Duccio: 1278-1319, Italian; Sienna
Rear panel from the Maesta altarpiece: 1308, Sienna Cathedral Altarpiece,
Tempora? On Poplar? (Altarpiece 213 x 396 cm)
Sienna
 
Duccio was the master painter in Sienna in the late13th early 14th centuries. He marked the change from flat Byzantine figure painting to more realistic representation where faces showed emotion, involvement and pictures had narrative content. He was a contemporary of the Florentine, Giotto. Duccio and Giotto between them ushered in the gothic style of painting and Giotto, in particular, began to show figures as having depth.
 
Our interest in this picture is in how it is lighted. Figures surge around Christ as he enters Jerusalem for the last time. Boys throw tree fronds on the road, citizens cast their clothing to soften the way and the disciples follow their Master, halos providing a nice line through the middle ground of the picture. The whole scene, though, is lighted evenly, there are virtually no shadows, no matter which way faces point they are in full sun. A vibrant golden light intensifies the joy of the people and adds to the bustle of the picture. There are no signs that these same people will, within a week, urge the crucifixion of the man they are so heartily welcoming. Note also the lack of secure perspective in the picture: the doorway, archway and road all have different vanishing points. Later artists would also have used shadow to help with depth perception. Never-the-less this is a masterpiece of its time.





Durer: 1471-1528, German
Self-portrait: 1493,
Oil(?) on parchment, transferred to canvas? 57 x 45 cm
Louvre: Paris
 
The master of picture making in Germany for most of his working life, Durer worked at printmaking as well as painting, breaking new ground in both. His particular contribution was showing light and shade in prints and the use of perspective generally. He painted a number of self-portraits.
 
Here weight and drama are added to the picture by Durer’s treatment of light. The chest pushes forward, framed by the darker right shoulder, the slight turn of the, brightly-lighted head is enhanced by the shadow under the left side of the jaw, the finery of the cloak is shown in the, almost metallic, reflection from the shoulder. The figure stands out against a darker background and our eye is taken around the picture by the light trail. Durer was amongst the first to paint in the self-portrait genre.





Caravaggio: 1573-1610, Italian (Venice/Rome)
The Sacrifice of Isaac: 1596
Oil on canvas, 116 x 173 cm
Princeton (New Jersey campus)
 
Caravaggio was the enfant terrible of the Italian art world in his time. Rampant homosexual, probable paedophile, murderer…and magnificent painter! He perfected chiaroscuro and remains the master of it. His action-packed canvasses are amongst the most widely admired of early Italian art and fortunate indeed is the museum which has Caravaggio in its collection.
 
In this magnificent picture Abraham is about to sacrifice his son Isaac, according to God’s apparent command, when an angel intervenes. God has, after all, been testing Abraham’s faith rather than seriously suggesting the father take the son’s life. A ram can be sacrificed instead. 
Light guides us around the work: we start with the perfect features of the angel (probably modelled by one of Caravaggio’s Street Arabs); this is the brightest part of the canvas along with the son’s waist cloth. We then move to the head of Abraham and down his arm to the knife with which he is about to slaughter his son, the son also probably modelled by a youthful acquaintance of the artist. From the knife we travel to the boy’s waist then to his upper body and then back down the body to the Ram. Boy and ram are joined in a fateful pact the relationship sealed with light.
In a later picture (1603) of the same subject the angel is shown intervening much later, just as the father is about to murder his son.




Anthony Van Dyke, 1599-1641, Belgian, worked in England
Equestrian portrait of Charles I: ?1637-8,
Oil on canvas, 367 x 292 cm
National gallery, London
 
Van Dyke, although Belgian spent much of his career in England painting the Stuart Kings, particularly Charles the First. He was the pre-eminent portrait painter of his day with a reputation spreading well outside England.
 
