Illuminating Darkness

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) | And the Symbol of Welcome is Light, 1920 | Advertising illustration for Mazda Edison Company | Oil on canvas | Collection of General Electric Lighting Company, Cleveland, Ohio

Recently in the New York Times (Sunday, January 8, 2012) there was an article about how a variety of American cities are ripping out or turning off some of their street lights, primarily in an attempt to save money. The author of this article, A. Roger Ekirch, is a professor of American History at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, and author of the book, At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, which chronicles how people lived with and thought about the all-encompassing darkness of night before the advent of gas and electric lights.


By the 18th century, scientific studies yielded an illuminating artistic interest in differentiating the quality of light and color seen at night versus that experienced during the day. The color of things we see is based upon the wavelength of light that bounces back into our eye’s cones from the object being viewed. At night in the dark, the eye’s rods take over and because they are efficient at collecting light we are able to see in the dark. But what the eye’s rods do not do well is to distinguish between different colors so what we see takes on grayish tones.  As artificial light began to illuminate the night, artists like Joseph Wright ofDerby took an interest in and sometimes even painted comparative pictures of this phenomenon revealing the same location when seen at night and during the day.

Joseph Wright ofDerby(1734-1797)
Matlock Tor by Moonlight, 1777-80
Oil on canvas
Detroit Institute of Arts, Founders Society Purchase, General Membership Fund, 48.4


Other artists considered the limited palette of night a thing of beauty. Early 20th century American Ashcan painter Robert Henri wrote in his 1923 guide to painting, The Art Spirit, “The beauty of night is not so much in what you cannot see as in what you can see. It is a fine thing, after the brilliant reds and blues and yellows of daylight, to see the close harmony of evening and night.”**


Beginning in 1920, illustrators Maxfield Parrish and Norman Rockwell were commissioned to create a group of advertising illustrations for the Edison Mazda division of General Electric focused on the goodness of life in the light. The name Mazda was used by GE for its Edison Mazda lamp as a reference to the god of light in Persian mythology, Ahura Mazda, Lord Wisdom (Ahura means light and Mazda means wisdom). By 1927 Rockwell had painted at least twenty advertising illustrations for Edisonthat were used in magazine ads and for store displays. Most of these illustrations pictured people gathered indoors in electric light enjoying daily activities or familial interactions. The one pictured here, And the Symbol of Welcome Is Light, is the only Rockwell scene from this group that is set out doors. Even though Rockwell chose to set the scene under the light of a full moon, it is the combined glow from the various household lights, party lights, and even car head lights that make this illustration compelling.


Rockwell used the light radiating through the house’s windows and open door to silhouette the heads of the adult and child as they leave the car they arrived to the party in; the welcoming hostess backlit in the doorway glows like an angel in an illuminated manuscript with her arms outstretched in hospitality—inviting her guests out of the darkness and into the light; the colorful Japanese paper lanterns hang from and define the equally welcoming branches of the large tree that shade and protect the household even as the open spaces in its branches reveal the full moon; and the face of the car’s driver is seen in the reflected light cast from the control panel of the car’s dashboard.***


As we can see the advent of easy artificial light changed our perceptions of what was possible and expected until it became the new norm, as in the Yvonne Jacquette painting below. Jacquette paints bird’s-eye views of cities and landscapes. This one reveals the artificial light that defines the landscape at night when seen from above.

Yvonne Jacquette (b. 1934)
Route 3, to Augusta, Maine, 2008
Oil on canvas
Courtesy   D.C. Moore Gallery,NY

No longer is the art of illuminating darkness a transforming phenomenon.  Instead we are beginning to view our light drenched world as in need of toning down the light. As the English playwright Christopher Fry titled his 1954 play, “The dark is light enough.”


* First published as an ad in the Saturday Evening Post (August 7, 1920): 61.

** See, Robert Henri, The Art Spirit (Philadelphia and London: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1923): 39.

*** Since the car has a front seat open to the elements and a protected back seat I believe the style is a cabriolet.

January 12, 2012

By Joyce K. Schiller, Curator, Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies, at the Norman Rockwell Museum