Art – Tone And Light-And-Shade – Part 4

In the second place, the light falling from what-ever point of the compass the painter chooses; is usually concentrated upon some one object or space in the picture, and forms a well-defined point of high light or high color, which is in effect the same thing. I do not mean that the light is necessarily centralized on the canvas. It may be placed high or low, to the right or to the left, but wherever placed it forms a luminous spot from which gradation to opposite points of shadow or deep color begins. This centring of light seems at first like a studio trick, but nature herself is guilty of it. We see it continually in the world about us as we see it in the works of those painters who have produced likenesses of that world. Pieter de Hooghe’s concentration of light at the end of a Dutch passage-way, as in his Louvre picture ; anyone of the young-woman-with-acandle pictures by the little Dutchmen, in which the lights increase toward the candle, and the shadows increase toward the extremities of the room ; almost any of the Oriental court pictures by Decamps with sunlight centred on a wall or door, are as illustrative of nature as of the technical principle we are considering. “Forced ” they may be in a way, and yet permissible, because focusing the eye on the most important part of the picture.

When Rembrandt, the great master of light concentration, painted a portrait, the centre of light was the nose, cheeks, and chin ; the forehead was a trifle lower in tone, or deepened by the shadow of a hat, as in the Marquand portrait, now in the Metropolitan Museum ; the sides of the cheeks were correspondingly lowered ; the throat and neck were very deep flesh notes; the dress was usually dark, or, if in light color, it was so saturated at times with shadow as to lose much of its coloring principle ; the hands often came out in flesh notes under shadow ; the linen, if in light, was almost pure white, if under shadow subdued ; and the background was an indefinable depth of gray, green, or gold-brown. This manner of treatment characterized all his work. In the Louvre two small pictures by him of philosophers or alchemists, or some such persons, sitting at a window whence floods a yellow light through a dingy room, are excellent examples of concentration, and you may see other examples of the same thing in his landscapes. Correggio composed a picture in circles with the light in the centre, as Couture has well described in speaking of the “Antiope” in the Louvre. The “Night,” at Dresden, and the “St. Jerome,” at Parma, show the same practice. The example of Correggio was extensively followed by his successors, especially the Caracci, at Bologna. There is in the Sage Library, at New Brunswick, a picture of ” The Trinity,” by Annibale Caracci, which well exemplifies light concentration. The Father is seated upon clouds, surrounded by angels, his head radiant with shafts of light. Above him hovers the dove, the symbol of the Holy Ghost, and kneeling before him the Madonna offers the Child in arms. Around all these brightly illuminated figures, as a foil to the light, are spread the deep browns and greens of foliage. The object of the picture seems to have been less the majestic conception of the Trinity than the tunnelling of darkness and the wedging of light toward a centre.

But such illustrations as these, you will understand, point to the extreme use of the principle and were chosen because they would thus better exemplify the meaning of light concentration. In modern pictures, or among the majority of pictures of any age, you will not find the practice so positive or so violent. Indeed in some pictures you may not readily recognize a, centre of light at all, for today diffused light is as often used as direct light, and where Claude and Turner put the setting sun across the sea on the horizon, and made a path of golden sunlight along the waves flanked by Corinthian pal-aces to conduct us to it, there are dozens of other painters, like Daubigny and Cazin, who hang the heavens with an almost unbroken veil, along the thin parts of which we may discern the struggling of a light, seen as through a mist of early morning. Still the general principle of light concentration is correct enough, however the practice may vary, and almost every artist, consciously or unconsciously, regards it to some extent in his composition. None of the best works of Corot, the first great luminarist of modern times, is without it. The high light in his sky was always painted in first, and from that he graded down to the foreground shadows by the most delicate and truthful transitions imaginable. Millet has almost always followed the same principle, though with not so much emphasis as Corot. The “Sower, the “Angelus,” or any one of his pictures of workers in the fields at twilight, where the light comes from the western horizon and falls away into the darks of the middle distance and foreground, will serve for example. The modern schools, of which Millet is no less a type because conspicuous, are filled with painters whose works exemplify centred light. This is true not of landscapes alone, but of figure compositions, marines, and genre paintings. Examine a still life by Bonvin or Vollon ; a group of figures by Israels, Menzel, or Bonnat ; an interior by Sargent, or a portrait by Carolus Duran, and anyone of them will point to the principle.

I know some of the young men rather sneer at concentration as savoring of conventional picture-making, but the practice because it is old is not therefore utterly false and worthless. There is an iconoclastic spirit rampant to-day, which seeks to destroy everything in method that is not distinctly novel and therefore modern; but painting, though it be an art, and not a science, has, nevertheless, some well-founded principles that do not wholly pass away with the incoming of each new school. Gradation and concentration are among these principles, and while young painters may talk largely of taking “Nature as she is,” they should not forget that in doing so it is their duty to reproduce her upon canvas as forcibly (approximately) as they found her. Do this with nature’s forces they cannot, and therefore they must resort to the forces of art which may best substitute those of nature. These, as the examples of past art show us, in regard to light-anti-shade, are concentration and gradation. They are the best means known to art whereby a strength of light may be builded up and sustained. Each light or dark supports a brother of the series converging toward a centre, as the blocks of stone sustaining the pyramid taper to an apex of a single block. Light gathers power from being upheld by increasing darks, just as the force that lies in the thin end of – the wedge comes from the sustaining bulk behind it. In the construction of the drama this wedging process is well known under the name of ” dramatic force,” and is put to continuous use. The whole play is merely a series of concentrations in what are called climaxes. The interest deepens from scene to act ; each scene supports an act, each act its successor, until the grand climax ends the piece. It is the pyramid over again, the most powerful building principle in the whole architecture of the arts. Light concentration in painting, equally with dramatic force in the drama, requires the sacrifice of the accessories to the principals, the exaltation of some by the humiliation of others, the centring of power upon a given point of light, supported on the sides by the reserves of shadow. There are pictures, and good ones too, where doubtless this principle was never thought of ; but it is not extravagant to say that probably two-thirds of all the pictures of modern times will exemplify it in a more or less positive manner.

