Reading visual art: 48 In the spotlight

Thomas Eakins (1844–1916), The Agnew Clinic (1889), oil on canvas, 214.2 x 300.1 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA. Wikimedia Commons.

Just as artists use the darkness in shadows in telling a visual story, as shown in yesterday’s article, so they bring light to bear its part. This sequel shows some examples of what’s now termed the spotlight, a word that didn’t exist in English until the advent of electric light in the twentieth century.

Geertgen tot Sint Jans (c 1460-1488), Nativity at Night (c 1490), oil on oak, 34 x 25.3 cm, The National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

A literary influence on many traditional nativity scenes was the vision of Saint Bridget of Sweden, in which the infant Jesus was a source of physical light. This led painters such as Geertgen tot Sint Jans to make nocturnes in which a mystical light created dramatic effects. His Nativity at Night, thought to be from about 1490, uses chiaroscuro with narrative sense too, resulting in great tenderness and reverence, thanks to its tonal transitions. Once popularised in nativity scenes, chiaroscuro was poised for more general use by masters such as Caravaggio.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696–1770), The Sacrifice of Iphigenia (1770), oil on canvas, 65 × 112 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Tiepolo’s The Sacrifice of Iphigenia from 1770 shows Iphigenia sitting spotlit with her pale flesh, as the priest, perhaps Agamemnon himself, looks up to the heavens, ready to kill her. Not only does the light pick the victim from the crowd, but it also heightens the drama.

Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), Antiochus and Stratonica (1774), oil on canvas, 120 x 155 cm, École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

The painting that won the young Jacques-Louis David the Prix de Rome shows Antiochus propped up in bed, Erasistratus (in a red cloak) by him and pointing to the beautiful Stratonice at the foot of the bed. Erasistratus’ pointing index finger helps put Stratonice metaphorically and literally in the spotlight, as does her brilliant white robe.

When no light source is apparent, brilliant white clothing is a sound device for creating a spotlight effect, as used highly successfully by Francisco Goya in one of his finest paintings.

Francisco Goya (1746–1828), El Tres de Mayo (The Third of May) (1814), oil on canvas, 266 x 345.1 cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid. Wikimedia Commons.

Goya’s depiction of the early morning executions of The Third of May (1814) is radical. He adopts the clear colours and form that had been popularised in the paintings of David, combining that with the narrative technique which he had honed in earlier work, and creates what must be the first major modern painting of the nineteenth century.

The scene is set by the hill of Príncipe Pío, in the area known now as Moncloa. As it’s still dark, he recesses the distant buildings into the night and places his martyr-heroes in the spotlight. The firing squad is arrayed in military style, regular and rhythmic at the right. Their victims are a ragged assortment of terrified citizens, the next to be shot wearing a bright white shirt of surrender, with his arms reminiscent of the crucified Christ.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), Phryne before the Areopagus (1861), oil on canvas, 80 x 128 cm, Kunsthalle Hamburg, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Phryne before the Areopagus from 1861 again uses pale flesh for its spotlight effect. A key part of Phryne’s defence was to unveil her naked in front of the court, in an attempt to surprise its members, impress them with the beauty of her body, and arouse a sense of pity.

Karl von Piloty (1826–1886), The Murder of Caesar (1865), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Niedersächsisches Landesmuseum Hannover, Hanover, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Karl von Piloty’s The Murder of Caesar from 1865 shows Caesar sat on a throne in the portico of the Senate shortly before his assassination. Immediately behind him, one of the conspirators has raised his dagger above his head, ready to strike the first blow. The combination of white togas and light from an unseen source put Caesar and the conspirators in the spotlight, and the dagger about to come from nowhere.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), Cleopatra before Caesar (1866), oil on canvas, 183 x 129.5 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Gérôme couples the pale skin of Cleopatra with an unseen light to put her in the spotlight before Caesar, when she was smuggled into his presence in Cleopatra before Caesar from 1866.

The increasing availability and intensity of artificial light during the late nineteenth century brought real spotlights, for example in the circus.

Jean-Louis Forain (1852–1931), The Tight-Rope Walker (c 1885), oil on canvas, 46.2 x 38.2 cm, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL. Wikimedia Commons.

Jean-Louis Forain’s atmospheric painting of The Tight-Rope Walker from about 1885 is skilfully composed with the dramatically lit performer in the upper half, with a packed house below her.

Another environment in which real spotlighting is used is the operating theatre.

Thomas Eakins (1844–1916), The Agnew Clinic (1889), oil on canvas, 214.2 x 300.1 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1889, Thomas Eakins painted the retiring professor of surgery, Dr. David Hayes Agnew, at work in the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. Bright surgical lighting puts six figures literally in the spotlight: Agnew, holding a scalpel at the left but appearing detached from the operation; three assistants attending to the patient and her surgery, and the only woman present (other than the patient), nurse Mary Clymer. Those in the spotlight wear white, while the spectators are in black and other dull colours to exaggerate the contrast.

James Tissot (1836-1902), Jesus Goes Up Alone onto a Mountain to Pray (1886-1894), opaque watercolor over graphite on gray wove paper, 28.9 × 15.9 cm, Brooklyn Museum, New York, NY. Courtesy of Brooklyn Museum, via Wikimedia Commons.

I finish with an unusual spotlight effect produced not by direct illumination, but by backlighting, in James Tissot’s watercolour of Jesus Goes Up Alone onto a Mountain to Pray (1886-1894). Its optics are as suspect as those of Geertgen tot Sint Jans’ Nativity, but effective nonetheless.