Have you seen the movie Mr. Turner about the famous British landscape artist, J.M.W. Turner?
Remember how he used light so powerfully as a spiritual force that it created waves of action in his paintings. If you missed the post Light and Spirit in Art click here. You can also catch the movie trailer there as well.
One technique Turner used was chiaroscuro but, of course, he was by no means the first or last artist to employ it. Light and dark colors were boldly contrasted with one another to give his subject matter form, texture and action. Yet the power of his paintings is due to so much more!
Since we are talking about a certain quality of light, I’d like to show you a painting by another of my favorite artists, Chardin. The man, like Turner, was a master of this technique of light. A still-life painter living in Paris between 1799 and 1879, he wanted to convey emotion in his work and famously asked, “Who said one paints with colors? One employs colors, but one paints with feeling.”
Just look at this still life painting in which he paints simple everyday objects in a humble kitchen.
His work was scarcely the style of the day because the Baroque period [think the gold encrusted Palace of Versailles] was at its height. Perhaps, as the Baroque period began to ebb, people were reflecting upon new ideas.
If you ever visit the Palace of Versailles, you may find that in an afternoon you’ve been overwhelmed by the ornateness and the gold everywhere.
If you’ve been consuming six course gourmet meals for weeks, you might long for a peanut butter sandwich. And so–Chardin might well have been a welcome relief to the excesses of the Baroque and Rococo periods for something simpler and more down to earth.
Chardin used his chiaroscuro effects to create depth, texture and warmth. And, although everything was simple and unadorned, he made everything look delicious!
For me, this painting above by Chardin contains far more than the implements and food in a rustic kitchen. There is a certain glowing light which permeates the entire work.
Some might describe the painting as merely pretty. Others might say “The light is magical. It transports me down the centuries to 1730.”
This painting transports me to that kitchen of several centuries ago. I look up to see a worn but, hopefully contented woman, busy with her tasks. Chardin has catapulted me back into his time with his light.
As I look at the painting, I project thoughts, feelings and experiences–everything which exists within me onto the work so that I come away feeling it “speaks to me.” With that, a silent conversation has begun between the artist and the viewer.
It’s a two way street. The artist contributes much of himself [his spirit] to the painting and the viewer responds by projecting that which is within his world onto the work. It’s that experience of something resonating or striking a chord within.
Because this is a highly personal interaction, it’s no surprise that reactions would vary greatly. One person has entirely different thoughts, feelings and experiences than me or Chardin and so to him or her the painting is merely pleasing. But she or he might respond to a painting by Rembrandt and I would not. It depends what’s inside the viewer. The artist expresses himself and the viewer adds himself to the artwork. In that way it becomes a participatory effort.
Obviously Chardin and Turner have quite different subject matter, interests and goals, but the glow of their light is similar. And it is that light [I would call it from the artist’s spirit] which draws me into their world—the one they are portraying—and captures me in a special time/place or dimension.
But look at these two paintings by Turner. The first is entitled Shipwreck. The men in the boat are tossed mercilessly by the wind, the waves and so it seems–the light itself which is an active force.
But in the painting entitled Flint Castle, the light glows with another-worldly intensity, but it brings a calm after the storm to the scene.
This light is of such force, grandeur and other worldly glow, that I really think it is, for him, charged with spiritual significance. It’s almost as if his God is acting upon his creation. When you look carefully at Turner’s paintings, it’s as if you are drawn into a different place, space or dimension.
Where can we find out more about this different space? Joseph Campbell the renowned mythologist, thinker and teacher, talked of finding your way into a mystical state by simply staring at an object for long periods of time. When I tried that, I found that, as my attention focused more and more on the object, [Turner painting below], the rest of the world simply fell away.
Just stare at the moon in this painting for a moment or two. You get a sense of entering some other strange but perhaps vaguely familiar place. I remember reading Campbell’s explanation of entering this different place or space.
“It’s like walking down Fifth avenue aware of all the hustle and bustle the vibe of New York of the urban world and walking into St. Patrick’s cathedral [with its atmosphere of beauty and grandeur]. A certain quiet immediately descends upon you and you are in an entirely different state/place/space. That is aesthetic arrest.”
For me, simply stated—you are struck deaf, dumb and blind [to this world] and then catapulted into another world.
Joseph Campbell has a great deal to say about light and its spiritual significance. I call it his light bulb theory!
Campbell: “What am I? Am I the bulb that carries the light, or am I the light of which the bulb is a vehicle? A Joseph Campbell Companion
Think of billions of light bulbs as representing each individual in the world. Everyone is animated by the electricity. When the light bulb dies out, the electrical current [the life force] is still crackling away behind the scenes. So, you just change the bulb. Campbell saw or experienced that current as the animating force or the spirit. For me, this is most straightforward explanation as light as a spiritual force and you can see it in these paintings.
Is the artwork radiant?
James Joyce, the Irish writer and author of Ulysses, described an important quality of art as radiance. That word, of course, suggests light. A work of art would be beautiful if it had wholeness, harmony and integrity. But if it had that “extra quality” that transports us to another place it might be radiant.
There is no hard and fast rule to distinguish radiant/not radiant. Just as we may not agree that a painting is beautiful we might not agree about its radiance. We all react differently given our various lives That’s because we project our own personal life experience, taste, beliefs and knowledge of the artist and the viewer must come into play. The conversation between artist and viewer may or may not happen.
Is the artwork sublime?
Have you heard people speak of a painting as sublime? Perhaps the work is so stunning that you find you must go back again and again to see it. Somehow, the painting has crept into your mind with its artfully crafted images and ideas and now refuses to let go of you. Somehow it has enlarged your consciousness of possibilities and probabilities—of life. But one more thing. What else could make a work sublime? Perhaps it keeps you mulling over its potential imponderable meanings and has activated the mind and spirit. Sounds like falling madly in love!
So—when Turner stood brush in hand before his easel, what was he seeing in his mind and spirit? My guess is that he saw and expressed the sublime power of nature whether in its most violent state or in its most placid. And if we ask—which force wins out man or nature—it seems clear that it is nature. And perhaps synchronicity is another such force. In any case, it is the power of the forces of nature which grant his work its status—both radiant and sublime.
I was so taken with the glow and the peaceful sense of the Turner painting below that I chose it for the cover of my most recent novel, Night Crossing, the third in The Trilogy of Remembrance.
When Chardin painted his kitchen scenes what was he seeing? He created the light of his spirit through painting his simple objects and transported [me, at least] into another time and space. I could not resist taking one more still-life by Chardin!
These questions such as what might lie behind the phenomenal world and how synchronicity “works” fascinate me so much so that I wrote The Trilogy of Remembrance, The Drawing Lesson, The Fate of Pryde and Night Crossing. Alexander is famous for the light in his paintings. His goal is to express that light through the human figure and in Night Crossing through abstract shape. I’ve had a great deal of fun exploring such questions–particularly the spiritual significance of light in art– through Britain’s finest landscape artist, Alexander Wainwright. Perhaps you’d like to take a look at those novels in the carousel.spiritual significance of light in art.
I’d be delighted if you’d like to leave a comment below about art, especially if something has affected you deeply.
Mary E. Martin is the author of two trilogies: The Osgoode Trilogy, inspired by her many years of law practice; and The Trilogy of Remembrance, set in the glitter and shadows of the art world. Both Trilogies will elevate the reader from the rush and hectic world of today and spin them into realms of yet unimagined intrigue. Be inspired by the newly released and final installment of The Trilogy of Remembrance, Night Crossing. Presently, The Drawing Lesson is a Wattpad Featured novel which you can read in it’s entirety right here Wattpad.com