paint in the volatile crack. They prize that crack till it
reveals an alternate world. They paint in a haunted
imminence, a place as enchanted as a child’s circle of
stones, and from each generation it calls an elect to its
for naming and dating things grew into not only a
presumption of understanding but also of having left
something in the past, in the dust. And that is the danger
of it. So when the late John I. H. Baur of the Whitney
Museum of American Art back in 1954 called a certain group
of painters Luminists, the coinage was like the ritual
sealing of a mausoleum and there the Luminists were, stuck
in history. It wasn’t Baur’s fault, of course. He had to
call them something, and his choice was brilliant. But it
remains all too handy to teach the history of art by names
and dates, giving a false sense of knowledge, something like
the shallow advantage of a student with an eidetic memory.
We don’t just want to get artists over and done with, do we?
We want to learn how to forever enjoy them.
passion for categorizing has seeped a kind of
been-there-done-that jadedness that insinuates itself
detrimentally, freezing schools and movements in time like
woolly mammoths in ice. We are lured into thinking that
Impressionism belongs solely to a certain jolly pastel
period of French history and Luminism belongs to a
portentous America poised for its final Western march.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Each stroke of the
brush is haunted by everything set down on canvas before it.
happened is that the public confuses itself with the critics
and historians, and they confuse themselves with the gods.
For the sake of writing knowledgeably, art is pinned like a
dissected frog. Once a school or movement is freeze-framed
we are invited to think of it taxidermically. Instead, we
should be prepared to encounter the Zeitgeist of each
school at all times in all places; we should be continually
as ambushed by the pleasure of it in a contemporary artist
as we are by the legacies of our forebears. Movements and
styles do not tarry; they move along in the stream of
history, and the historians serve us best when they right a
wrong—rescuing the Luminist George Curtis, for example, from
which are flourishing, are no longer morgues, but their
educators must stop conducting inquests.
Baur’s chosen Luminists, influenced by the Hudson River
School, included most notably the progenitor Fitz Hugh Lane (1815-1865) and Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904). Others
included Henry Walton, George Tirrell and J.W. Hill. Later
came painters who might be called their heirs, such as
George Loring Brown (1814-1889) and Edward Hopper
(1882-1967). But only recently has it become possible to
speak of a resurgence of Luminist painting in places like
England coast and the Hudson Valley.
nineteenth-century Luminists drew from the Hudson River
painters, it may be because a trademark locality of light
informs their paintings. The splendor of their topography is
not likely to have been the lure. Light differs from place
to place, acting as an elixir to geology, climate and flora.
The bellies of leaves in the
look different from the bellies of leaves in New England.
The flora are different. Their disposition is different. So,
too, rock formations. It’s often said that clarity of light
typifies Luminist painting, but it typifies other styles too
and falls short of explaining Luminism. What the Luminists
see, more probably, is that at certain moments light haunts
what it illuminates; they hunt and capture the spectrality
spirit of the Luminist is akin to the spirit of the
Impressionist in its hankering to accost the momentary, its
romance with fleetingness, and its celebration of
fleetingness over fittingness. But the Luminist sees with
more specificity, searching for a certain thing that has
been seen before. And more, the Luminist knows that the
world does not always look quite like itself.
invites us to the marriage of meteorology and metaphysics.
All our senses are heightened at this fête. Meteorologically
a front moves in, clouds scud, blocks of light shift, the
air is ionized and the ions dance and smell metallic.
Nothing looks the same. Sailors know this phenomenon well.
It happens before a williwaw. It’s ominous, but it doesn’t
alert to action; rather it’s dangerously hypnotic. Even
depth perceptions change. The possibility of a marvel
presents itself, and one does not wish to flee even if it
makes sense to do so.
Luminists are amateur meteorologists. They know, for
example, that a cold front pushes warm air down upon their
canvases. They know that particles dance in the air and
reflect the greenish light produced by the moisture. They
know where the haze they paint comes from, and they smell
the lightning in the wind. They know that the cold front is
turning over the leaves and making them quake in the wan
sun. But, above all, they know their palette: study any
silvern Luminist surface under a magnifying glass and you
will find the full color spectrum secreted in the art.
Heade’s studies of thunderstorms (1859-1868) exemplify this
marriage of palette and meteorological instant, and
Ominous Hush: The Thunderstorm Paintings of Martin Johnson
Heade, a catalogue published by the
in Fort Worth in 1994, has become a significant reference.
