Luminism Art: A Brief Introduction
Luminism art was a style of American landscape and seascape painting. Popular from the 1850s to the mid-1870s, these painters focused on the effects of light on natural scenes.
Luminist artists often painted from an aerial perspective and created incredibly detailed scenes with carefully blended brushstrokes. These beautiful paintings are calm and tranquil, often featuring reflective waters and soft, misty skies.
This brief introduction explores Luminist art and its most famous painters.
What does Luminism mean in art?
At its simplest, Luminism focuses on the light in art. It relates to American landscape painters, particularly those from the Hudson River School.
While the term describes American painting of the nineteenth century, the word only appeared in the twentieth century. The art historian John I. H. Baur invented the term “luminism” in the 1950s. He used it to describe these artworks and their atmospheric renderings of natural light.
Another art historian, Barbara Novak, defines Luminism art as paintings stressing horizontal forms. Martin Johnson Heade notably used these landscape formats in works such as Sunlight and Shadow, The Newbury Marshes (1871), and one of the most beautiful sunset paintings of all time, The Great Florida Sunset (1887).
As well as the horizontal landscape format, these paintings also focus on light, tone, and structure. The light itself is usually (but not always) cool and diffuse. While some images featured soft, atmospheric scenes, “luminist light” is much harsher and clearer.
Concealed and careful brushstrokes were also typical of Luminist art. In this way, these painters abandoned personal expression for accuracy and detail.
What are the characteristics of Luminism Paintings?
Luminism art usually features landscapes or painted seascapes. Indeed, artists such as Fitz Hugh Lane produced some of the finest maritime art of the nineteenth century. These paintings reflected America’s increasing expansion in overseas sea trade.
A remarkable Fitz Hugh Lane seascape painting of 1850 shows tall ships and their billowing sails amidst the setting sun of Boston Harbor. Another artwork of 1854 (also depicting Boston Harbor) uses the soft tones of sunset. This time, the painting features modern developments such as steam-powered tugboats.
In addition to landscapes and seascapes, Luminist paintings usually employ a smooth, detailed finish and calm, cool colors. Luminist artists bathe their meticulously painted artworks in rays of light, often from tranquil skies. These skies often feature delicately painted clouds floating above picturesque American landscapes.
Luminism artworks are often small oil paintings created to invite a feeling of intimacy and careful observation.
Luminist painting also links with “transcendentalist” ideas. This American philosophical movement appeared in the 1820s and 1830s, stressing the inherent goodness of individual people and the natural world.
Transcendentalists (like Luminist painters) believed modern society, technology and institutions were a corrupting force. Akin to Hudson River School painters, many Luminist artists believed natural landscapes reflected divinity and God’s will in the world.
Who were the Luminist painters?
Luminism painters included artists such as Fitz Henry Lane and John Frederick Kensett. Martin Johnson Heade, Albert Bierstadt, and Sanford Robinson Gifford also worked with the movement.
Several other artists painted using Luminist techniques. For instance, Jasper Cropsey, Worthington Whittredge, David Johnson, and Raymond Dabb Yelland worked with Luminist-inspired principles. In addition, Thomas Moran produced several notable Luminism-inspired artworks, such as the light-filled View of Yosemite.
None of these artists referred to themselves as Luminist. In addition, the school employed no official manifesto or strict artistic rules. As a result, some art historians question the label of “luminist painters”.
Indeed, the art historian J. Gray Sweeney argued it emerged purely from collectors, curators, and art historians (rather than artists) as a product of Cold War ideology.
What did Luminism painters believe?
Luminist painters (particularly famous artists such as Fitz Henry Lane and Martin Johnson Heade) reflected a deeply contemplative attitude toward nature. Nevertheless, they believed in the positive potential of nature and man’s role in the world.
Martin Johnson Heade’s Thunder Storm on Narragansett Bay is a prime example of this contemplative technique. As a dark and threatening depiction of the Rhode Island Coast, it contrasts an ominous black sky with a serene foreground. Held by the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, this painting shows the greatness of nature alongside a true feeling of the sublime.
Similarly, the art historian Earl Powell described how John Frederick Kensett moved his focus away from pure representations of landscape. Instead, Kensett’s art focused on “quietism”. This term describes Christian devotional contemplation and a calm acceptance of things “as they are”. In this way, Kensett’s art used landscapes to express emotions, moods, and mystical experiences in nature.
What was Luminism Impressionism?
Both American Luminism and Luminism Impressionism emphasize the effects of light on natural landscapes. Nonetheless, these two movements demonstrated distinct artistic styles.
American Luminism preceded French Impressionism, which started in the 1860s and 1870s.
American Luminism artworks focus on meticulous detail and hidden brushstrokes. On the other hand, Luminism Impressionism (related to the French Impressionist school) used visible brushstrokes and eschewed close painterly detail.
Luminism Impressionism paintings are often used to describe wall art created by Belgian painters such as Emile Claus and Theo van Rysselberghe. These artists drenched their sun-filled oil paintings on canvas with dappled light and vivid, pastel shades. Artworks such as Emile Claus’s Girl near the Leie (1892) perfectly demonstrate these characteristics.
The movement even spread across Europe, particularly influential in Spain and the Netherlands. Spanish artists such as Joaquin Sorolla produced works known as “Valencian Luminism”. Sewing the Sail (1896) shows this Spanish variety of Luminist Impressionism, with coastal workers calmly repairing a boat’s sail. Plants and flowers (shaded under the dappled veranda sunlight) surround them.
When did Luminism end?
Luminism ended around the 1870s. These paintings gradually fell out of favor with the American public, who increasingly saw Luminism as old-fashioned.
Despite this, Luminism proved influential in later art movements’ ideas and developments, for instance, Tonalism (appearing in the 1880s).
This art movement also focused on the effects of light and calm natural atmospheres. Even so, Tonalist paintings employed a much darker color palette, often featuring nighttime scenes in moonlight or twilight. The works of James Whistler best exemplify this approach, particularly his Nocturne artworks.
Luminism Art: Painted Scenes of the American Landscape
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