Activity - Light

Look at this painting by Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo, depicting Mary Magdalene seeing Christ for the first time after the resurrection: click here (external link). How many light sources are suggested in this painting? Why might this be?

This painting shows Mary Magdalene, weeping at the tomb, which is empty. It seems to show her in the process of recognising Christ. In the background, dawn is breaking. The source of light ought to be behind her; yet judging from the modelling on her clothing, the main light source is instead coming from in front of her - as though the approaching Christ is himself the source of light.


Look again at this painting by Hopper (Morning Sun (1952), which we examined in Unit 5 when discussing composition: click here (external link). The painting is largely shaped by contrasts of light and dark. As we discussed in Unit 5, the composition of the painting is built around a vertical division into three, with the plane of the bed forming a link between the three vertical strips of the painting along the lower part. The distinction between these is largely formed by light and shade: the dark central third of the painting contrasts strongly with the light on either side of it. Strong contrasts are also evident between the figure of the woman, and the planes either side of her. How has Hopper achieved this?

It is through the arrangement of objects and the figure that the strong contrasts are heightened. The shadow cast by the vertical edge of the window on the wall is in line with the woman's spine. Because Hopper has used strong chiaroscuro in the modelling of the woman's body, some of the parts of her body which are in shadow (especially her back, and the back of her head) form a strong contrast with the bright light of the wall adjacent; and the parts of her body which are brightest (especially her face, the front of her upper arm, and her knees) are adjacent to parts of the wall which are in shade. This means that the sunlight picks out the form of her body and face, and makes her stand out still more strongly.

Interestingly, the front of the woman's thighs are painted with a strong pink, which picks up the colour of her nightdress. We would probably expect this part of her body to be in shadow. This has the effect of setting up a strong contrast with the triangle of wall visible under her arm.


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This resource was created with the help of a University of Leeds Faculty of Arts Enterprise Knowledge Transfer Grant.

© Matthew Treherne, School of Languages, Cultures and Societies, University of Leeds, LS2 9JT.