Revealing brilliance: a history of artists who transformed light and atmosphere with paint
Seeking to illuminate their canvases, these visionary artists featured in the collection of Paul G. Allen captured light, and its elusive relationship to life
From the sun glistening on the surface of a creek, to the golden-hour light revealing the web of veins in an old tree, we can see how light illuminates our world with colour, provides contrast with its shadows, and gives us life.
Painters throughout history have taken up the challenge of capturing light on a canvas. It is a master painter who can use texture to reveal brilliance, who can make the ultramarine of the sky as luminous as its reflection in the sea. The incomparable artists included in Visionary: The Paul G. Allen Collection, at Christie’s this November, are some of the finest painters who have captured light in all its complexity.
An impression of colour
In 1900, Claude Monet took a trip to London with his wife and step daughter to visit his son, Michel, who had taken up residence in the capital. Monet spent nearly all his time painting the city. He would return the next three springs, focusing on three motifs: the Houses of Parliament, Charing Cross Bridge, and Waterloo Bridge.
His numerous iterations of the two bridges seen from his balcony track how the sun reflected off the water throughout the day. In Waterloo Bridge, soleil voilé (1899-1903), his depiction of this scene reached its apex. It portrays the hard surroundings of the cityscape — the bridge, the factories in the background — as a symphony of colour, emphasizing the phantasmal way in which London’s characteristic fog shrouds its mechanistic perpetual motion in a veil of stillness and silence.
Balancing this was the ultimate challenge for the artist, who for years had been studying how to capture the ephemeral atmosphere of ever-changing landscapes. The weather, the time of day and the flow of water under the bridge all shaped the industrial landscape he sought to depict. But it was the fog that proved most difficult to tame and that contributed to the unique effet of London.
‘Without the fog, London would not be a beautiful city,’ he said to the dealer René Gimpel in 1920. ‘It’s the fog that gives it its magnificent breadth. Those massive, regular blocks became grandiose within that mysterious cloak.’
The haze of lilac, blue and violet tones in Waterloo Bridge, soleil voilé capture how this fog affected the Thames in the afternoon, as the westerly moving sun penetrated the dense cloud to gently light up the wide arches of the bridge. Reflections, and the delicate mystery of London's unique atmosphere interested Monet endlessly during his time in the city.
This appreciation of colour and its kindred relationship to light recurs throughout Mr. Allen’s collection, most notably in a watercolour of Lake Lungern in Switzerland by Joseph Mallord William Turner.
Reflections on a landscape
J.M.W. Turner’s lifelong habit of quickly setting down pencil and watercolour impressions would shape his practice as he grew older and less able to travel. The Lungernsee by Moonlight, Switzerland, circa 1848 — part of his final series of Swiss subjects — was painted from memory, with the assistance of one of these sketches.
When it first appeared at Christie's in 1865 the work was untitled, as it had not been exhibited during the artist’s lifetime. At the time, it was mistakenly considered to be an image of Lake Nemi, the volcanic crater south-east of Rome. Only in 2001 was its subject discovered to be Lungernsee, one of the chain of small lakes travellers encounter when ascending from Lucerne to the Brunig Pass.
As in other works from Turner's Swiss series, he deals heavily in contrast, using mustard yellows and earthy greens against mauve and ultramarine shadows to trace the path of reflected light from the waxing crescent moon. All of this is soothed by the sea-green reflections in the lake’s luminous waters. His technique of building up colour over layers of translucent washes and flecks of paint help refine this subtle evocation of twilight, making it feel at once tranquil and energetic.
Monet and Turner, drawn to these specific locales and their changing environments, represent a central tenet of this collection: the unique perspective of the artist. As Mr. Allen described: ‘You become sensitive to the fact that places with special light attract painters, and you want to experience that through their eyes.’
Shadows and the unknown
Often the emotional effect of light comes from its relationship to shadow. In a picture of a sunny day, our eyes travel to the rare spot of shade to see what is hiding. In the evening, by contrast, we can’t look away from the warm glow of light from a house or a streetlamp. In René Magritte’s La voix du sang, nine small lights emanate from within a grand inside the tree, pulling us into its mystery.
