Albert Bierstadt, Western Landscape, 1871

In praise of shadows: artists inspired by darkness

As denizens of the Northern Hemisphere yearn for the arrival of spring to banish the gloom of the winter months, it's worth remembering that the night can also be a source of inspiration and creativity. By Jessica Lack

‘Oh, night that guided me, / Oh, night more lovely than the day,’ wrote the 16th-century poet Saint John of the Cross. The Spanish mystic was not the only one to revel in the shadows, for while darkness has traditionally been associated with evil in Western art, many artists have also found it a source of inspiration and wonder. Here we explore 10 paintings by artists who, like Saint John of the Cross, found creativity in the dark.

Anonymous Armenian and Russian artists

In the history of Western art, light has traditionally been used to represent order, reason and purity, while darkness has been its binary opposite, the place where madness, chaos and evil reign. Artists such as Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516) would depict stygian worlds lit by eternal fires to terrify the god-fearing into remembering their Christian duties.

Four Gospels, in Armenian, illuminated manuscript on paper [probably New Julfa (Isfahan), 1651]. 200 mm x 145 mm. Sold for £7,200 on 6 June 2007 at Christies in London
Four Gospels, in Armenian, illuminated manuscript on paper [probably New Julfa (Isfahan), 1651]. 200 mm x 145 mm. Sold for £7,200 on 6 June 2007 at Christie's in London
The Ascension of Christ, Russian, circa 1600. 18⅞ x 15 in (48 x 38.2 cm). Sold for £8,750 on 26 November 2007 at Christies in London
The Ascension of Christ, Russian, circa 1600. 18⅞ x 15 in (48 x 38.2 cm). Sold for £8,750 on 26 November 2007 at Christie's in London

However, darkness was not always considered so unspeakable. In Byzantine times and later, God was believed to exist in the incomprehensible darkness, which was often represented as a dark circle or mandala, as seen at the top of this page from a manuscript of the Gospels and in this Russian icon from around 1600.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)

The early Christian concept of an unfathomable but revelatory darkness had a profound influence on Renaissance artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, who used the effects of chiaroscuro and sfumato to convey this shadowy penumbra.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Salvator Mundi, circa 1500. Oil on panel. 25⅞ x 18 in (65.7 x 45.7 cm). Sold for $450,312,500 on 15 November 2017 at Christies in New York
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Salvator Mundi, circa 1500. Oil on panel. 25⅞ x 18 in (65.7 x 45.7 cm). Sold for $450,312,500 on 15 November 2017 at Christie's in New York

In the painting Salvator Mundi, circa 1500, Leonardo depicts Christ as a supernatural apparition, an ethereal form surrounded by a smoky darkness where God is thought to exist.

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606-1669)

By the 17th century, many artists had begun to use darkness as a way of conveying the mysteries of religion. An artist with an intense preoccupation with the night was Rembrandt, whose paintings often appear overwhelmed by shadows.

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606-1669), The Star of the Kings A Night Piece, c. 1652. Etching with touches of drypoint, on laid paper. Plate 94 x 142 mm. Sheet 95 x 143 mm. Sold for £68,750 in Old Master Prints, 19-28 January 2021, Online
Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606-1669), The Star of the Kings: A Night Piece, c. 1652. Etching with touches of drypoint, on laid paper. Plate 94 x 142 mm. Sheet 95 x 143 mm. Sold for £68,750 in Old Master Prints, 19-28 January 2021, Online

In this etching from around 1652, the scene is lit by a small lantern that throws out a weak light, barely illuminating the faces of the gatherers surrounding it. The rest of the picture is consumed by darkness. As so often with the Dutch painter, Rembrandt doesn’t depict the scene so much as make us experience it for ourselves.

William Blake (1757-1827)

The Romantic artist and poet William Blake often wrote about the power of the sun, and alluded to the coming of evil with the night. Yet he also saw the dark as a state of magical possibility, as can be seen in this evocative engraving from 1793.

William Blake, I Want! I Want!, from For the Sexes The Gates of Paradise, 1793. Line engraving. Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge. Photo Bridgeman Images
William Blake, I Want! I Want!, from 'For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise', 1793. Line engraving. Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge. Photo: Bridgeman Images

A small figure is depicted mounting a ladder which reaches up to the moon. Created at a time of seismic upheaval in Europe, four years after the French Revolution, I Want! I Want!  clings to the hope of a new utopia, even as it sputters like pale phosphorescence in the night sky.

Francisco de Goya (1746-1828)

Goya’s etching The sleep of reason produces monsters  was created in 1799, and suggests that darkness is a place of fear and excess. Here the certainties of the day have given way to the ambiguities of the night, with the threat of terror and insanity.

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828), The sleep of reason produces monsters (El sueño de la razón produce monstruos), 1799. Plate 43 from Los Caprichos. Etching with burnished aquatint, drypoint and engraving, on laid paper. Plate 8½ x 5⅞ in (216 x 149 mm). Sheet 11¾ x 8 in (298 x 203 mm). Sold for $81,250 on 8-23 October 2020 at Christies Online
Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828), The sleep of reason produces monsters (El sueño de la razón produce monstruos), 1799. Plate 43 from: Los Caprichos. Etching with burnished aquatint, drypoint and engraving, on laid paper. Plate: 8½ x 5⅞ in (216 x 149 mm). Sheet: 11¾ x 8 in (298 x 203 mm). Sold for $81,250 on 8-23 October 2020 at Christie's Online

Goya was a product of the Romantic era, when artists became fascinated by the power of darkness to transform reason into superstition. Yet, as this image reveals, he also believed that it was only by confronting the darkness and the fearful fantasies lying within it that individuals could ever truly know themselves.

Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902)

‘The sublime is limitless,’ wrote the philosopher Immanuel Kant in 1790, inspiring generations of artists to venture forth and try to capture that which fascinates and overwhelms us.

Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), Western Landscape, 1871. Oil on board. 17 x 24 in (44.5 x 61 cm). Sold for $288,500 on 30 November 1999 at Christies in New York
Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), Western Landscape, 1871. Oil on board. 17 x 24 in (44.5 x 61 cm). Sold for $288,500 on 30 November 1999 at Christie's in New York

During a time of great exploration, many artists felt closest to the sublime when surrounded by nature. This was particularly true of a group of pioneering 19th-century painters, among them Albert Bierstadt, who sought to capture the dizzying, unbounded scale of the North American landscape. They found the sublime in the nocturnal hours, in remote, mountainous places where human habitation seemed all but impossible.

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Walter Sickert (1860-1942)

With the advent of cinema, darkness took on a new meaning for artists, and soon painters were observing the skittish light and dark of celluloid and transposing these sallow impressions onto canvas.

Walter Richard Sickert, A.R.A. (1860-1942), The Gallery at the Old Mogul, 1906. Oil on canvas. 25 x 30 in (63.5 x 67 cm). Sold for £140,500 on 20 June 2016 at Christies in London
Walter Richard Sickert, A.R.A. (1860-1942), The Gallery at the Old Mogul, 1906. Oil on canvas. 25 x 30 in (63.5 x 67 cm). Sold for £140,500 on 20 June 2016 at Christie's in London

The Gallery at the Old Mogul  was painted by Walter Sickert in 1906 and is one of the earliest depictions of a movie theatre. Sickert was a master of the shadowy interior, and his career ran in parallel with the development of cinema. Here, the audience are illuminated only by the grey light of the cinema screen, revealing a line of indistinct bodies tense and expectant.

Max Ernst (1891-1976)

When Sigmund Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams  in 1900, he transformed the way many artists thought about the role of darkness in art. With dreams now considered the key to our most repressed desires, artists such as Max Ernst began to look inwards to reflect the paranoid machinations of the unconscious mind.

Max Ernst (1891-1976) The Phases of the Night, 1946. Oil on canvas. 35⅞ x 63⅞ in (91.3 x 162.4 cm). Sold for $6,407,500 on 15 May 2017 at Christies in New York. Artwork © Max Ernst, DACS 2021
Max Ernst (1891-1976) The Phases of the Night, 1946. Oil on canvas. 35⅞ x 63⅞ in (91.3 x 162.4 cm). Sold for $6,407,500 on 15 May 2017 at Christie's in New York. Artwork: © Max Ernst, DACS 2021

The Phases of the Night, 1946, is a journey into inner space. It has a mysterious, claustrophobic atmosphere and is populated by strange symbols. The painting was inspired by a trip the artist took to Arizona with his lover Dorothea Tanning, who later recalled that the sky was ‘a blue so triumphant it penetrated the darkest spaces of your brain’.

Brassaï (1899-1984)

This nocturnal image of Paris’s oldest bridge was taken by Brassaï in 1949. The Hungarian photographer spent much of his career documenting the deserted city at night. As a sometime member of the Surrealist group, he was fascinated by the boundaries between art and photography, and used the darkness to explore the medium’s possibilities and limitations.

Brassaï (1899-1984), Pont Neuf, 1949. Ferrotyped gelatin silver print. Imagesheet 8 x 11 in (20.3 x 27.8 cm). Sold for $21,250 on 18 February 2016 at Christies in New York. © Estate Brassaï - RMN-Grand Palais
Brassaï (1899-1984), Pont Neuf, 1949. Ferrotyped gelatin silver print. Image/sheet: 8 x 11 in (20.3 x 27.8 cm). Sold for $21,250 on 18 February 2016 at Christie's in New York. © Estate Brassaï - RMN-Grand Palais

In this image, Brassaï has transformed a familiar landmark into something that looks like a prop for a movie set, topped by lights that glow diffusely in the fog — misty halos made visible by the spectral illumination of electricity. The result is almost supernatural and evokes the Surrealists’ interpenetration of the real and the imaginary.

Ganesh Pyne (1937-2013)

The paintings of Ganesh Pyne press the nerves of anxiety — they are like hauntings. Strange creatures emerge out of a dense blackness to perform tasks that seem both prosaic and miraculous.

Ganesh Pyne (1937-2013), The Animal, 1972. Tempera on canvas laid on card. 22 x 23¾ in (55.9 x 60.3 cm). Sold for $400,000 on 23 September 2020 at Christies in New York
Ganesh Pyne (1937-2013), The Animal, 1972. Tempera on canvas laid on card. 22 x 23¾ in (55.9 x 60.3 cm). Sold for $400,000 on 23 September 2020 at Christie's in New York

Pyne was born in Kolkata in 1937, and his earliest memories were of the widespread killings during the Direct Action Day riots in 1946. Pyne’s response to this trauma was to invent a cast of creatures unstuck in time and engulfed by darkness. ‘True darkness gives one a feeling of insecurity bordering on fear,’ he once said, ‘but it also has its own charms, mystery, profundity, a fairyland atmosphere.’