Night in paintings (Western art)
The depiction of night in paintings is common in Western art. Paintings that feature a night scene as the theme may be religious or history paintings, genre scenes, portraits, landscapes, or other subject types. Some artworks involve religious or fantasy topics using the quality of dim night light to create mysterious atmospheres. The source of illumination in a night scene—whether it is the moon or an artificial light source—may be depicted directly, or it may be implied by the character and coloration of the light that reflects from the subjects depicted.
Beginning in the early Renaissance, artists such as Giotto, Bosch, Uccello and others told stories with their painted works, sometimes evoking religious themes and sometimes depicting battles, myths, stories and scenes from history, using night-time as the setting. By the 16th and 17th centuries, painters of the late Renaissance, Mannerists, and painters from the Baroque era including El Greco, Titian, Giorgione, Caravaggio, Frans Hals, Rembrandt, Velázquez, Jusepe de Ribera often portrayed people and scenes in night-time settings, illustrating stories and depictions of real life.
Eighteenth-century Rococo painters Antoine Watteau, François Boucher, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, and others used the night-time theme to illustrate scenes of the imagination, often with dramatic literary connotations, including scenes of secret liaisons and romantic relationships reminiscent of the popular 1782 book Les Liaisons dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, used the themes of nighttime to depict illustrations of ordinary life. Poet and painter William Blake and painter Henry Fuseli used the night-time in their work as the setting for many of their most imaginative visions. The most dramatic use of the night-time can be seen in the 1793 painting by Jacques-Louis David, called The Death of Marat, portraying the French revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat after his murder by Charlotte Corday.
The night in paintings of the 19th century was used to convey a complex of diverse meanings. A mystical, religious, and sublime reverence for nature is seen in Caspar David Friedrich, Thomas Cole, Frederick Church, Albert Bierstadt, Albert Pinkham Ryder and others, while the powerful and dramatic romanticism of Francisco Goya, Théodore Géricault, and Eugène Delacroix served as visual reportage of current events, and in the case of Géricault revealed a scandal. Gustave Courbet, who with Honoré Daumier, Jules Breton, Jean-François Millet, and others created the Realist school, portrayed ordinary people hard at work, traveling, or engrossed in their everyday lives, at night and during the day. The Impressionists and Post-Impressionists of the late 19th century used the night-time theme to express a multitude of emotional and aesthetic insights seen most dramatically in the paintings of Edgar Degas, Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh and others.
In fantasy paintings light could symbolize magic, like the following lines of a poem entitled The Magic: "There's magic in this night, enshrouded in this night, hidden, like a lamp in an old man's robe, there's MAGIC.": 61
Gaddi, The Angelic Announcement to the Shepherds
One of the first attempts in depicting night in paintings was by Taddeo Gaddi, an Italian painter and architect.: 67 Gaddi, fascinated by nocturnal lighting, depicted the effect of the light in The Angelic Announcement to the Shepherds night scene. The fresco at Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence, Italy features an incandescent angel as it hovers over a shepherd.: 91 Against the night sky the brilliance of the angel's bright glow, likely intended as "verification of the presence of God and as a metaphor for spiritual enlightenment", appears to startle the shepherd. Gaddi's use of monochromatic colors in and around the shepherd reveals how the colors are made pale due to the remarkable illumination.: 177, 179 [nb 1]
Giotto di Bondone (1266/7–1337), Taddeo Gaddi's teacher and godfather,: 67 [nb 2] created the fresco of Crucifixion, one of the multiple frescoes that told the story of Christ's life, for the Arena Chapel. He depicts Christ on a cross, while the Virgin Mary is comforted by John. Kneeling at his feet is Mary Magdalene, and swirling in the sky above Jesus and the watching crowd's heads are a number of angels. Giotto depicts night and heaven through the use of a deep blue background in the fresco panel and use of stars in the otherwise blue ceiling.: 383  He was able to create depth and dimension through the use of incremental degrees of light and dark shades, the precursor to chiaroscuro. He also used light in a way to represent the divinity of people and angels from the Bible, as he did in other frescoes at Arena Chapel.: 383
Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, Christ in Gethsemane, c. 1411–1416
The Western tradition began properly in the 15th century, especially with depictions in illuminated manuscripts of the biblical night-time scenes of the Annunciation to the Shepherds in the Nativity story, and the Arrest of Christ and Agony in the Garden in the Passion of Christ.
