The Art of Light – Beautiful lamps in art

At Pooky we believe that making beautiful lighting is an art form. So it’s only fair that we should look at some lamps that are, literally, in art form. From Impressionist pendants to Victorian table lamps, here are four paintings that are all about the light…

Claude Monet - Interior, after Dinner (1868-9)

monet interior after dinner

National Gallery of Art, Washington DC Claude Monet – towering giant of French Impressionism – is of course most famous for his outdoor scenes (in fact, the Impressionist movement was born when the invention of metallic paint tubes allowed artists like Monet and Renoir to venture out of the studio and paint nature en plein air). But this is a beautiful example of an interior. It depicts Monet’s mistress Camille (with her back to us, sewing), the artist Frédéric Bazille (leaning in a rather louche pose against the mantelpiece) and another unidentified lady, sitting in the dining room of a seaside cottage. However, this painting is really all about the hanging lamp. The lamp is the centrepiece of the scene: its light drizzles across the table top and dances on the white coffee cups; it positively glows on the canvas against a shadowy brown and grey backdrop. Monet’s technique here of dramatically contrasting light and dark is known as chiaroscuro and is often used by artists to create an atmosphere or to tell a story. In this case, it evokes peace and quiet and domestic cosiness – which very probably represents Monet’s mood, since he was at the time hiding out with Camille and their illegitimate infant son on the Normandy coast, avoiding the displeasure of his family and the noise and expense of Paris.

Vincent van Gogh – The Night Café (1888)

Yale University Art Gallery

This is a rather less cosy interior. Whereas the Impressionists tried to capture light and colour in a neutral, truthful way, van Gogh used colour to express his own often violent or disturbing states of mind (which is why he was a key influence in the development of the Expressionist movement). The picture shows a seedy all-night café in Arles, where van Gogh used to hang out along with various other drunks and ne’er-do-wells – and it is not meant to be seen as a nice place. The four ceiling lamps are shining, but unlike in Monet’s painting they don’t really light anything in a realistic way – rather, they add to the general queasiness of the overall colour scheme. Van Gogh himself wrote of the painting:

I have tried to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of red and green. The room is blood red and dark yellow with a green billiard table in the middle; there are four lemon-yellow lamps with a glow of orange and green. Everywhere there is a clash and contrast of the most alien reds and greens, in the figures of little sleeping hooligans, in the empty dreary room, in violet and blue.

Douglas Strachan – Hercules and Isabella Strachan (1890-1910)

Douglas Strachan -Hercules and Isabella Strachan; University of Aberdeen

University of Aberdeen

Now for a far more obscure artist – in fact, Douglas Strachan (1875-1950) isn’t best known as a painter at all, but as one of Britain’s greatest designers of stained glass windows. Nonetheless, we love this picture of his parents, sitting by the glow of a rather charming candlestick-style table lamp. Isabella, dressed in austere Victorian garb, is composing a letter, while the magnificently-named Hercules looks at us with what seems to be exasperation. Perhaps he’s fed up with waiting for his wife to move out of the way so that he can get enough light to resume reading his paper.

John Singer Sargent – Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1885-1886)


Tate Britain

Not so much a lamp as a Chinese lantern, but any excuse will do to show this stunning and much-loved painting. Yet as is so often the case, works that become universally loved were once controversial. Sargent painted Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose in Worcestershire, having just left Paris under a cloud following his scandalous exhibition of Portrait of Madame X. When he exhibited the picture of two girls with lanterns and flowers at twilight at the Royal Academy in 1887 it had a mixed reception, with one exceptionally tedious critic writing: ‘An enquiry conducted on scientific principles would demonstrate…the true relationship of the white dresses the lanterns dimly shining in the barely reduced daylight… could readily be established to be other than Mr Sargent has represented it.’ To which the proper answer is: who cares? It is a magical painting, and rightly one of the most popular treasures of Tate Britain. (And here's a lovely bit of trivia you can drop in next time the painting comes up in conversation: the young models were called Dolly and Polly.)

If you enjoyed this post, have a read of our article Chiaroscuro interiors – how artists use light to create dramatic atmospheres. And browse our own works of art (that is, designer lighting!) here…