Translated as Blood will tell or, literally, ‘the voice of blood’, Magritte’s surreal landscape borrows in equal parts from Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland — where Alice enters a doorway in a tree — and the artist’s own interest in the fantastic. ‘The words dictated by our blood sometimes seem mysterious to us,’ he said about this title in a collection of writings. ‘Here it seems we are ordered to open up magic niches in trees.’
Positioned on the edge of a hill against a boundless landscape, the cabinet-like tree contains a small house and, in the notch above, a sphere. Notably, the top cabinet door is slightly ajar, with no hint as to what may be lurking behind.
Avoiding clear symbolism — a house means ‘x’, or a sphere means ‘y’ — Magritte repurposes readymade objects to evoke a sensation. The warm glow from the house suggests that perhaps we can only truly be at home in the world where some mystery remains. To understand everything would be to have nothing left to uncover. The door left ajar, thus, speaks to this tension between concealment, the unknown, and the feeling of home.
Here, the light shining through darkness opens the world to the viewer by presenting only a sliver of information, leaving the rest to interpretation. Using shadow as a foil to light in order to reveal, on the other hand, can have an equally profound effect.
A golden-hour paradise
Maxfield Parrish’s Hilltop is a masterful depiction of this relationship between light and shadow. Parrish wanted his work to speak for itself: ‘to my mind, if the picture does not tell its own story, it’s better to have the story without the picture,’ he said. ‘The picture tells all there is, there is nothing more.’
Hilltop, painted in 1926, depicts an idyllic environment inspired by the picturesque area surrounding Parrish’s home near the Connecticut River between Vermont and New Hampshire. Known for its old oak trees, rolling blue hills and great sense of space, the property was purchased by Parrish with images such as Hilltop in mind.
His models recline in classical poses, rays of light puncturing the verdant leaves of the oak before landing across them. They are luminous in the golden light. Paired with the artist's meticulously layered, Old Master-inspired glazing technique that enhances the colours, the scene jumps from the picture plane — transforming the American landscape into an idealised paradise.
The ethereal light, radiant colour and classical proportions of this Eden hold our attention as our eyes travel to the background and notice the detailed magnificence of the distant mountains.
Nothing is left hidden, yet everything appears as if in a dream. Parrish chooses a perspective that does not shroud our gaze, nor filter our vision.
A light from behind the canvas
Another artist who deals with the complexities of light, Andrew Wyeth uses a different technique to present an oneiric vision. Framed by a mesh curtain that catches the light of two open windows, the subject of Wyeth’s Day Dream appears in a liminal space, bringing themes of intimacy and distance into the frame.
It’s a provocative composition, giving a voyeuristic view of the woman at rest, and yet she is veiled, hidden from sight as much as she is revealed. Wyeth is exceptional in his portrayal of how the netted fabric around her catches the light, giving her the appearance of a goddess about to wake.
The work was created in the Wyeth family home in Port Clyde, Maine, in 1980, and is part of a series of works of Helga Testorf, a nurse working in the home of his neighbours, the Kuerners, who were the subject of more than 400 of the Wyeth's works.
As one comes closer to the painting, looking more closely at the bright tempera of the windows and the movement of light across Helga’s body, the luminous whites and creams reveal their incredible detail. It becomes apparent that their texture, in addition to their colour, is what brings this subtle radiance throughout the composition.
Each of these masterworks is born from an appreciation of light, and how it can be harnessed to convey different emotion. Wyeth explores closeness with a delicate balance of light across a figure, while Parrish and Magritte probe the mystery of light and shadow in landscape. Monet portrays the physiognomy of a city, and the impressions of light on a foggy afternoon. Turner employs similar techniques to study openness and sense of place on Lungernsee.
These works from the collection of Paul G. Allen are masterpieces of light, created by artists who pioneered the ways in which it can be most provocative. They each conjure an atmosphere that feels elusive, but nonetheless evokes a clear and distinct feeling, even if it cannot be expressed in words. They understand atmosphere, and, above all, how the human condition reacts to its ever-changing, visceral environment.