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You are hereHarvey-LeeHomeHarvey-LeeCatalogues - Main Introduction Harvey-LeePrints of the Night


Prints of the Night, Elizabeth Harvey-LeeA Selection of
prints of 'darkness'
from the 16th to the 20th century

Night is of profound significance to the human psyche. In the opening verses of the Bible the culmination of the first day of creation is the separation of Day from Night. In marking the close of each day night determines our sense of time. Conventionally daytime is taken up with work; night gives time for reflection, pleasure, rest.

Classical Greek mythology recognized the complexity of human ideology and emotion towards Night. Nyx, goddess of Night was one of the earliest deities. She emerged from the primeval chaos with Gaia (goddess of the Earth), her brother Erebos (Darkness) and Eros (Love). Night gave virgin birth to Thanatos (Death), Hypnos (Sleep), Moros (Fate), Ker (Doom, Oneiroi (Dreams), Nemesis ( Retribution), Oizys (Pain), Eris (Strife), Geras (Old Age) and the Three Fates. On the ‘brighter’ side she also bore, fathered by Erebus, Herera (Day) and Aether (Air). But it was Gaia who gave birth to Uranus (the Starry Firmament).

Since classical times poets have been inspired by the many resonances struck by the concept of night. Some have emphasized the darkness, in all its senses. Memorable lines evoke the fears that night can generate:

Horrid night; …vile contagion of the night; the dead vast middle of the night (Shakespeare); …l’Horreur d’une profonde nuit (Racine); …perils and dangers of this night (the Book of Common Prayer); Sisters, Death and Night (Walt Whitman); …sable –vested night (Milton).
Others delighted in the brightness of moonlight and stars and the happier emotions of romance, love, destiny: ..tender is the night; honey’d middle of the night (Keats); …sound of revelry by night (Byron); Night with her train of stars (W H Henley); Through the friendly silence of the soundless moonlight (Virgil); The stars above us, govern our conditions (Shakespeare).

Artists and printmakers likewise have celebrated the visual poetry of the night in moonlight, candlelight, lamplight and firelight effects, fireworks and streetlight.

Night developed as an artists’ theme only at the end of the medieval period. Medieval man was frightened of the dark and took refuge at night. Night imposed its own curfew. Though the moon and the stars must have shone as brightly as ever they were seen as a symbolic rather than a literal source of luminance, the determinants of the fate and characters of mankind.

Night was first depicted not as a separate theme but as a support to narrative significance. In an age when art was largely religious it was in the setting of the main incidents from the life of Christ that night was first shown. The Nativity, the Annunciation to the Shepherds, the Last Supper, the Agony in the Garden, the Betrayal by Judas, the Denial of Peter are all established in the Bible as night scenes. But in painting it was only after the abandonment of medieval gold grounds that night could be painted as dark. However Renaissance idealism, rationality, humanism and aspiration to the antique did not generally lend itself to the essentially romantic and naturalistic theme of nightfall. Moon and stars were frequently shown together with the sun in a light sky to enhance the significance of Christ, imagery carried over from the Roman portraits of the Emperor on coinage. It was only with the ‘naturalist’ reaction of Mannerism that the potential drama of the contrast of light and dark which night encompasses was exploited and became a leitmotif of the Baroque era.

Painters produced the occasional night scene from the later 15th century in the form of nativity scenes with the surroundings lit by a supernatural light emanating from the Christchild. First painted north of the Alps, they were no doubt inspired by the ambience of long northern European winter nights. Engravers were slow to follow these examples; the first prints of the night were only engraved towards the end of the first decade of the 16th century. Yet as pre-eminently a black and white technique, engraving would appear to be the ideal medium for interpreting night effects, and by the 17th century proved to be so.

Prints of the Night, Elizabeth Harvey-LeeNot only the earliest night print but also the first occasion of the representation of the subject matter of a dream, is probably Marcantonio Raimaondi’s tour-de-force subsequently known as the "Dream of Raphael", though it might more appropriately be called the ‘Dream of Giorgione’. Engraved in Venice c1506-09 it shows two Giorgionesque female nudes asleep in the foreground, accompanied by Bosch-like creatures, while on the other side of a river a city burns against a dark sky. The subject is possibly Hecuba dreaming of Troy in flames, her premonition before the birth of her son Paris. Dürer was visiting Venice at this period and on his return to Nuremburg in 1508 engraved his first night print. The Betrayal, for his engraved ‘Passion’, is the earliest dated printed image of night with a dark sky and reflected light from a specific and in this instance naturalistic light source. It inspired both Lucas van Leyden and Jacopo dei Barbari each to produce a single torchlit subject, exceptional in their oeuvres at the time. For most of the rest of the 16th century night prints remained few and intermittent. Towards the end of the century in the Low Countries the repertoire of popular decorative cycles of prints such as the ‘Four Seasons’ was enlarged to include the ‘Four Times of Day’. At the same period Goltzius and his followers developed a style of engraving in lines which swelled or diminished along their length, mixed with lines of differing widths, to give a richer and more various, almost sculpted, tone. They frequently used a night-time setting with candlelight to exploit this new tonality. A north European search for increased tonality can be followed through the succeeding century in the outstanding ‘black prints’ of Goudt and van de Velde, the ‘dark’ prints of Rembrandt and culminating in the invention of mezzotint. The wider subject range in the 17th century and emphasis on everyday life gave greater opportunity for various night settings. At the same time, whereas in catholic countries tonality was put to the service of the Counter-Reformation in themes of religious significance, in Protestant Holland subjects from everyday life were imbued with emblematic moral comment.

