Tag Archives: Sunsets in art

A Lover of Light

Charles Henry Gifford, Coastal Sunset

Charles Henry Gifford, Coastal Sunset

Summer is the season of sun and light and longer days.  Artists are all aware of light, but some love it.  You can see it in their paintings. Charles Henry Gifford was a lover of light, and of sailing ships and the sea.

He was not supposed to be an artist. He was apprenticed to be a ship’s carpenter, like his father and brother. But he fell in love with the art he saw in his hometown of Fairhaven, Massachusetts, and became determined to learn to paint pictures like the ones he saw.

Influenced by the paintings of artists like Bierstadt he taught himself to produce the effects he loved in their work in his own. With very little in the way of formal training, he developed his own style.

He worked hard and consistently to develop his abilities (and his market). He spent time studying the work of others and developing his own hand and eye. He challenged himself to work in new ways, or accepted the challenges of others. Best known for his small oils paintings, he decided to create large ones when critics suggested that small paintings were what he did best. He learned to work in watercolors; he accepted a variety of commissions.

You can see the results of his study and his work in paintings like this one of a glowing coastal sunset.

It is full of luminous color. Oranges predominate; many shades of orange kissed with yellows and reds and shades of green.

The sky is filled with clouds, their swirls traced by the light. The waves glow in the sunset. It shines on and through them. The arch of a breaking wave is caught, detailed, the light flowing through it, the foam glinting along it, small sprays of foam arcing into the air. Light lingers on wet rocks along the shore.

Ships’ sails stand tall against the sky, reflecting the colours of sunset, their vertical lines taking the eye up. Hulls begin to blend into the shadows in the fading light, lying along the horizontal surface of the sea and blending into it. The changing sizes of the vessels create a sense of distance and lead our eyes toward the line of the horizon. The clouds curve overhead, coming toward us, arcing over the shore, bringing with them an echo of the line of sunlight that lies along the sea.

The horizon is low, the sea’s surface foreshortened, the sky overhead vast. The setting sun, glimpsed through the cloud, draws our focus to the middle of the painting. Where it illuminates the scene we see details of ships and sea and rocks and clouds. As we follow those details outward, we see clouds and ships and the shape and energy of breaking waves along the shore. Framing it all is the hazy darkness of the coming dusk, where sea, sky, ships and shore fade into shadow.

We are drawn into the scene, drawn in not just by what we see but by the sense that he was painting what he loved, as truly as he knew how.

And because he loved this light we can love it too.

In the Light of Knowledge

Joseph Wright of Derby, Sunset on the Coast near Naples, 1785

Joseph Wright of Derby, Sunset on the Coast near Naples

Artists have always been fascinated by light. Joseph Wright of Derby became famous for his ability to recreate the effects of light, illuminating faces and figures and scenes in a way that brought drama and interest to the subjects that he painted.

He is best known for his paintings of scenes such as The Orrery (“A Philosopher Giving that Lecture on the Orrery in which a Lamp is put in place of the Sun” to give it its full title), and “An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump”.

Joseph Wright of Derby, The Orrery

Joseph Wright of Derby, The Orrery

These paintings of scientific demonstrations are full of light and shadow and detail and drama. They show his interest in science and his keen observation of people and their reactions to what they saw.

It took a while for him to move past the relative intimacy of such scenes to the play of light and shadow on the larger landscape around him. An eruption of Vesuvius that he witnessed seemed to awake a sense of nature’s drama and the desire to paint it. Naturally he was drawn to the light.

You can see that in his sunset painting above.

The first thing you see is the light. Luminous, beautiful colours in the distance, framed by the darkness of the coming night, by the front-lit clouds lowering over the hills, by the sun lingering on hills and jutting points of land, and by coastal rocks just touched by the sunset light. The sun has already withdrawn its light from the rocky slope closest to you, and its darkness emphasizes the light over the sea.

Afterward you become aware of the scale and depth of the scene. You notice how far off the horizon seems, how close the rocky bluff. As you see more and more of the detail – trees on the distant ridge, a sailboat by the point, another boat far off in the distance, animals on the ridge closest to you – you see how small the living creatures are. They are dwarfed by the land, sea and sky that surround them.

And you wonder what he thought – did he contemplate the contradiction between the scientific advances of his time, the sense of growing knowledge that fed the idea of controlling the natural world, and the perception that we are, in the end, small and powerless in the face of the forces of nature?


You can see more of his work in this video from  laoniricArte1