Charles was a small man, a disadvantage for a monarch at any time. Van Dyke has thus painted him astride a small horse but made up for the horse’s small stature by lighting it brilliantly. The noble king and warrior is shown in full body armour, from which the light obligingly reflects, enhancing the sovereign’s limbs and chest. In order to attract our eye up the figure, and thus re-enforce the majestic nature of the sitter, Van Dyke starts our view at the left horizon from which it travels to the horse, then up the leg and torso to the full-lighted face. Highlights attract us around the picture only after we have properly noted the royal presence. 





Johannes Vermeer, 1632-75, Dutch/Belgian
Woman Holding a Balance: 1664,
Oil on canvas, 43 x 38 cm
National Gallery of Art Washington
 
 
Vermeer was primarily an art dealer during his life and sold few of his own pictures. A painter of mostly meticulous interiors inhabited by women, Vermeer, like his contemporary Rembrandt, used light to bring out both the geometry and psychology of his compositions. There are about thirty-five known Vermeers’ and he is the art world’s most forged artist.
 
Typically for Vermeer this small picture is lighted from the side, usually our left. Light from a window brilliantly illuminates the upper body of a contemplative woman holding a set of scales, or balance. Highly reflective jewellery lies on the table in front of her and a blue cloth and book catch light as well. Another typical Vermeer touch is the light gently falling on another picture hanging on the wall opposite us. Light passing through the curtain in the top left of the picture ensures our eye will travel right around the composition.
As in all Vermeer’s work we are meant to take a lesson from the composition. The black-framed picture-within-the picture is of The Last Judgment, the balance and jewellery urge us to keep material things in perspective to ensure our success in passing the Last Great Test. Bright lighting, separating her from the surroundings, gives the woman psychological weight and gravitas as befits a messenger of this importance.






This is the same Vermeer but significantly lightened so that the balance or scales can be more clearly seen.





Rembrandt: 1606-1669, Dutch
The Three Crosses, 1653
Drypoint and burin on velum (second state of five) 38 x 44 cm
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
 
 
The greatest practitioner of his age for two principle reasons: he was an innovator, particularly in the art of print making extending existing techniques to previously unheard levels of technical inventiveness, and for his treatment of light in both prints and oil painting. He was also astonishingly prolific and most major galleries have Rembrandt in their collections.
Drypoint is a method of engraving where the image is scratched directly on to the copper plate with a sharp scribe or Burin. Deep incisions produce burring which produces variation of reflected light in the finished print. Thus light and shade depend on the marking depth. Drypoint is risky as a mistake can not be rectified and Drypoint plates produce few numbers in an edition because the edge soon wears off the burring. 
 
In this wonderful example of the printer’s art light pours down on the scene of Christ’s crucifixion. Surely this light is divinely directed as it lances out of the darkening sky directly on to Our Lord and the Good Thief. The other thief shares some divine illumination so presumably his place in heaven is not hopelessly lost. The three Mary’s huddle at the foot of the cross also brilliantly lighted. Those whose naivety and treachery have brought about this terrible event are shown in the darkness which gathers as the hour of Jesus’ death approaches. We can only wonder at the effect this and other highly-contrasted prints had on Rembrandt’s contemporaries. Here was the printer’s art being extended almost beyond recognition.
 






Rembrandt, 1606-1669, Dutch
Aristotle with a Bust of Homer, 1653
Oil on canvas, 144 x 137 cm
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
 
 
Aristotle (384-322 BC) wearing a medallion bearing an image of Alexander (356 323 BC) stands meditatively viewing a bust of the blind poet Homer (850 BC?). Aristotle was Alexander’s teacher and Homer the author of that great journey,‘The Iliad’. Is Aristotle simply connecting two great men, is he acknowledging his debt to Homer and suggesting that some of Homer’s humility might profitably be passed on to his pupil Alexander or is he comparing the scholarship of Homer with the more worldly intentions of his ambitious student? Much has been written about this picture however its main attraction for us is the wonderful use of painted, reflected light. From a source on our side of the canvas light streams into the picture to be reflected in gold from the head of the poet, in sparkling metallic splendour from the chain and silver from the silk cloak. More subdued reflection shows us the thoughtful head of the philosopher as he ponders the connection between his mentor and student.
 






