Published: June 5, 2001
PITTSBURGH, PENN. – A groundbreaking exhibition showcasing the biggest names in light from the worlds of art and science will be on view at Carnegie Museum of Art through July 29. “Light! The Industrial Age 1750-1900, Art & Science, Technology & Society” focuses on the era when discoveries about natural artificial light transformed art as well as everyday life. By experiencing masterpieces of art, rare scientific instruments, and interactive demonstrations, visitors can discover the revolutions in light that were as earth shaking to our ancestors as the digital revolution is to us today.
“Light!” was organized in partnership with the Van Gogh Museum and is presented only in Amsterdam and Pittsburgh.
“Light!” features artworks of diverse media, including drawing, painting, etching, sculpture, photography, and film. The artists in the exhibition represent the broadest range of styles and techniques of the Industrial Age: the romantics – Blake, Goya, and Tuners; the pre-Raphaelites – Holman-Hunt and Madox Brown; American greats – Bierstadt, Whistler, and Homer; Impressionists and Post-Impressionists – Degas, Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, van Gogh, Signac, and Toulouse-Lautrec.
Alongside the great names in art, “Light!” showcases the brilliant careers of scientific luminaries, such as Newton, Priestly, Daguerre, Edison, and Westinghouse, with unusual and exceptional scientific and technological devices: microscopes, astronomical and navigational instruments, candelabra, kerosene and oil lamps, gaslights, a wide variety of early electric light sources, as well as popular science texts, housekeeping manuals, and trade catalogues. The exhibition also demonstrates how light has been used as a medium for entertainment with early projection lanterns, kaleidoscopes, unusual historic photographs, x-rays, photomicrographs, and early motion pictures.
In addition to displaying science, art, and technology side by side, the exhibition offers interactive displays that allow visitors to gain hands-on experience with crucial discoveries in the history of light: Newton’s prism experiments, primitive photography, the invention of telescopes and microscopes, theories of vision and the visual effects of light from different sources.
Andreas Blühm, head of exhibitions at the Van Gogh Museum and co-organizer of the exhibition, believes the show gives visitors an unparalleled chance to appreciate how even the greatest artists struggled with new technology. “Van Gogh mentioned in his letters that his paintings looked different in daylight and gaslight,” says Blühm. “Visitors to this exhibition will be able to see exactly what he meant. They will see the colors of one of his paintings change in different lights.”
“Light!” is presented in five sections. “Rays of Light” begins with the work of Isaac Newton, whose optical theories inspired generations of scientists, artists, inventors, and the general public. It includes rdf_Descriptions that testify to Newton’s far-reaching influence, including a number of rare books, such as a 1704 edition of his Optiks and Benjamin Franklin’s copy of a treatise explaining Newton’s work titled Physices elementa mathematica (1721). Francesco Algarotti’s Newtonianism for Women, published in 1775, also in the exhibition, embodies the spirit of the era, when all educated persons, not just specialists, were fluent in the latest scientific discoveries.
The art of the period also reflects the new knowledge of optics. Jean Siméon Chardin’s “Glass of Water and Coffeepot,” circa 1760, deftly captures the behavior of light itself. In this still life, a water glass shows refraction, the bending of light as it travels through transparent objects, in this case glass and water. Refraction proved to be one of the central optical problems of the Eighteenth Century, and the other objects in the painting, the coffeepot for example, are rendered in a way that highlights the problem of diffraction – the behavior of light on opaque surfaces.
In “The Light of Nature,” the exhibition’s second section, the story of natural light and the ways artists depicted natural light as day and night are explored. For artists and the public, light provoked controversy, particularly when artistic movements, like Impressionism, depicted it in ways that broke with the aesthetic conventions of the day. Three paintings in this section of the exhibition, van Gogh’s “Trunks of Trees with Ivy,” 1889, Paul Signac’s “Place des Lices, St Tropez,” 1893, and Albert Bierstadt’s “Light and Shadow,” 1862, use divergent, but equally compelling methods to depict the play of light and shadow.
Likewise, “The Sower,” 1888, by van Gogh, and “Sun Setting over a Lake,” circa 1840, by J.W.M. Turner, successfully overcome the challenge of portraying subjects at twilight in original and startling ways. Claude Monet’s pair of paintings, “The Portal of Rouen Cathedral and the Tour d’Albane at Dawn,” 1893, and “The Portal of Rouen Cathedral, Morning Effect,” 1894, dramatize light’s emotional potential.
