Structures in Painting: Light, form, and the human construction

By Sam Dahnert
Throughout history, architects and engineers have drafted and produced magnificent structures as monuments, dwellings, and municipal structures. Indeed, the structure is still regarded as a method of artistic expression to this day. Starting with ancient civilizations in Egypt, Greece, and Rome (among others), structures have been long regarded as expression in its most elemental form. All structures share a common message, intentional of unintentional: a constructed edifice always serves as a symbol of human accomplishment and domination of a landscape. Whether it is a quaint cabin nestled into a mountainside or an ornate dome over an ancient city, structures have always represented stability, integrity, popular interest, and fashion. As a result, many structures were features of other works of art, starting with ancient Roman wall paintings in the 1st century BCE. As time went on, buildings became more and more of an aesthetic component, complementing a landscape in correspondence with its location. This juxtaposition of structure versus natural form was an especially central component to American painters starting in the 18th century with works by Thomas Cole, and others. This influence was already present in Europe starting in the 17th century, evolving from works by Rembrandt van Rijn and Johannes Vermeer.
The dawn of impressionist painting in the late 19th century demonstrated an abandonment of enlightenment-style realism, focusing instead on the more emotional message that can be relayed by an image. Impressionism yielded works that would later influence artists in the 20th century who would pioneer artistic styles such as cubism, expressionism, and pop art. Of the five works featured on this page, two represent the impressionist era. These two works, both created by artists who personify the era, portray structures in a manner that explores the impacts of light and shadow on a structure, and the representation of a construction in space. The other three works featured represent both the precursors to impressionism; rationalism and accuracy in the 18th century, and the result; American realism in the 20th century.
All of the works featured in this article contain constructions in space. As we will see, depiction of a man-made object has been subject of much experimentation in recent centuries.

To begin, let us focus on an 18th-century piece created by Giovanni Antonio Canal (popularly known as Canaletto), which portrays the entrance to Venice’s Grand Canal. Like many other artists who painted structures, Canaletto began his artistic career in an apprenticeship as a topographer for the city of Venice. This architectural background proved to be very influential in his art career, which took off four years after the start of his apprenticeship. Eleven years after that, his piece “Entrance to the Grand Canal, looking East” [Fig.1] was released. In this piece, Canaletto utilizes the classical 1-point perspective, which became popular during the Renaissance, to depict the open expanse of water in the canal. On the right side of the painting, a large, domed structure dominates the landscape. Here, especially, Canaletto’s architectural eye is notable. The steps of the structure are precisely depicted and fall in line with the orthogonals of the vanishing point. The octagonal building, too, falls in to order with the perspective, with precisely crafted details in the masonry. Another notable factor is the presence of light in the scene. The structure in the right side of the image blocks the light source from the viewer, casting the foreground into shadow. Here, too, the illusion of light and dark yields the appearance of depth. The shadows on the promenade line up with the slant of the steps, casting a diagonal across the adjacent canal. The same light source illuminates the other buildings and objects present in the scene as well, including the gondolas on the canal.
Figure 1: Canaletto’s “Entrance to the Grand Canal, looking East” 1744

Nearly a century and a half after Canaletto’s piece, there emerged a new style of painting and artistic depiction. With its new-found focus on more emotional responses, impressionist painting ushered in a new era of artistic expression. As the styles changed, so did the focus. Artists no longer focused on painting the most glorious structures. Instead, they concentrated their efforts on structures that would help to relay the meaning in their work. Suddenly, artistic value could be found in the most unlikely of places. This sense of expression through less-than-ideal scenarios became increasingly popular during the industrial revolution. One artist who is noted for utilizing more painterly (with wider, looser brush strokes) methods in their art is Gustave Caillebotte. Caillebotte’s “Rue Halevy, seen from Sixth Floor,” [Fig. 2] painted in 1878, represents the use of both Renaissance-era methods of perspective and depth and more modern abstraction in color, form, and content. Caillebotte’s piece also represents a feature that was relatively new for the time; Caillebotte was one of the earliest among impressionist painters to paint his subjects in their actual light. Whereas others had painted their subjects in imagined or idealized lighting schemes, Caillebotte’s work portrays the scene as it would be seen by anybody else. This is evident in the muted, gray sky that is tinged with yellow from the setting sun. In addition, “Rue Halevy…” also uses the atmospheric perspective affect with its bluish haze that obscures buildings at the end of the road, which gives the effect of smoke or fog. Collectively, these elements combine to provide a piece that is quintessentially impressionistic.
Figure 2: Gustave Caillebotte’s “Rue Halevy, seen from Sixth Floor” 1878

