Art exists as a way to capture that which resides in the living world and to translate it into a tangible vision of the artist, a reflection on what has been observed, experienced, or imagined. Elements of the natural world shape art; they are one and the same. An artist’s recording of their vision was once only a documentation of an observation, but has now evolved into a multimedia display of emotion and subconscious thought. Many artists blend the two—the observable, natural world and the experience of existence—into art that is both recognizable and figurative. The artist’s use of everyday elements of life aid the viewer in making the connection between subject and meaning, as they too associate things in nature with a certain emotional response. The shadow, an essential component to living in a three dimensional, light-filled world, is often overlooked, and yet nothing would appear as it does without it. Artists, beings who see what is not often seen by others, have realized the importance of the shadow and its role played in nature, and therefore art.

Although intangible, shadows are an inherent part of the living world and, consequently, art. For centuries, artists have been aware of the use of shadow in creating realistic-looking forms; directional lighting, modeling, and the accurate depiction of shadows have been key developments in producing more naturalistic and life-like pieces of art. Other artists have gone beyond the literal in introducing the shadow into their art—shadows elicit emotional responses from viewers, establish moods, act as compositional components, and sometimes even constitute the subject of a scene or work.
A shadow is an impression of something that exists but cannot always be seen; as words on a page reflect the path once taken by a pen-holding hand, a shadow is the echo of another thing, a record of its existence. A mundane and trivial aspect of the breathing world, shadows are celebrated and brought to life in the world comprised of oil paints and canvas, tesserae and tempera.

The Calling of Saint Matthew, Caravaggio, 1600
The Calling of Saint Matthew, Caravaggio, 1600

Caravaggio’s Baroque painting, The Calling of Saint Matthew (oil on canvas, 10’ 7 ½” x 11’ 2”), is a masterpiece of biblical proportions. In this scene, in which Jesus calls upon Saint Matthew, then Levi the tax collector, to be his follower, Caravaggio interprets the religious figures dramatically and contemporarily. The men all wear late-sixteenth, early-seventeenth century dress, and the action takes place inside an Italian pub. An intense atmosphere is created by deep, vivid colors and a strong directional light source, which in turn produces the powerful tenebrism. The background is obscured in darkness, and the faces of the men are emphasized and drawn out from the depths by the light. In this example, the shadows contribute to the drama of the action and add to the overall magnitude of the painting.











Chair, Abstract, Twin Lakes, Connecticut; Paul Strand; 1916
Chair, Abstract, Twin Lakes, Connecticut; Paul Strand; 1916

Contrastingly, the palladium print, Chair, Abstract, Twin Lakes, Connecticut (
12 15/16” x 9 5/8”), by photographer Paul Strand, makes use of the shadow as an abstract compositional element. A component of a series of conceptual photographs drawn from objects in the concrete world, Chair, Abstract, Twin Lakes, Connecticut was inspired by the New York Armory Show and the geometry of Cubism seen in artistry of Paul Cezanne, Pablo Picasso, and Brancusi. The photograph is a cropped view of a chair that has been turned on an angle. The view of the subject has been so greatly modified from its natural appearance that it is initially indiscernible. Here, the shadow of the chair is just as much a part of the composition as the solid form it reflects. This is because Strand’s purpose was not to produce an image of a chair, but to create an aesthetic piece that explored geometric shapes, the contrast of light and dark, flattened space, and the dynamism of the diagonal.










The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street, Giorgio de Chirico, 1914
The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street, Giorgio de Chirico, 1914

Similar visual aspects are explored in Giorgio de Chirico’s Metaphysical painting, The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street (oil on canvas, 2' 10 1/4" x 2' 4"). De Chirico crafted a setting in which out-of-place objects, often drawn from Classical history, and quizzical scenarios procure a strange and mystical atmosphere, exacerbated by the use of skewed perspective which creates a claustrophobic space. A sharp diagonal created by a deeply receding building leads the eye to a dynamic young, silhouetted girl, herself a shadow, playing with a hoop in a stark and deserted town. The viewer then notices an opposing human form, but there is uncertainty as to whether this ominous shadow is being cast by an innocent plaza statue or a menacing stranger. This ambiguity is also present in the looming, angular shadow of the building on the right—does the open van hidden in the dark depths belong to friend or foe? De Chirico was influenced by Symbolist Arnold Bocklin, and subsequently his dreamlike work made significant impressions on the Surrealists, including Max Ernst, Rene Magritte, and Salvador Dali.