Très Riches Heures, Christ in Gethsemane
In the book of miniatures, Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, the scene of Christ in Gethsemane is an apcolyptic one which foretells the death of Christ, through the presence of three comets in the evening sky.
Uccello, Niccolò Mauruzi da Tolentino at the Battle of San Romano
Niccolò Mauruzi da Tolentino at the Battle of San Romano is one of a three painting series that captures the Battle of San Romano. The passage of time, from dawn to evening, is illustrated in the three paintings with the initial use of pale, pastel shades and increasingly darker tones as the battle progresses.: 84, 90
Geertgen, Nativity at Night
Influenced by a vision of Saint Bridget of Sweden (1303–1373), Geertgen tot Sint Jans's Nativity at Night depicts the infant Jesus who "radiated such an ineffable light and splendour, that the sun was not comparable to it, nor did the candle that St. Joseph had put there, give any light at all, the divine light totally annihilating the material light of the candle.": 78 Strengthening the message about the baby Jesus being the light source, Geertgen depicts the child as the only source of illumination for the main scene inside the stable. Aglow are the faces of the angels, St Joseph and Virgin Mary. Although the shepherds' fire on the hill behind and the angel outside the window create a light source, it's dim in comparison to that provided by the infant child. The sharp contrast of the divine light against dark is a tool used to make the scene appear more profound for its viewers.: 232  London's National Gallery describes Geertgen's work as: "one of the most engaging and convincing early treatments of the Nativity as a night scene.
Annunciation to the Shepherds
In the still of the night, the only source of light radiates in Annunciation to the Shepherds comes from an angel who has come to tell the shepherds of the birth of the infant Christ. The light is so brilliant that the Bethlehem shepherds must shield their eyes. Aside from the startling angel, the nocturnal painting is a pleasant, still pastoral scene with a group of angels in the distance.
Albrecht Dürer, Way to Calvary, 1527
Albrecht Altdorfer, Die Anbetung der Heiligen Drei Könige, c. 1530–1535, Städelsches Kunstinstitut
Cristofano Allori, Judith with the Head of Holophernes, c. 1580, Palazzo Pitti
Giuseppe Cesari, Christ Taken Prisoner, c. 1597
Albrecht Altdorfer (c. 1480 – 12 February 1538) was a German painter, engraver and architect of the Renaissance of the so-called Danube School setting biblical and historical subjects against landscape backgrounds of expressive colours.
Hendrick ter Brugghen, The Denial of Saint Peter, c. 1607–1613
Anthony van Dyck, Abraham and Isaac, c. 1617, National Gallery in Prague
Trophime Bigot, St. Sebastian Aided by St. Irene, before 1650
Joachim von Sandrart, Allegory of Night, 1654–1656
Godfried Schalcken, A Man Offering a Gold Chain and Coins to a Girl Seated on a Bed, c. 1665–1670
Early Baroque artist Adam Elsheimer created night scenes that were highly original. His works departed slightly from other works of the Baroque period were dramatic and abundantly detailed. Baroque paintings featured "exaggerated lighting, intense emotions, release from restraint, and even a kind of artistic sensationalism". Elsheimer's lighting effects in general were very subtle, and very different from those of Caravaggio. He often uses as many as five different sources of light, and graduates the light relatively gently, with the less well-lit parts of the composition often containing important parts of it.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was an Italian artist active between 1593 and 1610. His paintings, which combine a realistic observation of the human state, both physical and emotional, with a dramatic use of lighting, had a formative influence on the Baroque school of painting.: 298–299  Caravaggio's novelty was a radical naturalism that combined close physical observation with a dramatic, even theatrical, use of chiaroscuro. This came to be known as Tenebrism, the shift from light to dark with little intermediate value.: 299 
Georges de La Tour
Georges de La Tour was a French Baroque painter who painted mostly religious chiaroscuro scenes lit by candlelight, which were more developed than his artistic predecessors, yet lacked dramatic effects of Caravaggio. He created some of the most arresting works in this genre, portraying a wide range of scenes by candlelight from card games to New Testament narratives.
