Many landscape painters have painted nocturnes at some time in their career. Their popularity waxes and wanes like the moon they rely on. Technically a faithful nocturne is a great challenge, even today with sophisticated portable electric lighting to enable the artist to see what they’re painting. Providing sufficient light to the working area without suppressing night vision is a physiological impossibility, and the lighting which affects night vision least is invariably tinted, making the use of colour extremely hard. For these reasons, the great majority of nocturnes are painted in the studio.
They first seem to have become popular during the Dutch Golden Age, when artists like Aert van der Neer came to specialise in nocturnes lit only by the moon and fire. Among these is his undated Estuary Landscape by Moonlight, which uses light from both sources to great effect. Landscape details are shown largely in silhouette, and lack internal detail except in the group gathered around the fire in the foreground. His composition follows Karel van Mander’s principles, with the bright moon as the celestial point of focus.
Van der Neer is remarkably faithful to reality, in that this view is almost monochrome, the result of the severely impaired colour vision we all suffer in conditions of low light, when there’s insufficient to enable colour vision using the cone cells in the human retina.
Aelbert Cuyp’s view of the Sea by Moonlight from about 1648 also appears quite faithful, although it does show a little more detail rather than mere silhouttes.
It was Claude-Joseph Vernet, one of the key figures in the development of landscape painting, who extended the chromatic range and added fine details which seem implausible. As with van der Neer, he uses a combination of white moonlight and redder light from a fire. His Four Times of the Day series show idealised rather than real landscapes, but proved highly successful, and follow van Mander’s rules.
Early in his career, JMW Turner had great success with this nocturne of Fishermen at Sea in 1796, another view following van Mander to the letter, and with the combination of natural and artificial illumination.
The composition of this painting has long fascinated me, as I’m unsure whether the young Turner painted this from memory, or from sketches made in daylight. The view that he shows doesn’t actually exist, as the background is seen from a very different point from the rest of the painting. The distant land beyond the Needles should in reality be clear horizon, as this view looks south, out into the English Channel. As he couldn’t have seen this unless he was out in a boat, the likelihood of him making careful sketches from this viewpoint also seems low, and he almost certainly couldn’t have made them at night, or in such rough seas.
Samuel Palmer’s eery nocturnes include The Harvest Moon (c 1833), showing many workers in a corn field under the light of a full moon, which is seen low in the sky and to the left of centre. Although highly effective, Palmer uses unrealistically high chroma and detail, and this is almost certainly based on a combination of daytime and nocturnal studies.
Nocturnes were more popular among the artists who led to Impressionism, than with the Impressionists themselves. Here Johan Barthold Jongkind, in this View of Overschie in Moonlight from 1872, still adheres to van Mander, as had Charles-François Daubigny before him.
By the late nineteenth century, city views contained not just the natural light of the moon, but abundant artificial lighting, at that time from gaslight.
John Atkinson Grimshaw’s famous Reflections on the Thames, Westminster from 1880 looks upriver towards the distinctive clock tower and buildings of the Palace of Westminster, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. It’s almost certainly based on studies made in full daylight.
The time shown on the face of Big Ben appears to be 1045, yet its full moon is low in the western sky, indicating that it’s approaching sunrise. As this view looks into the light, perhaps contre nuit, the figures seen at the right should be in the shade. Their cast shadows aren’t coherent either, and some would indicate that the moon should be in a quite different position. This was most probably painted in the studio from sketches made in broad daylight.
In the last two years of Vincent van Gogh’s life, he painted this landmark nocturne Starry Night over the Rhône (1888) with its radical effects. Even so, this adheres to van Mander in its composition.
It was perhaps Eugène Jansson’s unusual nocturnes of Stockholm which were the first major departure from traditional composition. He painted this seemingly infinite view from his studio on Mariaberget over Riddarfjärden, Stockholm in 1898. As the last (or first) light of the day fades to pale red above the horizon, the waterfront of the old city is lit in white. In the foreground, the gaslights of the quay below form into small whirlpools of light.
Jansson’s Nocturne from 1901 shows little more than the sky, water, and a band of lights separating them, and is an example of reduction.
Willard Metcalf painted May Night in 1906. Although its chroma is limited, the colours shown appear richer than those likely to be seen under the light of a full moon.
Another American landscape artist, Granville Redmond, painted several nocturnes, including this of the Catalina Island Coast under a Moonlit Sky in 1920. His sky is formed from innumerable short, fine brushstrokes in apparently random directions, and gives the effect of the atmospheric buzz of small insects. It appears quite distinctive, and contrasts with the dark mass of rock.
Finally, when composing any nocturne, artists need to be aware of the moon illusion.
On a clear night with a fairly full moon, observe that moon on two occasions: once when it is only just above the horizon, and again when it is high in the sky. You’ll notice, as everyone does, that the moon appears much larger when it is close to the horizon than when it is well above it. But we know that the distance between the earth and moon will have changed very little indeed between our two observations, so the actual size of the moon remains constant.
JC Dahl’s tiny plein air oil sketch of Dresden at Night was painted in 1845, and is an excellent example of the moon illusion at work.