Look also at the candlelit studies of some northern European artists, most especially Rembrandt and Joseph Wright of Derby. (Remember that until recently, life was lived in pools of candlelight or firelight after the sun went down).
Candlelit studies are exactly that, paintings lit by candlelight so that they feature contrasting areas of intense light and deep shade. The result is much the same as that achieved with chiaroscuro techniques and can bring drama and depth to a painting.
Rembrandt van Rijn, 1606-1669, Dutch
When I think of Rembrandt I immediately think of self portraits having researched them in Drawing 1. Rembrandt painted around 80 self portraits spanning 40 years of his life. In this 1659 self portrait Rembrandt’s face emerges from the gloom of the background pulling the details of his face, wrinkles and all, into well lit, sharp focus.
Saskia van Uylenburgh (1612 – 1642), the daughter of a burgomaster of Leeuwarden in Friesland, married Rembrandt in 1634 Of their four children, only Titus was alive at the time of her death in 1642.
Rembrandt painted this portrait of Saskia as Flora, The Roman goddess of spring, in the year after their wedding. As in this guise Saskia represents a fertility goddess Rembrandt has focused the most intense light on the pregnant body. I’m not really sure if this is a candlelit study as such but it certainly demonstrates chiaroscuro and ‘shines a little light’ on Rembrandt’s personal life.
Joseph Wright of Derby 1734 -1797
Some of Wright’s candlelit paintings are deliberately disturbing and An experiment on Bird in the Air Pump is this is one of them. A scientist is demonstrating the formation of a vacuum by withdrawing air from a flask containing a white cockatoo, which will die if the experiment continues.
The scene has plenty of drama with a range of different human responses. The children are horrified, and being comforted by a father figure, the young lovers are lost in each other and the remaining figures appear fascinated by the experiment. The figures are lit by a single candle, and in the window the moon shines. On the table in front of the candle is a glass containing a skull.
At first glance this looks like a chocolate box painting but look closer and it becomes much more menacing. The girls are playing with what the tail suggests is a male kitten. They are dressing it up the poor creature and using it for their own pleasure. This is an act which may be likened to their future relationships with men. There is possible sexual innuendo in the ruffled skirts of the doll. Light from a single candle shines on the kitten and the girls’ faces. The intense light and shade creates drama. Looking at the placement of the candle, I wonder if the little madams aren’t about burn the poor kitten alive?
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The National Gallery