Night Vision: Nocturnes In American Art | Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold | Scene4 Magazine-October 2015

Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold

      The night

      Hath been to me a more familiar face

      Than that of man; and in her starry shade

      Of dim and solitary loveliness

      I learned the language of another world.

So wrote Lord Byron, as he described his fascination with the realm of darkness, with what Goethe called “the other half of life.”  While the night has held both attraction and terror for man since the beginnings of time, while poets like Shakespeare made frequent use of light-dark imagery, it was the Romantics who gave voice most powerfully in poetry, in visual art, and in music, to the dichotomies of night and day, the contraries of experience and of vision. This conceptual, metaphoric, even mystical legacy of the late 18th and early 19th century thought found significant expression in the visual arts in the years 1860-1960, a period which experienced technological changes as well as figurative exploration of the theme of night vision.


In a riveting and revealing new thematic exhibition, entitled Night Vision, Noctunes in American Art 1860-1960, curated by Joachim Homann, the Bowdoin College Museum in Brunswick, Maine, examines the varied and changing artistic expressions of the experience of seeing at night. The exhibition which spans the years from the invention of the electric light to the discoveries of the Space Age, surveys more than eighty paintings, drawings, prints, and photographs by major American artists from Winslow Homer to Frederick Remington, Georgia O’Keefe, and Andrew Wyeth, and chronicles the individual artists’ responses to the heightened sensations and the expanded opportunities for imagination which night has always afforded the creative genius. Assembled from the Bowdoin Museum’s private collection and bolstered by borrowings from major American museums and private collectors, the collection provides thoughtful and varied perspectives on the phenomenon of darkness and night.




Homann has arranged the exhibition chronologically and stylistically, beginning with the realism of the mid-19th century and progressing to the abstraction of the mid-20th. Bookending the exhibition are two stunning works from Bowdoin’s own permanent collection – both striking examples of American realism, Winslow Homer’s 1893 Fountains at Night and Andrew Wyeth’s 1944 Night Hauling. In between, his examination of the theme explores the many faces of the nocturnal experience: night as a time for amusement, for secrecy and cherished privacy , for the terrifying, and for the mystical and inscrutable.




Night as a time for pleasure – both stolen and sacred – occupies a number of artists such as Winslow Homer, George Bellows, John Sloan, and Beauford Delaney. Bellows 1912 oil, Outside the Big Tent, depicts a scene with circus revelers in the shadowed foreground, the tents themselves in a garish light beckoning from the middle ground. The artificial light of the fairgrounds constitutes but a fraction of the picture, yet its very brightness holds its own with the overwhelming darkness of the rest of the canvas. Figures are treated with rapid brushwork and indistinguishable features; performer and spectator all disappear into the larger experience of the darkened illusion.


Similarly, John Sloan explores other urban scenes of night revelry in paintings charged with energy that seems to burst the boundaries of the shadowy lighting, such as his 1907 Election Night or the Haymarket, Sixth Avenue.   The city as a place which never sleeps figures as a prominent theme in Sloan’s and other painters of the Ashcan School, and the cloak of darkness embodies the suggestion of endless possibility.




In another Sloan canvas of the same year, The Cot, the artist paints a white robed woman in the privacy of her bedroom. The snowy sheets together with her dress provide the illumination in the painting, as the lady’s features blur and disappear into the darkness. What is remarkable about this work (and so many like it by Sloan) is the strikingly objective perspective. Though the viewer is invited to glimpse an intimate scene, there is no sense of voyeurism, but rather of sharing a friendly familiarity, a kind of absence of pretention or compunction which the cover of night affords. In a more abstract vein but with comparable lack of self-consciousness is Marguerite Zorach’s 1940 Diana of the Sea, in which she used her sculptural, almost cubist forms and neutral palette to depict the semi-nude goddess casually sitting in a dory, surrounded by lobsters and crustaceans.




The same kind of objective observation characterizes Edward Hopper’s 1928 Night Windows, in which the artist offers a view from his own apartment of three lit windows in the building opposite, through which we espy the derriere of a naked woman, engaged in her pre-sleep toilet. Armed with the kind of frank anonymity that exemplifies urban living, the viewer is able to enjoy the sense of a guilt-free “sneek peek.”




