Illuminating experiences: “Mastering Light” exhibition at Vassar

Charles Courtney Curran (American 1861-1942) Shadow Decoration. 1887, oil on canvas

March may have gone out like a lion; the nights may still be cold and the mountains of dirty plowed-up snow still not entirely melted away; the flowers and buds may still be hanging back timidly after a long and difficult winter. But spring is here nonetheless – and the way that we can tell, when all other measures fail, is by the lengthening daylight. It lifts our SADdened spirits, even when somewhat obscured by April’s oft-rainy skies.

Simply put, we sighted humans crave the light. It doesn’t just show us what’s in our environment and how to navigate it safely; it has a profound psychological effect on us as well. In the visual arts, of course, light has always played a crucial role, pointing our attention at whatever it is that the artist wishes to emphasize and shaping our emotional reaction to that focal image. But the ways in which artists have manipulated light, both in terms of stylistic approach and the media available to them, have changed radically over time.

We think of chiaroscuro – the deliberate creation of stark contrasts between light and dark areas – as predominantly a Renaissance Italian painting technique, for example; but it also manifested in woodcuts, and probably its most famous practitioner in paint was Rembrandt, several centuries later. It took a whole new turn in modern times with the invention of photography and cinematography. The approach to shading that contemporary artists refer to as “light modeling” was known as far back as the skiagraphia of the Athenian painter Apollodoros in the fifth century BCE, appearing again in Macedonian mosaics and Roman and medieval manuscript illumination. Tenebrism – nocturnal scenes lit only by candlelight or firelight – became popular in Spanish art and is closely associated with the works of Caravaggio and Rubens; but it surfaced again in the 20th century, transformed by urban electrification, in the moody neon-lit works of the likes of Edward Hopper.

A fascinating overview of the historical progression of the use of different types of light in art will be unveiled this Friday, April 11 at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center on the Vassar College campus. Touted as the first exhibition of its kind, “Mastering Light: From the Natural to the Artificial” explores artistic responses to light by European and American artists from the 16th through the early 20th centuries.

The artworks included in “Mastering Light” are divided up into three sections based on the type of illuminated employed: “Natural Light,” “Nocturnal Light” and “Artificial Light.” The Lehman Loeb will capitalize on its strong Rembrandt collection by including his works in all three categories. Other highlights (no pun intended) will be a Dürer engraving, Saint Jerome in His Study; a Tenebrist Goya etching of a starlit witches’ Sabbat; one of Hogarth’s 18th-century political etchings; Charles Courtney Curran’s 1887 oil Shadow Decoration; a Toulouse-Lautrec lithograph; two Edvard Munchs, a painting and a woodcut; Joseph Stella’s 1914 oil of Coney Island, Battle of Lights, on loan from the Museum of Modern Art; and Hopper’s 1921 etching Night Shadows. Visitors can also catch a projection 51 seconds of movie film shot by Thomas Edison at night at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition, which introduced electric lighting to the American public.

The kickoff for the exhibition will be a talk by William C. Sharpe, professor of English at Barnard College and author of New York Nocturne: The City after Dark in Literature, Painting and Photography, 1850-1950, winner of the 2009 Modernist Studies Association Book Prize. The lecture will take place in Taylor Hall, Room 102, beginning at 5:30 p.m. on Friday, April 11 and be followed by a 6:30 p.m. reception in the Atrium of the Art Center.

“Mastering Light” will be up at the Lehman Loeb through June 29. Two events later this month involving the new exhibition include a Gallery Talk by curator Patricia Phagan at 4 p.m. on Thursday, April 24 and Family Day artmaking activities and tours geared to kids aged 5 to 10 years on Saturday, April 26 from 1:30 to 4 p.m. No registration required to participate in Family Day, and all these events are free and open to the public.

“Artists are drawn to shifting light effects, and they frequently edit and exaggerate and experiment with them in pictorial images, creating their own illusions of natural light with symbolic and emotional moods and meanings,” says Phagan. “Overall, these works show that light can connote deeper meanings: symbolic, moral, intellectual or nationalistic.” The artists included in the exhibition that she curated, she says, “left us with not only arresting works of art, but also with a deeper understanding of aesthetic, social and technological histories of lighting.”

The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Thursday and from 1 to 5 p.m. on Sunday. For more information about “Mastering Light: From the Natural to the Artificial,” call (845) 437-5632 or visit

“Mastering Light: From the Natural to the Artificial” opening, Friday, April 11, 5:30 p.m., free, Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College, 124 Raymond Avenue, Poughkeepsie; (845) 437-5632,



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