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Inspiration from Early America II: The Luminist Movement

Fitz Henry Lane painting - Lighthouse at Camden, Maine
Lane - Lighthouse at Camden, Maine

The Luminist style of painting is considered to have occurred from 1850 – 1875. Examples of the style may be found both earlier and later. The tern was introduced by art historians in the 1940s to describe the style, an offshoot of the Hudson River School. The National Gallery of Art’s 1980 exhibition “American Light: The Luminist Movement, 1850-1875” included the work of many artists of the New York City based group of landscape artists.

Featuring landscapes and seascapes, the style emphasized a unique clarity of light. What made these paintings notable was the composition and realistic rendering of the atmosphere with clear colors and fine detail. The sky usually occupies nearly half of the scene. Brushstrokes were minimized, apparently to minimize the painter’s personality. The result was an atmosphere rendered with a uniform glow that infused the entire scene. This is in direct contract to Impressionism, which is characterized by lack of detail and an emphasis on brushstrokes. The canvas is usually on the small side with ordered composition. Instead of an epic scene, depicting Nature as grand and imposing, these paintings evoke a quiet spirituality.

Gifford - October in the Catskills

Artists who employed this style were mostly American and for the most part belonged to the group of painters that later became called the Hudson River School. Included in the group are Sanford Robinson Gifford, Martin Johnson Heade, John Frederick Kensett and Fitz Henry Lane.

The Luminists were influenced by the writings of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. As Transcendentalists Thoreau and Emerson advocated immersion in Nature in order to know oneself and the divine. As a result, Luminism is considered to represent a more contemplative representation of Nature. The artists themselves did not come together as a unified group or movement, but did share a similar style. They did not refer to their work as Luminism, and they did not observe or articulate any common philosophy outside that of the Hudson River School.

I think many of these paintings are beautiful. One of my objectives is to be able to process a photo I’ve taken and have the result look like a Luminist painting. There is a quiet serenity to be found in this style … the paintings brings me back to a late afternoon sitting high up on a rock outcrop, looking across a river valley and feeling the sun on my face, listening to the wind. If I could evoke that feeling with a photograph, I’d consider it a success.

Be well and stay safe. Gordon


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