Among the other figurative works in the exhibition is a trio of monumental canvasses by Henry Ossawa Tanner, Biblical scenes which employ night as a device to heighten the sense of mystery and symbolism inherent in the story. Tanner’s 1899 Nicodemus depicts the old man’s meeting with Christ through the lens of a bluish night, indirectly lit by the unseen moon. The absence of the actual lighting source in the picture, itself, here contributes to the mystical aura, as it does in the artist’s study of a kneeling disciple for the 1925 Two Disciples at the Tomb, in which the figure tranquilly stares off into the darkness, frontally lit by the far off moon.




Then there is the pivotal work of Winslow Homer, The Fountains at Night, World’s Colombian Exposition 1893, in which the artist inserts figures into a landscape larger than man, himself, and with typical post-Romantic vision, shows the shadowy human figures to be choreographed creatures in a dance of dark and light.


The air of mysticism wrought by the night is evident not only in the exhibition’s figurative works, but perhaps even more so in those of pure landscape or pure abstraction. John Leslie Breck’s 1897 Santa Maria della Salute is a case in point – a silvery lit white marble edifice which shimmers in the blue-back ripples of the Venetian lagoon and which seems to glow from within, the inanimate structure taking on a life of its own.  Or there are the striking chiaroscuro contrasts of Alfred Stieglitz’s photographs, among them his 1897 Reflections-Night, New York, which captures the glow of the electric street lamps on the fa├žade of a colonnaded building and on the pavement in the foreground.




The crispness of Stieglitz’s lighting contrasts and the carefully articulated composition with its off-center silhouetted tree, are nonetheless softened by the texture of the silver gelatin print, tempering the absolute “realism” of the camera with the perception of a watercolorist.




Georgia O’Keefe, who is represented by both a more representational canvas, New York Night (1928-9) and the far more imaginative, stark Black Abstraction (1927) conveys in the latter not only the sheer magical fluidity of night, but also its inscrutability. It is a quality which she shares with  painters like Albert Bierstadt in his 1860 oil on paper, Cloud Study, Moonlight, or with Andrew Wyeth’s compelling large 1944 canvas, Night Hauling.




Only the skeletal shapes of the lobster traps, the dory which disappears into the cavernous night, and the dipping oars, manned by unseen hands are visible because of the phosphorescence of sea life. The eeriness of the scene’s lighting, compounded by the painter’s hard-edged, unsparing realism, lends this work not only a measure of the unfathomable, but also of the sublime and the terrible.


And it is this aura of trepidation that lends the ultimate frisson to the power of night, to its mystery, its secrets, its siren song. Perhaps nowhere else in the exhibition is this quality of danger more evident than in Frederic Remington’s 1909 painting Moonlight Wolf in which the lean and hungry nocturnal beast confronts the viewer from a barren landscape. The greenish cast of the canvas accentuates the unsettling feeling, but it is the eyes of the creature which are most intimidating. Small, squinty, yellow, they are tiny beacons which bore through the still, dense darkness of the scene, fixing the viewer with a merciless stare. They inspire fear; they provocatively hurl out an unanswered question, inviting the viewer to accept the challenge of the unknown, the savage, the other self.




As unsettling as Remington’s image is, it is balanced by the seductiveness of so many of the other works in this diverse exhibition. Not only does Night Vision examine, as Homann says, “the various trajectories which have shaped our own perceptions of night, but also the technological advancements and cultural contexts” for our view of the nocturnal phenomenon. As the Renaissance poet John Lyly wrote, “Night hath a thousand eyes.” The Bowdoin Museum’s thrilling exhibition explores the many perspectives on night vision, taking the viewer on a journey into the depths of imagery, psychology, and metaphor and helping to shape a more tangible visualization of one of life’s great mysteries.


Photos - Courtesy Bowdoin Museum

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Scene4 Magazine - Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold |

Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold's new book is Bookends (Weiala Press). Her reviews, interviews, and features have appeared in numerous international publications. She is a Senior Writer for Scene4. Read her Blog.
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