Monet: 1840-1926, French
Vetheuil (The Seine at Vetheuil), 1879
Oil on Canvas, 60x x 81 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
 
Monet was one of the founders and leaders of the Impressionists. He painted in the Impressionist manner from the 1860s to the end of his life; painting in and around Paris, along the French coast, in London and, late I life, in his own garden at Giverny.
 
Following the example of the Barbizon School of painters the Impressionists set out to paint the effects of light, however they wanted to capture the fleeting moment, the moment which would never be repeated. This meant they had to paint outdoors in order to catch and record their moment immediately. Thus they also introduced the idea of ‘Plein Air’ painting- painting at the sight of the composition; not in the studio from sketches made at the scene previously.
They achieved this instant depiction of the effect of light by laying small coloured flecks of paint side by side and so building up the painted surface until the final effect was one of shimmering splendour as seen here, particularly in the reflection of the sky and buildings in the river. Our eye is drawn across the river along the building reflections, along the upward axis of the tower and into the sky where bundles of cloud catch long light from the sun. The work is a momentary miracle of reflected light and we are there with Monet on that day in 1879.






Here is one of Monet's pictures of the effects of light on the west front of Rouen Cathedral.  It is a masterpiece of the play of light on a surface painted in the impressionist style.  You can chase up the location of the picture on Google.





Paul Signac, 1863-1935, French
Red Buoy, 1895
Oil on canvas, 81 x 65 cm
Musee d` Orsay, Paris
 
Signac was born when the Impressionists were beginning their assault on the Salon. He, became an Impressionist painter but after the battles had been fought and won. At the age of 21 he began to experiment with an extension of Impressionism whereby instead of laying down indeterminate strips of colour side by side the same colours would be applied ‘scientifically’ in small, regular, sized dots alongside one another. Overall the effect would be, as the Impressionists had achieved; s description of the play of light on the surface. The technique also led to a degree of abstraction so as well as producing brilliantly lighted canvasses. This new technique was called variously; Neo-Impressionism, Pointillism or Divisionism.
 
In this splendid composition Signac shows a canvas in three parts.   Our eye begins at the bouy, travels across water painted in the Pointillist style to brightly lighted buildings on the far bank. A cloud-spotted sky fills the top third of the work. We can see the Pointillist technique to perfection in the water: greens, yellows, pinks, orange, blues all sit pulsating side by side. The overall effect on standing back is vibrant reflection of light from the water. Boat masts link water and sky and the buildings sit on the far bank harmoniously complimenting the light show in the water.
 






Van Gogh, 1853-90, Dutch
Starry Night, 1888
Oil on canvas, 73 x 92 cm
Musee d` Orsay, Paris
 
Van Gogh is one of painting history’s tragic figures. A painter of brilliantly expressive works and a prolific worker he failed to sell a major picture during his life. Kept afloat financially by his brother Theodore and working as a lay preacher on the continent as well as England to further supplement his meagre finances, Van Gogh lived in poverty for most of his life. Not intellectual poverty though as he refused to ever compromise his expressionistic ideals no matter how negative or dismissive the public, or critical, reaction. He ended his life by suicide in the south of France just two years after moving there ostensibly to set up a painting group of two with Gauguin. Typically this venture failed too and Gauguin soon left. Along with Munch Van Gogh may be credited with beginning the Expressionistic movement.
 
Starry night brims with colour, we could see our way by the starlight and reflections and indeed two people are. Reflections bounce at us from the water having begun life at the houses on the far bank. They ripple and dance as the water surface changes. Star light illuminates the sky and the landscape. Here Van Gogh has juxtaposed raw colour to give physical impact to his picture. Nature and Van Gogh are operating on a grand scale this night and light is their medium.