Aert van der Neer
The Dutch Golden Age painter Aert van der Neer was a landscape painter, specializing in small night scenes lit only by moonlight and fires, and snowy winter landscapes, both often looking down a canal or river.
Anthony van Dyck
William Hogarth, Marriage A-la-Mode: 5, The Bagnio, c. 1743
Joseph Vernet, Night: Seaport by Moonlight, 1771, Louvre
Claude-Joseph Vernet (14 August 1714 – 3 December 1789) was a French painter whose landscapes, including those of moonlights were popular with English aristocrats. His The Port of Rochefort (1763, Musée national de la Marine) is particularly notable; in the piece Vernet is able to achieve, according to art historian Michael Levey, one of his most 'crystalline and atmospherically sensitive skies'.
Joseph Wright of Derby (3 September 1734 – 29 August 1797) was an English landscape and portrait painter who is notable for his use of Chiaroscuro effect, which emphasises the contrast of light and dark, and for his paintings of candle-lit subjects. Wright is seen at his best in his candlelit subjects. The Three Gentlemen observing the 'Gladiator' (1765). A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery shows an early mechanism for demonstrating the movement of the planets around the sun. An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768) shows people gathered round observing an early experiment into the nature of air and its ability to support life.
These factual paintings are considered to have metaphorical meaning too, the bursting into light of the phosphorus in front of a praying figure signifying the problematic transition from faith to scientific understanding and enlightenment, and the various expressions on the figures around the bird in the air pump indicating concern over the possible inhumanity of the coming age of science.
Théodore Géricault, After the Deluge, 1819
Eugène Delacroix, The Barque of Dante, 1822, Louvre
Jules Breton, The Close of Day, 1865
Petrus van Schendel, Der Liebesbrief, by 1870
Jean-François Millet, Hunting Birds at Night, 1874
Evaporating locomotive at night, 1896 by Hermann Pleuer (1863–1911)
Atkinson Grimshaw (6 September 1836 – 13 October 1893) was a Victorian-era artist: 173 known for his city night-scenes and landscapes. His careful painting and skill in lighting effects meant that he captured both the appearance and the mood of a scene in minute detail. His "paintings of dampened gas-lit streets and misty waterfronts conveyed an eerie warmth as well as alienation in the urban scene.": 99
On Hampstead Hill is considered one of Grimshaw's finest works, exemplifying his skill with a variety of light sources, in capturing the mood of the passing of twilight into night. In his later career his urban scenes under twilight or yellow streetlighting were popular with his middle-class patrons.: 154
In the 1880s, Grimshaw maintained a London studio in Chelsea, not far from the studio of James Abbott McNeill Whistler. After visiting Grimshaw, Whistler remarked that "I considered myself the inventor of Nocturnes until I saw Grimmy's moonlit pictures.": 112 Unlike Whistler's Impressionistic night scenes Grimshaw worked in a realistic vein: "sharply focused, almost photographic," his pictures innovated in applying the tradition of rural moonlight images to the Victorian city, recording "the rain and mist, the puddles and smoky fog of late Victorian industrial England with great poetry.": 112–113
Petrus van Schendel
Petrus van Schendel (1806–1870) was a Dutch Romantic painter, etcher and draughtsman. Van Schendel specialised in nocturnal Dutch market scenes, exploring the effects the soft light had upon his subjects, as a result he was named Monsieur Chandelle by the French. Van Schendel was inspired by these famous forebears, but brought a unique nineteenth century mood to his night scenes. He eloquently captured the mysterious world of city markets illuminated by lamps and moonlight before the dawn.