Heade understood that a halo around the sun indicates
cirrostratus, hence the high risk of Wagnerian weather, and
he staged this mounting drama time and again. He must have
waited patiently for the sun and its halo to shy away in the
alto stratus, knowing that an eerie calm would spook the
waters for maybe twenty minutes before all hell broke loose.
all styles that become schools, elements may be found in
much earlier works—consider, for example, the Surrealist
elongations in El Greco or the geometric abstractions in
Moorish architecture. And there are unmistakable
premonitions of Luminism in the
School and later in Corot and his contemporaries and then in
examples of these prefigurements are View of the Savoy
(1827) by the Frenchman Robert-Leopold Leprince (1800-47)
and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot’s Landscape With Bridge
(1865-70). Pierre Etienne Theodore Rousseau (1812-67) also
painted a number of Luminist works.
seascapist and plein air pioneer Eugene Boudin
(1824-1898) saw on the squally Norman coast the same light
waiting for an approaching front that Americans captured in
New England. But in Boudin a newly confident bourgeoisie
seem poignantly vulnerable on the beach; they strike one as
being an endangered species—was Boudin prescient? In some of
Boudin’s gemmy work they are gala, but at other times they
are palpably ephemeral, creatures of the Luminist flash.
rapturous passion for light and color characterizes the
Venetian School, and it is best not to stay anchored in
English waters when savoring Joseph Mallord William Turner
(1775-1851), who certainly qualifies in some of his work as
a Luminist, while Giovanni Battista Cima, called Cima da
Conegliano (circa 1459-1517), waits by the Adriatic.
Turner’s brooding palette is indebted to industrial
pollution, as are our own spectacular sunsets, while Cima’s
airy luminosity danced with the zephyrs of a purer Adriatic,
but both men were moved by the same phenomena that move
Luminists today, the weathering moment as coup de theatre,
heartbreaking nostalgia for the thing just seen.
it is a technique lying close to the heart of Luminism,
tenebrism—extreme contrasts of light and dark—argues ably
for the teaching of art as skill and style in our schools as
opposed to teaching it as a march of movements. Art doesn’t
look like an organization chart on canvas and ought not be
taught that way. If students understood what tenebrism is
they would look for it everywhere and be delighted to find
it instead of shuffling morosely from room to room in a
museum as if they were identifying bugs in a jar. The
impression they have is that the room contains something
rather than that the paintings contain the world, and that
surely is a failure in the way in which they were taught, a
failure museums authenticate when they approach art
forensically. The viewer should not be looking for the
correctly labeled jar in which to put something, but rather
for the jars out of which the artist conjured a universe.
great Caravaggio (circa 1571-1610) developed the tenebrist
technique—the word comes from Tenebrae, a candlelit
procession in the Catholic tradition—and it was then carried
on by the French painter Georges de la Tour, the Dutchmen
Gerrit van Honthorst and Hendrik Terbrugghen, and the
Spaniard Francisco de Zurbaran.]
Hudson River and New England Luminists often enclose a
central paradox: the immense topographical grandeur
juxtaposed against a fragile interiority that must be
apprehended in the corner of one’s eye. This paradox is the
mystery of Luminism. Perhaps the better word is alchemy. The
failed alchemists of the world—the ones made famous by
historians—essayed all their transmutations for a purpose:
base metal into gold, base instinct into spirituality, but
the true alchemist leaves the purpose to higher authority.
camera may flirt with its subject, but the artist’s is a
reorganizing sensibility. Moreover, the camera remembers
nothing, so that everything starts from a tabula rasa. But
the artist not only remembers what he has seen, he is
besotted with it. He knows not only how a place looks but
how it will look when he reorganizes it.
the light of the
north of Kingston is not the same as the light of the Hudson
at Weehawken, so Corot’s aspen-vibrant Ville d’Avray lacks
the urgency of a Luminist scene from the Hudson. Nor can
robust Hudson scenes impart anything like the balm of
Corot’s Ville d’Avray studies. Whether in France or New
England or Venice, these artists were concerned with
exteriority. No one could foresee that the bloodiest century
would madden and drive art in upon itself toward an
unremitting, pitiless interiority. And no one could foresee
as Abstract Expressionism steamrollered the market that
landscape and portraiture and Luminism would survive, not as
relics but in living practice.
greenish light produced by moisture in the air is clearly
evident in the work of Jane Bloodgood-Abrams (see back
cover). She revisits scenes painted by nineteenth-century
Luminists and has observed that the high level of moisture
softens the landscape. The mountains lose their sharpness
and step back. In late afternoon, green veils sweep the sky
just over the yellow horizon line.
be a mistake to say that artists like Abrams are indebted to
earlier Luminists. Rather, they are carrying on a tradition.
Abrams, for example, admires Jaspar Francis Cropsey
(1823-1900), but unlike most earlier Luminists, she is not
committed to “tight realism,” preferring the “broad
hand-ling” of an artist like George Innes (1825-1894) who
painted downriver from her Kingston home in Newburgh. Her
admiration for the Swedenborgian Innes is not surprising,
since she regards her painting as a spiritual practice.
the river from Abrams, six Luminists took part in The
Luminous Landscape last March at “Visual Field/A Place
for Art” in Rhinebeck: Eline Barclay, Kevin Cook, James
Cramer, Marilyn Fairman, Gary Fifer and Robert Hacunda.