Lost Record, Kay Sage, 1940
Lost Record, Kay Sage, 1940

Surrealist painter Kay Sage’s piece, Lost Record (oil on canvas, 36" x 27 3/4”), directly emulates the style of De Chirico. Like the dreamscape artist before her, Sage creates an eerie, post-apocalyptic atmosphere consisting of a deserted desert, save for a dead tree and other unidentifiable forms. These objects cast long, menacing shadows that skew the appearance of that which they represent. Here, the shadow is a dubious entity that evokes nervousness and uncertainty in the viewer, and ultimately defines the mood of the painting.














Snowstorm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps, Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1812
Snowstorm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps, Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1812

The role of the shadow in establishing the air of an artwork is taken one step further in the painting Snowstorm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps (oil on canvas,
4’ 9” x 7’ 9”) by Romantic artist Joseph Mallord William Turner. In 218 bce, Hannibal led an army through the Alps, an event that mirrored the contemporary military expedition of Napoleon Bonaparte. Paintings of Napoleon’s mission glorify the ruler and his leadership; he is a hero that dominates the monumental scene. In contrast, Turner reduces his subject to mere specks of dust in the wake of a threatening storm, and the strength of the army, headed by an elephant, is nothing compared to the supreme power of nature, the true subject of the painting. The dark storm clouds, applied in free, loose brushstrokes, become one with the shadows they create, the intimidating mass overpowering. This shadowy force of nature foreshadows the eminent decline that comes to all great things, while simultaneously establishing a gloomy and anxious mood.






View of Toledo, El Greco, 1610
View of Toledo, El Greco, 1610

El Greco’s View of Toledo (oil on canvas, 47 ¾” x 42 ¾”) shares a common element with Turner’s Snowstorm: a landscape is suspended in a pre-storm moment, and nature dominates the surroundings. The painting is a mystical response to the city, not a naturalistic representation of the view one receives from this vantage point. Contorted shadows dance through the clouds and over the grassy knolls, and it is their glowingly dark presence that evokes a suspiciously wicked and uneasy feeling in the viewer. The painting is dominated by the sky, and the sky is dominated by shadows.














What Falls to the Ground but Can't be Eaten, Vong Phaophanit, 1991
What Falls to the Ground but Can't be Eaten, Vong Phaophanit, 1991

The shadow’s use in art is further transformed in the installation What Falls to the Ground but Can’t be Eaten (bamboo and lead) by artist Vong Phaophanit. An imposing lead-clad archway covered with Laotian text marks the entrance to a space filled with hanging bamboo canes—a dense, grounded, dark, and angular imposition opposes the airy, round, and light articles taken from nature. At the center of the bamboo is a spot-lit clearing; the viewer interacts with the art, moving through the rods in order to stand in the central area. This movement causes a gentle, calming swaying in the bamboo which in turn produces tranquil, echoing sounds. The shadows of the bamboo caused by the spotlight lead the eye to the central point—the clearing—and also act as a visual proponent of tranquility and peace. The impressions of the bamboo cover the floor, intangible pieces of nourishment that have fallen to the ground but cannot be eaten. While it is up to the viewer to decipher their own meaning of the work, an overall bittersweet quality accompanies the stillness—Phaophanit was exiled from his native Laos and this work encapsulates that melancholy of remembrance and longing.




The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself with Her Shadows, Man Ray, 1916
The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself with Her Shadows, Man Ray, 1916

Dadaist Man Ray did not fulfill his original intentions when he painted The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself with Her Shadows (oil on canvas, 52" x 6' 1 3/8"). Man Ray was inspired by the movements of a tightrope performer to construct a piece of art, using cut paper, that displayed her graceful poses. However, the artist was not pleased with what he created. Instead, he noticed the scraps of paper that had fallen, by chance, into an abstract heap on the floor. These disregarded scraps were equated to the shadows cast on the ground by the performer, and Man Ray discovered the new subject and purpose of his work. In this instance, the shadow is an imprint of the actions that once occurred, a lasting impression in the form of a negative image, of the shapes once composed.








A shadow is an elusive imprint caused by the obstruction of light. The appearance of these dynamic shapes is infinite, as the interference can be anything. These dark and mysterious forms play a critical role, functionally, visually, and creatively, in art. From the seventeenth to the twentieth century and beyond, the shadow has been an enigmatic and intriguing aspect of art that has shaped many great works and formed the basis of many artists’ careers.

Bibliography
The 20th Century Art Book. London: Phaidon Press Inc., 1996. Print.
30,000 Years of Art. London: Phaidon Press Inc., 2007. Print.
“The Collection.” Moma.org. Museum of Modern Art. Web.
Stokstad, Marilyn. Art History. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2005. Print.