Between 1750 and 1900, the task of creating light and imbuing it with meaning was claimed in turn by the church, the state, and various capitalist enterprises. Each sought to create light and interpret its symbolic nature. The “Makers of Light” section of the exhibition reveals how light was used as an enduring icon of power, truth, and beauty in the Industrial Age.
Among the works in this section, a number show the muscular, dynamic influence of light that make it such powerful symbol. “The Annual Girandola at the Castel Sant’Angelo,” 1775-76, by Joseph Wright of Derby portrays the brilliant and starkly contrasted lighting of a fireworks display. Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg’s “Coalbrookdale by Night,” 1801, reveals a scene illuminated by an intense and threatening glow coming from the heat of industrial furnaces. John Martin’s “Pandemonium,” 1841, an allegorical painting, shows the exterior of the palace of Satan illuminated by gaslight across a river of glowing brimstone.
In Europe and America, the ability to create and use artificial light on a large scale became a representation of industrial and political supremacy. “Light!” has a number of examples of light used as a tool to create the propaganda of progress, including a hand-colored lithograph by Charles-Henri Toussaint titled “The Universal Exposition Paris 1900: The Palais des Illusions,” 1900. This print, twinkling with chips of mica and tin spangles, depicts the World’s Fair at the turn of the century showing off its electric lights.
In the “Personal Lights” section of the exhibition, objects and artworks trace the early history of artificial lighting. As artificial lights became brighter and proliferated, the quality of lighting also changed. Among the artifacts in this section are improved versions of ancient light sources such as candleholders and oil lamps, as well as new inventions, such as gas lamps and electric bulbs. Paintings in this section dramatize the ways that each of these light sources changed lives.
It is difficult for us to appreciate the fact that people once thought that some new sources of light were revolutionary, not just convenient or remarkable. The exhibition has several works marking the upheavals touched off by public and private lives coming into contact with light from new sources, including van Gogh’s “The Potato Eaters,” 1885. This lithograph depicts a mealtime scene of peasants gathered under a kerosene lamp, whose harsh light reveals both the poverty and the spirituality of the family seated around the table.
“Public Lighting” is the last section of the exhibition. Two new types of illumination, gas and electric lights, were inexpensive and bright enough to light public places. Artists began to show public places illuminated by these new sources of light, like “The Boulevard Barbes Rochechouart in Winter,” 1879, by Hippolyte Camille Delpy, which depicts a Paris street at night, brightened by gas streetlights.
“Light!” will provide visitors an opportunity to gain firsthand experience with the way artificial light affects color perception. The van Gogh painting “Gauguin’s Chair,” 1888, can be viewed under four light sources from the artist’s time: natural daylight, open gas flame, incandescent gas flame, and electric arc light. As visitors switch from one light source to another, they can see and compare the effect each type of light has on perception.
“At the Moulin Rouge,” 1894-95, illustrates how Toulouse-Lautrec met and overcame technical and aesthetic challenges of new light sources. This painting depicts the interior of a nightclub and its patrons illuminated by gas lamps, a source of light notorious for its color-dampening effects. In the painting, mirrors line the wall reflecting the gaslight, and the women wear exaggerated makeup.
When electricity superseded gas for lighting, consumers wanted a better electric lamp that would tame the glare of the electric bulb. The now classic table lamp, 1899-1902, by Louis Tiffany was inspired by the desire of American consumers for a lampshade that would dim the era’s bright bulbs. Tiffany’s lamps were judged to be cutting-edge American design because they were the first lamp design that responded to the aesthetic challenges of the new electric light.
According to Louise Lippincott, co-organizer of the show and curator of fine arts at Carnegie Museum of Art, no other exhibition has presented great art, science, and technology side-by-side, allowing the public to examine, appreciate, and experience the aesthetic, technical, and sociological impact of changing perceptions to the same degree as “Light!” “In the century and a half that we focus on in the exhibition, the availability and understanding of light transformed art and society in ways that we can learn to appreciate,” says Lippincott.
Light! a fully illustrated book published by Thames & Hudson Ltd., accompanies the exhibition. The book chronicles turning points in the story of the revelation of the hidden laws of light from 1750 to 1900. It records the way that innovations, discoveries, and inventions in art and science completely transformed lifestyles and perceptions. It has 272 pages and 304 illustrations, 195 of which are full color plates. The book, by Louise Lippincott and Andreas Blühm, is available in hard and softcover at the Carnegie Museum of Art Store by calling 412/622-3216.
The Carnegie Museum of Art, located at 4400 Forbes Avenue in Oakland, was founded by industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie in 1895. For information, 412/622-3131.
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