In This Case: Light Displays
October 6, 2006
In This Case is a series of periodic posts on art in the Luce Foundation Center, a visible art storage facility at the Smithsonian American Art Museum that displays more than 3,300 pieces in fifty-seven cases.
Two paintings from the Luce Center deserve mention together—not merely because each is an example from the American vein of Symbolist painting, but because both depict light in unnatural ways.
Ethel Isadore Brown's Vision de Saint Jean à Patmos shows John, the Biblical scribe of The Book of Revelation, receiving the revelation on the Isle of Patmos. The spirit is portrayed in a manner consistent with the text (specifically, Revelation 1:12–16), which specifies that John saw in his vision a figure who held seven stars in his right hand, had the blade of a double-edged sword coming out of his mouth, and stood among seven lampstands (to represent the seven churches of Asia). Though the spirit is intensely luminous, John's shadow corresponds only to the position of the sun; in this way Brown reveals that the visitation is not subject to natural laws. John seems to be blinded by the light, though his figure is not illuminated. Despite the supernatural status of the visitor, Brown fully distinguishes his features, articulating his hands and feet, and even the outline of his figure through the robe.
Henry Ossawa Tanner also portrays the figure in Salome as a source of light. From the shadow cutting across Salome's figure, it's evident that she's being cast under a sort of stage spotlight—what this light could be, in the historical absence of artificial light, is unclear, though it seems appropriate given her status as a performer. This chiaroscuro effect emphasizes her body, while her face is "veiled" in darkness (and what the viewer can see of her face is grotesque). Tanner has even backlit her head with what appears to be a window, to ensure that her face is obscured. By using the same brushstroke for body and veil, the artist blurs the lines distinguishing aspects of Salome's figure, visible through the translucent material of the veil, and the outline of the veil itself. As she steps into the light, Salome appears to be composed of the reflected light of the veil.
Each painter governs light as a way to comment on corporeality, which serves as a proving ground between the natural and the sublime.
- Ethel Isadore Brown, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Luce Foundation Center for American Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum
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