“I am a
spiritual painter and look to the landscape in my quest for
truth,” Cook says.
artists prefer painting en plein air. Fairman works
year-round on site, sometimes on land, sometimes from a
boat. Hacunda travels with his paint gear in the trunk of
his car. Some of them complete work outdoors, others finish
their work in their studios. They prefer oil but agree that
the Luminist effect can be achieved in acrylic and
watercolor with layering to achieve what Abrams calls an
resurgence of Luminist painting attends a much broader
revival of realist painting. Joseph McGurl, one of a
Cape Cod trio of Luminists who often work together and share
ideas and techniques says, “A huge resurgence of realism is
being ignored by the museums and the critics.”
for the sublime underlies much of the Luminist impulse. It
is what drew McGurl to the
School and particularly to the late works of John Frederick
Kensett (1818-1872). He believes the members of this group
to have been incomparable landscapists. But it was not only
their painterliness that drew him into their spell, it was
their spirituality. And yet modern Luminists, like McGurl,
are not imitators. “You would have to be conscious of
one-hundred-and-fifty years of art history intervening,” he
says, “and that would be bound to affect your work.”
painting, The Sailing Canoe,
Lake (see front cover) is true to his word. It is
essentially an alchemical painting which conveys most
strongly its sense of the sublime by implying that what is
seen could not be seen without it. Like all alchemy, it is a
worship painting, worshipping light, studying it as it
strikes a mountainside, spills down into a glen and runs off
to the lake where a sail-rigged canoe rides a dark finger
dividing two pale bodies of water. The foreground and the
mountains on either side form an alembic to hold the
alchemist’s elixir, light. This is an autumnal scene; the
turning foliage and roiling pink and lavender clouds convey
that sense of something-must-happenness that pervades so
Hudson River School often finicked about detail and
sometimes committed itself to reportage, McGurl and his
colleagues—William E. Davis and Donald Demers—show the
influences of Impressionism and other styles. They typically
pencil-sketch en plein air. But their sketching,
McGurl says, does not fill the purpose of a camera. Rather
it reminds the artist of certain loci, certain facts which
are then rearranged ruthlessly in the studio. This implies
that the Luminist memory is not quite of the same ilk as the
landscapist’s. The Luminist is remembering a few seconds
compared to the landscapist’s half hour, and the Luminist is
also remembering something that did not quite happen but
hinted that it might happen. Luminati and illuminati alike
apprehend truths that smile seductively but are notoriously
unwilling to stay in our arms.
thirst for the elusive has prompted writer Julian Baird to
note that while McGurl, Davis and Demers study Lane,
Kensett, Heade and others, they are “attempting to take up
the spirit of the art of their predecessors, most
specifically in regard to a modern approach to the sublime.”
They look back over “a temporal dislocation” —the landscape
corrupted by commercial development, the sensibility that
appreciated their predecessors importuned by psychoanalyzing
avidities—and yet the “indomitable beauty” of the American
landscape, as Baird puts it, keeps resuscitating itself so
that “there is room to perform John Ruskin’s exercise of
looking, turning, looking again” to arrest the spirit
inhabiting a place.
contemporary Luminists are more spatial than the Hudson
River School. Their compositions are less mannered, less
literary, a direction in which Heade may have pointed them.
Perhaps because they look back from a nation in which
enthusiasm for a manifest destiny has been supplanted by
lust for a global economy, the new Luminists replace
something building and almost portentous in their
antecedents’ work with a more serene—dare one say
wiser?—canvas, almost as if they were survivors of the
maelstrom. In fact they are. The electricity of the
momentarily seen is still there, but what is not there is
the youthful expectation. The nation is no longer youthful.
Prematurely it has entered its middle age. While it may
believe that anything can and probably will happen, it no
longer believes that it will all be good for America. Its
triumphalism is beset by disturbing memories. We have found
our place in the world, and while it is preeminent, it is
not reassuring, not wildly optimistic and certainly not as
limitless as it seemed in the Hudson Valley in the middle of
the last century.
of looking back over one’s shoulder in time pervades Donald
Demer’s Catskill Waterfall. The golden light of this
time, this moment, falls on the eternalness of cascading
water. The sun scrubs the terrraced rock formations, but at
each level darkness regroups, begrudging the lacy water
flowing through it. So bullying is the darkness that the
viewer almost cheers the sun and water intruding upon it.
This tenebrist contrast is common in Luminist work. Demers’
painting is almost a metaphor for what the three new
Luminists have undertaken to do. They are painting in two
time zones, but above all they are painting in the crack
Fifer, a Beacon,
plein air painter, has executed a series of paintings
that contemplate the mecurialness of light. Overlook,
for example, might be seen as an effort to re-examine the
premise of Luminism, which is not light itself, but its
play—the way it quilts fields, glorifies clouds, etches
topography, mixes it own impossible palette, and then
whispers, to our sorrow, “You will never see this again.”
just that each period’s Luminists leap a brook of history,
it’s that today’s Luminists leap an unimaginably fateful
time to reconnect with their benefactors and bring back that
sense of impendingness that lies at the heart of Luminism.
Marbrook is the author of
Miller's Room, published by Online Originals, and the
novella Saraceno, published by
Open Book Press.
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