James Abbott McNeill Whistler
Whistler's ill-advised journey in 1866 to Valparaíso, Chile,: 141 resulted in Whistler's first three nocturnal paintings—which he termed "moonlights" and later re-titled as "nocturnes"—night scenes of the harbor painted with a blue or light green palette. Later in London, he painted several more nocturnes over the next ten years, many of the River Thames and of Cremorne Gardens, a pleasure park famous for its frequent fireworks displays, which presented a novel challenge to paint. In his maritime nocturnes, Whistler used highly thinned paint as a ground with lightly flicked color to suggest ships, lights, and shore line.: 368 : 30 Some of the Thames paintings also show compositional and thematic similarities with the Japanese prints of Hiroshige.: 187
In 1877 Whistler sued the art critic John Ruskin for libel after the critic condemned his painting Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket. Ruskin accused Whistler of "asking two hundred guineas for throwing a pot of paint in the public's face." Whistler won the suit, but was awarded one farthing for damages. The cost of the case bankrupted him. It has been suggested John Ruskin suffered from CADASIL and the visual disturbances this condition caused him might have been a factor in his irritation at this particular painting. Whistler published his account of the trial in the pamphlet Whistler v. Ruskin: Art and Art Critics, included in his later The Gentle Art of Making Enemies (1890).
Vilhelm Hammershøi, Five Portraits, 1901–02
William Orpen, Night No. 2, 1907
George Bellows, Summer Night, Riverside Drive, 1909
Lovis Corinth, Rising Moon, 1922
Lesser Ury, Hochbahnhof Bülowstraße, 1922
The Night Watch, Rembrandt van Rijn
The Night Watch or The Shooting Company of Frans Banning Cocq by Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn is one of the most famous paintings in the world. One of its key elements is the effective use of light and shadow (chiaroscuro).: 61, 65 Made in 1642, it depicts the eponymous company moving out, led by Captain Frans Banning Cocq (dressed in black, with a red sash) and his lieutenant, Willem van Ruytenburch (dressed in yellow, with a white sash). With effective use of sunlight and shade, Rembrandt leads the eye to the three most important characters among the crowd, the two gentlemen in the centre (from whom the painting gets its original title), and the small girl in the centre left background.: 65
For much of its existence, the painting was coated with a dark varnish which gave the incorrect impression that it depicted a night scene, leading to the name by which it is now commonly known. The heavy varnish was only discovered in the 1940s and restoration began after 1975.: 224–225
The Third of May 1808, Francisco Goya
The Third of May 1808 by Spanish painter Francisco Goya commemorates Spanish resistance to Napoleon's armies during the occupation of 1808 in the Peninsular War.: 109 The painting's content, presentation, and emotional force secure its status as a groundbreaking, archetypal image of the horrors of war. Although it draws on many sources from both high and popular art, The Third of May 1808 marks a clear break from convention. Diverging from the traditions of Christian art and traditional depictions of war, it has no distinct precedent, and is acknowledged as one of the first paintings of the modern era.: 116–127 According to the art historian Kenneth Clark, The Third of May 1808 is "the first great picture which can be called revolutionary in every sense of the word, in style, in subject, and in intention".: 130.