One of the most well-known impressionist painters of the 19th century is Vincent Van Gogh, who became known for his painterly methods and abstract content. Van Gogh, like many others, sought his inspiration in commonplace images. Many of Van Gogh’s early works featured every-day scenes, which Van Gogh twisted and distorted with his heavy brush strokes and abstract color scheme. His work, “Railway Bridge over Avenue Montmajour” [Fig. 3], painted in 1888, depicts several silhouetted characters passing through an underpass on a dirt road. Van Gogh’s use of two-point perspective – a method used by city-scape painters for decades – distorts the image of the corner formed by one side of the tunnel and the berm that supports the railway line that passes, unseen, on top of the bridge. Here, too, light is used to portray depth in the scene. The darker values in the tunnel and the harsh, contrasted shadows on the far side of the passageway both help to give a viewer a sense of depth that is implied as the passageway moves away from the viewer.
Figure 3: Vincent Van Gogh’s “Railway Bridge over Avenue Montmajour” 1888

Another renowned artist of the Impressionist era, Claude Monet, became famous for his painterly style that often yielded an impact that can only be described as abstract. In works such as “Les Glaçons,” painted in 1893, Monet’s heavy brush strokes allow for a significant amount of free interpretation from a viewer, as a result of the ambiguity created by Monet’s intentional hindrance of a concrete image of ice floes. In the summer of 1894, Monet spent his time painting a series of thirty paintings of the façade of Rouen Cathedral, a Gothic Church commissioned in 1145 in France. As seen in Figures 4.0 and 4.1, Monet’s series of paintings depict the exact same image, seen at the same angle, but painted at different times of day, in different conditions. By painting the same image in different lights, it is obvious that Monet explored the impacts of different light schemes on the same object. Indeed, each of Monet’s thirty paintings of the Rouen façade is distinctive in its color and the presence of shadows on the building. Where one image may show the cathedral in the afternoon of a mid-summer day, with shadows in the apexes of the portals to the main chambers, another may show the building lit low and from the side, with an orange light of a sunset illuminating some faces, while plunging others into darkness. This effect is further emphasized by Monet’s painterly style with large blotches of single brush strokes of unblended color. The result is a series of wonderful paintings of a historical structure that demonstrates the power of light and dark on the emotional influence of a structure.
Left: Figure 4.0 - Several of Claude Monet’s Rouen paintings, 1894
Right: Figure 4.1 - Detail: One of Monet’s Rouen paintings, 1894

With the dawn of impressionism came the dawn of post-impressionism, which coincided with the abstraction of impressionist thinking of abstraction with realism and rationality, to yield the same emotional influence. Both styles lasted well into the twentieth century, an era ravaged by war, depression, and urbanization. One artist who has mastered the ability to embody the attitude of his era is Edward Hopper. Born and raised in New York, Hopper is now known for his paintings of bustling cityscapes and coastal towns. Hopper’s focus on realism and emotion together classify his work as American realist. Hopper’s works “Manhattan Bridge Loop” [Fig. 5.0] and “House by the Railroad” [Fig. 5.1] portray structures with more realistic shading, texturing, and coloration than the works of his predecessors. In “House by the Railroad,” especially, Edward Hopper utilizes the effects of light on dark areas to contribute to the realism of his scenes. The windows on the darker side of the Victorian house in Hopper’s painting emit a bluish light that is the reflection of the sky around them. In “Manhattan Bridge Loop,” a lone figure walks along a sidewalk near a roadway, with tenement buildings in the background. The figure is partially concealed by the shadow that is cast by the low wall that he walks next to. Hopper clearly did not omit any details in his piece, given his attention to the impact of shadows on subjects and the results of a single light source on a scene. Hopper’s work in the American realist movement may have inspired movements such as the super-realist movement of the 1970’s. As such, Hopper’s work not only embodies a standing style of American realism, but also a shifting focus towards the virtues of realism in modern art.
Figure 5.0 - Edward Hopper’s “Manhattan Bridge Loop” 1928

Figure 5.1 - Edward Hopper's "House by the Railroad" 1925

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