Edvard Munch: 1863-1944, Norwegian
Starry Night, 1893
Oil on canvas, 135 x 140 cm
J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
 
One of the earliest practitioners of Expressionism, Munch was influenced by the Impressionists and Van Gogh. His early pictures often have extreme emotional content, one of the best known being, ‘The Scream’ After a serious illness in 1908, he took up residence in Norway where he remained for the rest of his life painting bright, vigorous, extroverted pictures at first then reverting to the darker symbolism of his earlier work. Munch’s work is often latently violent, always emotionally evocative and shows a passion for visual symbolism. Along with Van Gogh he is credited with beginning the Expressionist movement which found a particular home in Germany.
 
Starry Night evokes Van Gogh’s two versions of the same theme but Van Gogh’s pictures have a rather more optimistic feel than the romantic, but melancholy, mystical landscape portrayed here. This is a summer sky with the reddish evening star hovering just above the horizon, other stars sprinkle the firmament but only the two brightest manage a reflection in water coloured by reflections of the superbly painted sky. On land the picture is dominated by a brooding mass of land projecting into the water and a group of trees on the right whose massed foliage evoke a tombstone The foreground is leavened by a white fence catching the starlight or the last of the sun. The moody picture space swings from brooding somnolence to more hopeful flashes in the night sky the scene orchestrated by the fall of light... Munch is said to have seen this time of day as a metaphor for a failed, youthful love affair.
 






Mark Rothko: 1903-70, American
Untitled, 1960
Oil on paper on canvas, 65 x 50 cm
Private collection America
 
An abstract Expressionist painter, Rothko’s work lacks the energy and franticness of some of his contemporaries. Much of his output was large format, rectangular canvasses with bands of horizontally opposed colour. Partly because the edges of the rectangles were left fuzzy and undefined and partly because the rectangles themselves were painted with a hazy wash technique, the rectangles appear to pulsate and vibrate and the canvasses have great emotional depth. Most of the works evoke calmness and encourage contemplation as they ask us to seek universal truth and the answers to life’s questions by intellectual means. Rothko wrote poetry and philosophical works as well as painting but eventually found life’s pressures overwhelming and committed suicide at the age of 66.
 
This is an uncharacteristically small Rothko work and also one of his more optimistic. A yellow, scraped-back ground has three floating rectangles all reflective but dominated by the brilliant white at the top. The Rothko trademarks are all here: thin wash paint, undefined edges and a ‘feel’ that the work is moving slowly in and out of the picture plane, each rectangle in turn. Light plays a critical part in our perception of each rectangle. One needs to look at Rothko works over a long period and to contemplate each work rather than simply looking. Labour will eventually be rewarded with an appreciation that here indeed was a man who lived the intellectual life and, via the apparently simple medium of paint on a surface, has the ability to commend thoughtfulness and contemplation in the conduct of our lives. His suicide is paradoxical: did he ultimately ‘know’ too much or did frustration at not knowing enough ultimately destroy him?






Fred Williams, 1927-1982, Australian
Lysterfield II, 1974
Oil on Canvas, 77 x 57 cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
 
Williams was arguably Australia’s greatest painter. Painting in a style not obviously derivative he produced a huge range of work making prints and paintings with equal facility. His landscape pictures bustle with dots, splashes, lines and shapes and ‘speak’ of the landscape. Structure, shape, colour and viewpoint combine to produce a portrait of the land often seen in an unfolding plan view. Williams was also an accomplished portraitist. He died of cancer at the tragically early age of 54.
 
Lysterfield interests us because of the facility with which light and colour are used to delineate water, land and sky. Blue water gives way to a dry stretch of bank which ends on a low skyline. The land, sky boundary is defined largely by a change of tone and different light transmission. The water is infused with the gentlest reflection of the brown earth and glows with an inner life.  Note the similarity in structure between this picture and the Rothko above.