formal portrait.

Georgia O'Keeffe

With O'Keeffe we also approach shape and form as inspiration, and as energetic reality. (I'll be looking at another group of painters from this approach as well, later.) The exhibition of her work that I saw last fall in Minneapolis, themed Circling Around Abstraction, was remarkable in that it pointed out how her forms often returned to the edge of abstraction throughout her career. She was never far away from circular and spiral forms, and the energy they gave her paintings is transcendent.

What I notice as I re-read through the exhibition catalog book (which I recommend highly) is how often this work approaches the darkness of the void and simultaneously the sublime brightness of the sky. Light and dark swirl around each other continuously, each birthing itself from within the other. The truth is, O'Keeffe's lighting never holds still. It sometimes approaches the sublime, as in some of the desert-bone paintings wherein the lighting is often coming from multiple directions, confusing the figure-ground orientation. Illumination in the harsh desert sunlight was both easy for O'Keeffe to represent, and also very difficult to convey with meaning and accuracy. These are not photos, these contain more information than a desert-light-overexposed photo ever could.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

What, no Turner?

5:59 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I never claimed this list to be complete or definitive, just a taste, based on what I'm looking at lately. I may add Turner in later. I will also probably add in Monet and some few others.

9:26 AM  
Blogger Rachel Fox said...

Interesting read. Enthusiasm is one of my favourite nouns.

1:28 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...


I like enthusiasm as a verb, too. Or at least a hyperactive noun.

6:28 PM  

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