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The Dutch Masters

January 19, 2011

This morning I woke a house filled with the diffuse gray light of a winter morning and walked out onto a street covered in bits of ice as more rained down from a steely, gray sky.  My dad often refers to these kinds of days as having “flat light” because there are no real shadows and getting any sense of depth of field in a photograph is very difficult.  However, indoors I feel it’s a very different story.  The light indoors on days like this reminds me of the paintings of the Dutch Masters, the Flemish School of Painting. In discussions on the history of European Art, these painters are marked for both their technical skill and their particular use of light.  They pioneered the use of non-specific diffuse lighting–exactly the kind that filters in through your window on a cold cloudy day.

In my first Art History course, I had a quirky professor who remarked that this kind of painting could only come from a depressive land where fog and cloudy days were a regular affair!  Unlike the sun-drenched lands of Italy or Spain, the Flemish painters had much less direct light to work with the majority of the time and were forced to depart from previous lighting conventions.  Yet, they created a style of art that is as distinct as it is beautiful.

At my current latitude, I can attest that this dim lighting is the primary light any of us will see for the next several months (as well as the last two or three).  It is a rare day here to have brilliant sunlight in winter.  While we all joke about seasonal affective disorder, with varying degrees of seriousness, we know that the lack of light takes it’s toll.  I personally try to spend as much time as possible bathing in what natural light comes in through the windows.  How wonderfully inspirational to think of the Dutch painters, who took what must have seemed like a disadvantage compared to other European painters and turned it into a beautiful reflection on their everyday world–one that we still talk about today.

I know that Wikipedia is not a valid resource for technical information or academic studies.  The information in this post comes straight from my memories of Art History courses.  However, some lovely people have placed quite a number of links to sites on Flemish Painters as well as copies of the images themselves on Wikipedia.  So I refer you there:  to a hub from which you can seek out more academically acceptable sources if you so choose.

On the Golden Age of Dutch Painting.

Exemplifying diffuse light indoors: Gabriël Metsu, “Lady Reading a Letter”

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