It is useless to deny, however, that the violent concentration of light, such as we see in Rembrandt or Decamps, and even the moderate concentration of a Millet or a Breton, is fast becoming a practice of the past. It is fading away in favor of “Nature as she is,” with diffused light, high light, and very luminous shadows. That movement in art which passes under the misleading name of Impressionism has established new views and new methods of handling lights and shadows. True enough its exponents, men like Claude Monet and Renoir, are just now painting snatches and sketches of nature rather than pictures ; they are cutting off a piece of what is before them rather than composing ; but even so they have proved that a picture may exist and be a picture without the wedging and centring of light, and without the opposition of strong lights to darks. In fact _the impressionists, or, as the late ones should be called, the luminarists, may be credited with a new and important technical discovery, one that is destined in all probability to influence the entire future of art. When painting came out of the Middle Ages the technic of art had to be learned over again. Attention was first directed to form ; that mastered, light-and-shade was developed ; finally, at Venice, color. But the development of light-and-shade under Leonardo, Correggio, Rembrandt, never was quite complete. It was true enough in the relations perhaps, but too low in the pitch.. The luminarists have raised the pitch, but in doing so they have sacrificed the relations somewhat. That is to say, nature travels the whole scale, her highest light going to 100, her deepest black to zero. Art with its pigments cannot possibly register over, say, 50 points. Nature’s intensities either in black or white can only be approximated, and the painter usually represents them with, say, 30 points.

If Rembrandt’s scale ran from 20 to 50, Monet’s scale would run from about 40 to 60, the one representing the old-time studio light, the other representing open-air sunlight. But Monet’s gamut or range is not so extensive as Rembrandt’s. It is more limited (by luminarist practice) in depth of shadow, and not proportionably extended in height of light. The absolute appearance of shadows has been given by showing them as very luminous color-masses ; but the absolute appearance of pure sun-light has not been given (though often suggested) because of the limits of pigment. As a result there is a garishness in the pictures of the luminarists, produced by the sacrifice of scale, by the sacrifice of depth of register to height of register, by the loss of the lower notes.

But it is not alone with the raising of the general pitch of light that the luminarists must be credited. Besides increasing the intensity of light to some ex-tent they have sought out its proper diffusion, play, and color-effect on objects. And this, too, not in sunlight alone but in all sorts of light. Beraud with his gaslight, Besnard with his starlight, Cazin with his broken light, and Monet with his sunlight, are all luminarists seeking by various methods to reproduce light effects. Yet sunlight in open-air painting is perhaps the chief feature of the modern movement. And here in this open-air study some curious phenomena are disclosed to us. For instance, the luminarists tell us that the effect of sunlight upon objects and colors is to render them transitory and uncertain. Under high light line is dissipated, objects in the background appear to project themselves into the foreground and disturb perspective, the surfaces of objects, instead of standing out in modelled relief, are flattened into mere relative tones or patches of color, and color itself is sometimes changed in local hue, is shattered or bleached.

Besides this they have laid hold of some scientific facts which they have utilized. For instance, they know that a beam of pure white light passing through a prism decomposes into the colors of the spectrum. Hence the conclusion that light is color in a subtile translucent form. The air on a bright day is consequently filled with it, and wherever light is and air is there must color be also, tinging every-thing it touches, making some objects blue, other objects violet, and others again purple or yellow. To get light in the picture then, they use color freely and in variety, putting it on sometimes in small broken points that attempt the subtility of nature herself, and leaving to the eye at a certain distance the task of reuniting these colors into what should seem to us the original beam of pure white light. Again, they tell us that instead of darkening with sunlight shadows really lighten, and this is true enough, though the sharp contrast with the bright light makes them appear darker at first ; that they are not only a phase of light but a colored phase of it. Hence the purples and violets of their reflections and the absence of those dark notes which we have always looked upon as shadows caused by the partial destruction of light.

The influence of this movement has already gone far, and will undoubtedly go farther, though its exponents have not yet produced many masterpieces. The free use of high colors to obtain the desired effect of light does not always please the color sense, nor does it always give the appearance of light. The absence of decisive quality and body in the shadows gives an unreal, evanescent appearance to objects at times ; the dissipation of line produces flabbiness in the figure ; and the disturbance of the perspective planes often confuses the whole picture. There is an extravagance of statement just now even with the leaders—that same extravagance which always attends every initial movement. In addition, there are many individuals with neither clever heads nor clever hands who are at present sailing under the union-jack of Impressionism or Luminism and bringing contempt upon their betters by their erratic performances. But we should not forthwith condemn the whole school on these accounts. Nor should we now, nor at any time, condemn any school or body of artists because they do not see as we see. If all mankind saw alike what use would there be for the painter ! It is just his business to see and tell us what we do not see ; and if his vision is start-ling to us at first, the cause of it may be our own uneducated eyes and not the painter’s falsity of view. At any rate there is enough talent in the so-called impressionistic brotherhood, and enough novelty in their view of nature, to entitle them to respectful consideration, and if out of it does not arise a new and strong school of landscape, then some people must be credited with an error in judgment.