It is set in the early hours of the morning following the uprising: 363 and centers on two masses of men: one a rigidly poised firing squad, the other a disorganized group of captives held at gun point. Executioners and victims face each other abruptly across a narrow space; according to Kenneth Clark, "by a stroke of genius [Goya] has contrasted the fierce repetition of the soldiers' attitudes and the steely line of their rifles, with the crumbling irregularity of their target.": 127 A square lantern situated on the ground between the two groups throws a dramatic light on the scene. The brightest illumination falls on the huddled victims to the left, whose numbers include a monk or friar in prayer.: 297 The central figure is the brilliantly lit man kneeling amid the bloodied corpses of those already executed, his arms flung wide in either appeal or defiance.: 116
The painting is structurally and thematically tied to traditions of martyrdom in Christian art, as exemplified in the dramatic use of chiaroscuro, and the appeal to life juxtaposed with the inevitability of imminent execution.: 121 However, Goya's painting departs from this tradition. Works that depicted violence, such as those by Jusepe de Ribera, feature an artful technique and harmonious composition which anticipate the "crown of martyrdom" for the victim.: 118
The lantern as a source of illumination in art was widely used by Baroque artists, and perfected by Caravaggio.: 119 Traditionally a dramatic light source and the resultant chiaroscuro were used as metaphors for the presence of God. Illumination by torch or candlelight took on religious connotations; but in The Third of May the lantern manifests no such miracle. Rather, it affords light only so that the firing squad may complete its grim work, and provides a stark illumination so that the viewer may bear witness to wanton violence. The traditional role of light in art as a conduit for the spiritual has been subverted.: 119
The Starry Night, Vincent van Gogh
The Starry Night, made by Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh, depicts his memory of the view outside his sanitorium room window at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence (located in southern France) at night.: 225 Although Van Gogh was not very happy with the painting, art historian Joachim Pissarro cites The Starry Night as an exemplar of the artist's fascination with the nocturnal. One of Van Gogh's most popular pieces, the painting is widely hailed as his magnum opus.: 225
Nighthawks, Edward Hopper
Edward Hopper had a lifelong interest in capturing the effect of light on the objects it touched, including the nighttime effect of artificial, man-made light spilling out of windows, doorways and porches. Nighthawks was probably Hopper's most ambitious essay in capturing the night-time effects of man-made light. For one thing, the diner's plate-glass windows cause significant light to spill out onto the sidewalk and the brownstones on the far side of the street. As well, interior light comes from more than a single lightbulb, with the result that multiple shadows are cast, and some spots are brighter than others as a consequence of being lit from more than one angle. Across the street, the line of shadow caused by the upper edge of the diner window is clearly visible towards the top of the painting. These windows, and the ones below them as well, are partly lit by an unseen streetlight, which projects its own mix of light and shadow. As a final note, the bright interior light causes some of the surfaces within the diner to be reflective. This is clearest in the case of the right-hand edge of the rear window, which reflects a vertical yellow band of interior wall, but fainter reflections can also be made out, in the counter-top, of three of the diner's occupants. None of these reflections would be visible in daylight.
The Empire of Light, René Magritte
In his 1950 painting The Empire of Light, René Magritte (1898–1967), explores the illusion of night and day, and the paradox of time and light. On the top half of his canvas Magritte paints a clear blue sky and white clouds that radiate bright daytime; while on the bottom half of his canvas below the sky, he paints a street, sidewalk, trees and houses all steeped in the darkness of night. The darkened trees and darkened houses appear to be in nighttime shadows, in the middle of the night; and the sidewalk streetlight is on to guide the way. Some of the questions implied by these pictures include is it night-time? is it daytime? or is it just a painting? The Empire of Light is one of a series of paintings that René Magritte painted between 1950 and 1954 that explores his surrealist insight into illusion and reality, using night and day as his subject.
Thomas Cole, The Vesper Hymn, 1838
Ivan Aivazovsky, Stormy Sea in Night, 1849
Jules Dupré, Landscape by moonlight, 1852
Albert Bierstadt, Evening on the Prairie, c. 1870
Petrus van Schendel, Nachtelijke marine, Unknown date, Collectie Rademakers
Petrus van Schendel, Market, Unknown date
Pedro Américo, The Night Escorted by the Geniuses of Love and Study, 1886
Ferdinand Hodler, The Night, 1889–1890
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- Katz, Alex and Donald Burton Kuspit. (1991). Night paintings. H.N. Abrams. ISBN 0-8109-3502-3.
- "The Life of Christ: The Story of Christ: The noblest paintings of the Saviour's life were done by Giotto for a chapel in Italy." Life Magazine, Time, Inc. 27 December 1948. 25: 26. p. 32–57. ISSN 0024-3019.
- MacDonald, Margaret F. (2001). Palaces in the Night: Whistler in Venice. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-23049-3.
- Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Hokusai Katsushika; Kojiro Tomita. (1957). Day and night in the four seasons. Volume 14 of Picture book series. Museum of Fine Arts.
- Nasgaard, Roald. (2007). Abstract Painting in Canada. Douglas & McIntyre. ISBN 1-55365-394-7.
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