The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has declared 2015 the International Year of Light and Light-Based Technologies. Light is at the heart of man-made technologies such as lasers, radios, and X-ray machines, as well as natural phenomena like sunsets, rainbows and photosynthesis.
While the Year of Light provides obvious teaching hooks for educators looking to instruct their students in science and technology, light also breathes life and realism into art. The use of light was paramount to some of the greatest masters and architects in the history of Western art.
Seventeenth century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) painted such masterpieces as The Lacemaker and Girl with a Pearl Earring by using stunningly realistic effects of light and shadow. Based on his paintings, some historians believe that Vermeer used a device called a camera obscura, a box, painted white inside, with lenses in it and a hole so that the user can look inside. The lenses and mirrors inside the camera obscura, a forerunner to the modern camera, reflect outside images within the box.
For his subjects, Vermeer focused mostly on everyday scenes and people from his hometown of Delft. Learn about View of Delft, one of the best-known Dutch cityscapes from the Golden Age of Dutch art, as well as the camera obscura, in Art Through Time: A Global View, unit 11, “The Urban Experience.”
Another 17th century artist of the Baroque period, the Italian painter Michelangelo Caravaggio (1571-1610), created scenes like The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew and Supper at Emmaus with a signature use of light contrasted against dark and somber backgrounds. Caravaggio’s method of strong contrast between light and dark is known as chiaroscuro, which translates to light-dark in Italian.
Learn more about Caravaggio and his Baroque contemporaries in “Realms of Light – The Baroque,” program 5 of Art of the Western World.
Read more about Caravaggio’s style in the Renaissance: Symmetry, Shape, Size interactive, which discusses how the chiaroscuro method, developed during the Renaissance, was a realistic departure from the flat, unnatural backgrounds of works of art from the Middle Ages.
The use of light in art was never limited to paintings. In Art Through Time, unit 5, “Cosmology and Belief,” read about how the Gothic architecture of Notre Dame (built between 1163-1345) emphasized light cast through clear and stained glass windows. Light streaming through the ornate glass, along with the Cathedral’s towering vertical lines, were meant to draw worshippers upward to a higher, more heavenly state of being.
Share ways in which you would instruct your students about the use of light in art in the comments section below.