Luminist Pleasure:
A Marriage of Meteorology and Metaphysics
by Del Marbrook



Luminists 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 thrall.

The zeal 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.

Into this 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.

What has 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 the shadows.

Museums, which are flourishing, are no longer morgues, but their educators must stop conducting inquests.

John 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 the New England coast and the Hudson Valley.

If the 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 Hudson Valley 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 of light.

The 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.

Luminism 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.

Many 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.

Martin 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 Amon Carter Museum 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.

As with 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 Venetian School and later in Corot and his contemporaries and then in the Impressionists.

Specific 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.

The 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.

A 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.

Because 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.

[The 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.]

The early 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.

The 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.

Just as the light of the Hudson Valley 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.

The 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 in the Hudson Valley 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.

It would 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.

Across 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.

These 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 “effusive glow.”

The 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.”

A quest for the sublime underlies much of the Luminist impulse. It is what drew McGurl to the Hudson River 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.”

His painting, The Sailing Canoe, Echo 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 much Luminism.

Where the 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.

This 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.

Most 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.

The sense 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 between them.

Gary Fifer, a Beacon, New York, 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.”

It’s not 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.

Del (Djelloul) Marbrook is the author of Alice Miller's Room, published by Online Originals, and the novella Saraceno, published by Open Book Press.

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