Nocturne paintings may be employed to convey an array of meanings. The simple depiction of the time of day can often convey an air of drama and mystery. For many, night evokes a sense of fear and death, while for others it may symbolize peace and serenity, or perhaps quiet contemplation. Nocturnal themes have long been utilized to depict romantic liaisons as well as religious sentimentality. It is no surprise that depictions of the night have been very popular among artists of all genres.
While Van Gogh‘s Starry Night is among the most famous paintings to depict the beauty of the night, there are so many artists who created noteworthy renderings of a world illuminated by the moon (or artificial light). Here are ten exceptional nocturnal paintings.
1. The Rest on the Flight into Egypt by Adam Elsheimer
Adam Elsheimer was a talented painter from Germany. He emigrated to Rome where he embodied Caravaggio‘s technique to express mood through light and shadow. Here there are four sources of illumination; the moon, the reflection of the moon, the torch held by Joseph, and the fire near the shepherds.
This painting is among the artist’s final works and stands out as a remarkably detailed rendition of the night sky. Notice the detail of the craters on the moon and the accurate configurations of the constellations Ursa Major and Leo! Elsheimer also depicted the milky way in painstaking detail. Although the Biblical flight of the Holy Family seeking refuge from persecution by King Herod is an immensely popular theme in religious artworks, this painting stands out as one of its finest examples.
2. Fishing with a Harpoon by Adolph Tidemand & Hans Gude
This artwork belongs to a collection of collaborated works of two talented Norwegian painters, Hans Gude and Adolph Tidemand. It is a perfect combination of Gude’s premier skills as a landscape painter with Tidemand’s talent for figurative paintings.
The canvas is illuminated by the moon and the torch, as well as their reflections in the water. There is an air of deafening silence in this setting despite the relative crowd of fishermen (and woman), perhaps only intermittently interrupted by the chirping of crickets.
3. Paradis Nocturne by Ludovic Alleaume
Ludovic Alleaume was a French painter, engraver, and illustrator and the creator of this beautiful moonlit rendezvous. It depicts a wealthy couple in a carefully manicured garden with stone stairs leading down into a larger yard that is lined by tall, lush trees.
Alleaume has depicted the glow of the moonlight and the stars on the pair and the setting, softly yet powerfully illuminating the night. The woman is seated on the stone bench and the man is knelt before her lap in a rather exaggerated and subservient gesture, perhaps a moment of tenderness or longing.
4. Kiss by the Window by Edvard Munch
Esteemed Norwegian painter, Edvard Munch had a tumultuous love life. He pursued women relentlessly, but he was never married. He battled mental illness throughout his life and harbored a profound distrust in his relationships which often ended in bitterness and resentment.
This painting from The Frieze of Life series explores one of the various stages of life, love, and death. Here the intense intimacy of the couple inside the room contrasts with the life in motion outside the window. For Munch, the stages of love included attraction, courtship, realization, followed by disappointment.
5. Rooms For Tourists by Edward Hopper
Edward Hopper was a master of portraying isolation and solitude, so it should come as no surprise that his nocturnal paintings are exceptional! This painting depicts the exterior of a boarding house in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Although figures are not apparent in this architectural rendering, the human presence is implied.
There is a stark contrast between the warm lighting of the interiors and the darkness of the night, capturing a sense of transience and impermanence inherent in the boarding house’s purpose.
6. Summer Night by Winslow Homer
Winslow Homer was one of America’s most renowned landscape painters and printmakers, best known for his marine subjects. After spending some time in Paris, Homer adopted an Impressionist style, though his personal style is characterized by an amalgamation between Realism and Symbolism.
The foreground of the canvas depicts two women engaged in a carefree dance on the beach as shadowy silhouettes are seated nearby. The landscape behind them depicting the sea and shimmering waves on a moonlit night is no doubt inspired by Gustave Courbet‘s iconic work, Waves.
7. Moonlight Seascape with Shipwreck by Ivan Aivazovsky
This composition by Ivan Aivazovsky depicts a shipwreck illuminated by a brilliant, almost blinding full moon whose light is barely hampered by the dark clouds surrounding it. There are shadowy figures in the distance that are observing the distress from the ship. A closer look also reveals figures escaping the doomed ship. Aivazovsky gained international acclaim for his marine seascapes and his nocturnal themes were breathtaking!
Aivazovsky was known for his remarkable memory and his ability to render scenes that he had only briefly witnessed with photographic precision! In the 1897 play Uncle Vanya, Anton Chekhov coined the phrase “worthy of Aivazovsky’s brush” – a popular Russian expression for describing something indescribably lovely.
8. Nicodemus Coming to Christ by Henry Ossawa Tanner
This nocturnal painting depicts the meeting of Nicodemus and Jesus, as described in the Gospel of John. Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin. According to scripture, he arrived in the middle of the night to meet Jesus and discuss his teachings with him.
Henry Ossawa Tanner was one of the first African-American artists from Philadelphia to achieve an international reputation, largely through his religious paintings. The religious theme was reflective of Tanner’s upbringing as a minister’s son.
9. Interior of a Church at Night by Anthonie de Lorme
Another artist notable for his architectural paintings was Anthonie de Lorme. He was a Dutch painter who primarily depicted church interiors in great detail. For the first twenty years of his career he focused on painting imaginary views of churches. However, around 1652 he switched to producing accurate renditions of his local churches. He painted the Grote of Sint-Laurenskerk or the Church of Saint Lawrence at least seventeen times! His works were so accurate and detailed that they were used after World War II by restoration workers.
This composition depicts the interior of a church in the nighttime. The source of illumination is unclear as it seems highly unlikely that the chandelier suspended below would be the source of so much light. Instantly apparent here is the artists well-deserved focus on the architectural details of this beautiful setting. Many figures (human and canine) appear scattered throughout the frame adding to the liveliness of this composition.
10. Glasgow, Saturday Night by John Atkinson Grimshaw
John Atkinson Grimshaw was an English painter from late Victorian England, celebrated for his nocturnal paintings. His works granted a rare visual record into the realities of life during the industrial revolution, highlighting the dirt and smog in urban landscapes in a rather quaint and romantic light.
This painting is among his highly sought after renderings of docks. Here he depicts the streets along the docks of Glasgow on a cold, wet Saturday night. Despite the rather gloomy weather, there is a lot of hustle and bustle on the streets with many pedestrians and some carriages. Heavy mist envelops the setting only to be broken up by the warm and inviting yellow light from the windows of the stores.
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