Schalcken’s paintings


Self Portrait by Candlelight (1695).

One additional pleasure of Le Fanu’s story and Leslie Megahey’s film is the way they draw attention to the work of an artist who might otherwise have remained overshadowed by his more famous contemporaries. Ever since seeing the meticulous chiaroscuro of Joseph Wright’s An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump (1768) I’ve been fascinated by paintings which feature a single artificial light source. Candlelit pictures are a particular fascination since these aren’t easy to paint even today when you can photograph the required scene beforehand. How much more difficult would it be painting a candlelit scene by candlelight alone? Works of this nature demonstrate an artist’s fascination with limited sources of light but also serve as displays of expertise, as did so much Dutch painting of Schalcken’s time with its emphasis on photo-realist representation.


Self Portrait (no date).

This small selection of paintings by Godfried Schalcken (1643–1706) shows some of the pictures that appear in Megahey’s film, or which we see being posed or replicated. At the end I’ve included Schalcken’s own take on the Salomé story which means his work can now be ushered into the Salomé archive. More of Schalcken’s work may be seen at Wikimedia Commons and the BBC’s Your Paintings site. One significant picture is unavailable: the painting which Le Fanu describes at the opening of his story. In his interview about the making of the film Megahey says that they searched the entire catalogue of Schalcken paintings but were unable to find a single picture that matches the one described in Le Fanu’s story. The painting seen in the film (which is perfectly rendered in Schalcken’s style) was created especially for the production.


A Candlelight Scene: A Man offering a Gold Chain and Coins to a Girl seated on a Bed (c. 1665–70).

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Volcano: Turner to Warhol


An Eruption of Vesuvius, Seen from Portici (c.1774–6) by Joseph Wright of Derby.

Joseph Wright of Derby captured the eruptions of Vesuvius in several pictures of which this is one of the more spectacular examples. The painter enjoyed spectacle as he also the rendering of chiaroscuro effects so it’s no wonder he was attracted to an apocalyptic night view such as this. Wright is one of the artists featured in a new exhibition at Compton Verney in Warwickshire, Volcano: Turner to Warhol, which presents the depiction of volcanoes in art through the ages.

The exhibition ranges from early engravings, showing imagined cross-sections of the fiery centre of the earth, to an explosive series of paintings by Joseph Wright, JMW Turner and Andy Warhol. It is a chance to examine the presence of volcanoes as geological phenomena and their power and influence, through an exciting range of historic and recent works of art. (More.)

The gallery site doesn’t have a complete list of the featured works but there’s some additional detail in a Telegraph preview from a couple of months ago. Volcano: Turner to Warhol opens on July 24th and runs to October 31st, 2010.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Chiaroscuro II: Joseph Wright of Derby, 1734–1797
Shadows at Compton Verney
Death from above
The apocalyptic art of Francis Danby

Darkness visible


Pandemonium by John Martin (1841).

Happy birthday to John Milton, 400-years-old today.


“High on a throne of a royal state, which far / Outshone the wealth of Ormus and of Ind” by Gustave Doré (1866).

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The etching and engraving archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
Chiaroscuro II: Joseph Wright of Derby, 1734–1797
Angels 4: Fallen angels
Death from above
The apocalyptic art of Francis Danby

The art of Cuauhtémoc Rodríguez


Irradación from Microescenarios.


Triumbirato from Microescenarios.

Two of many striking digital works by Mexican artist Cuauhtémoc Rodríguez. The use of chiaroscuro always gets my attention and there’s plenty of that at work here, as in the example above. Via Bajo el Signo de Libra.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The gay artists archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
The art of Scott Treleaven
Brian Riley
Daniel Nassoy
Chiaroscuro II: Joseph Wright of Derby, 1734–1797
Shadows at Compton Verney
Dylan Ricci

Chiaroscuro II: Joseph Wright of Derby, 1734–1797


An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768).

As promised, one of my favourite chiaroscurists. The impression Joseph Wright’s work made on me at the age of 13 was one of many revelations from my first visit to the Tate Gallery. The paintings which struck me most of the older works there were all of the Romantic or late-Romantic era: Turner, Francis Danby, John Martin, Philippe de Loutherbourg and Joseph Wright’s enormous An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, which is now housed in the National Gallery. The National Gallery site has this to say about the picture:

A travelling scientist is shown demonstrating the formation of a vacuum by withdrawing air from a flask containing a white cockatoo, though common birds like sparrows would normally have been used. Air pumps were developed in the 17th century and were relatively familiar by Wright’s day. The artist’s subject is not scientific invention, but a human drama in a night-time setting.

The bird will die if the demonstrator continues to deprive it of oxygen, and Wright leaves us in doubt as to whether or not the cockatoo will be reprieved. The painting reveals a wide range of individual reactions, from the frightened children, through the reflective philosopher, the excited interest of the youth on the left, to the indifferent young lovers concerned only with each other.

The figures are dramatically lit by a single candle, while in the window the moon appears. On the table in front of the candle is a glass containing a skull.

As with many paintings, the online reproductions do little justice to the subtlety of Wright’s rendering of light and shade. This remains his most famous picture although he made another on a similar theme, A Philosopher Giving a Lecture on the Orrery (below) and, like Godfried Schalcken, he has at least two studies of people viewing statues by candlelight, a common practice at that time for the way the light gave classical sculpture a spurious life. Wright’s painting of The Alchymist is another popular work, turning up frequently in occult encyclopedias. Being a native of Derby he also became (along with de Loutherbourg) one of the first painters to depict the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution whose flaring furnaces provided an ideal subject for dramatists of flame and shadow.

Before leaving the tenebral world, I’ll note that Claire left a message to say that issue 24 of Cabinet Magazine has a feature on shadows in art, symbolism and philosophy.

Continue reading “Chiaroscuro II: Joseph Wright of Derby, 1734–1797”