Original printmaking for much of the 18th century was confined to Italy. An English exception was Hogarth, who engraved several night subjects and even a series of "The Four Times of Day". In Italy the Tiepoli and Canaletto did not concern themselves with night subjects. Rococo by its nature is ‘light’. Piranesi etched all his Roman architectural plates with daytime skies and even the darker theme of his Carceri d’Invenzione (Imaginary Prisons) is not expressed in specific night scenes. Only later in the 18th century does night return as a theme, and again in northern climes, in the atmosphere of the proto-romantic neo-classicism of Fuseli and the concept of the ‘picturesque’ promoted by Rev’d William Gilpin. Gilpin illustrated his ideas with small landscapes in aquatint, the newly invented etching technique which allowed painterly composition through areas of controlled continuous tone. Paul Sandby used it for a black sky to set off a fireworks display at Windsor Castle, one of the earliest examples of fireworks portrayed against a night sky. Aquatint’s potential for dark and contrasted tone was exploited right at the end of the century by Goya.

19th century printmaking reflects the opposing and parallel but frequently overlapping and interweaving predominant artistic strands of idealism, romanticism and realism/naturalism. The 18th century trend away from religious themes continued, replaced by Nature in both its physical beauty and latent destructive force. In the early 19th century another new invention, the technique of lithography, gave the possibility of velvety blacks, bright whites and all the tones of silver grey between; a ‘palette’ which lent itself alike to romantics and realists and led to brilliant effects by Daumier.

Later in the 19th century, reflecting changing demography and art patronage, printmakers found new urban night themes; inside - in cosy lamp-lit interiors, popular places of entertainment or more sophisticated theatre and opera performances and outside - in gas-lit city streets. Themes found in the French etching revival in the work of Buhot, Goeneutte and the Impressionists, as also in that of Whistler and Haden.

In Germany both Symbolism and Expressionism produced notable night images. Max Klinger said he saw his themes in waking dreams, and his images like dreams hold unexplained elements. Klinger anticipated Freud, though earlier German scientists had already explored the symbolic aspect of dreams. Munch used moonlight to express a psychological frame of mind.

British printmaking in the early decades of the 20th century is especially rich in night themes and diverse in medium. Wood engraving was a particular English speciality. Similarly to mezzotint, in wood engraving the form is defined by the artist bringing ‘light’ into darkness. The surface of the woodblock prints black, a line engraved into it prints white. In etching, like line engraving, the opposite is the case, the etched line prints black and a multiplicity of lines is needed to create a dark area of tone. The resulting glimmer of light which can filter through dense etched crosshatching was another technique uniquely exploited by the English in the late 1920’s when Graham Sutherland and fellow students at the Goldsmiths’ College were inspired by Samuel Palmer’s etchings to a heightened emotional Pastoralism. Meanwhile Muirhead Bone and C R W Nevinson used the burr of drypoint to sinister effect to express the city at night. Frank Short and Gertrude Hermes recognized in the beam of car headlamps a new contemporary motif. Even colour woodcuts were used to depict night effects.

However colour prints of the night are exceptional, almost a contradition in terms. Moonlight negates colour or silvers it; artificial light gilds it. Most artists of the night expressed themselves in monochrome. An interest in tonality and light effects underlies their work in whichever century it was produced and unifies the wonderful range of theme and approach of the prints offered in this catalogue.

Prints of night have previously been treated in two interesting exhibition catalogues, to which I am indebted. Both are now out of print.
“Night Prints from the Fifteenth to the Twentieth Century” by Ruth B Benedict (an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, 1983)
“Under the Cover of Darkness” by David Alston (an Arts Council travelling exhibition, 1986)

Published 1998
56 pages, 162 items described and illustrated in black & white.

(UK Price: £7, International orders: £10)

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Artists included in the catalogue:

  • Addams C
  • Alleaume L
  • Amling K G
  • Appian A
  • Auerbach A
  • Austin R
  • Bandinelli B
  • Barnard G
  • Bassano J
  • Binyon H
  • Blake W
  • Blampied E
  • Blooteling A
  • Blundell A R
  • Boak R Cresswell
  • Bone M
  • Bosse A
  • Boys T Shotter
  • Bradfield N
  • Brangwyn F
  • Buhot F
  • Butt C H
  • Callot J
  • Candid P
  • Callebout E
  • Caran d’Ache
  • Cooper A C
  • Copley J
  • Creswick T
  • Daumier H
  • Degas E
  • Doré G
  • Douw G
  • Drury P
  • Dumont J le Romain
  • Dürer A
  • Elsheimer A
  • Emanuel F L
  • Fantin Latour H
  • Finnie J
  • Firth M
  • Foottett F F
  • Freeth P
  • Fuesli H
  • Gabain E
  • Gaskell P
  • George D
  • Gill E
  • Goeneutte N
  • Goff R
  • Goltzius H
  • Goudt H
  • Goya F
  • Haden F Seymour
  • Hampton H
  • Hall Thorpe J
  • Hermann-Paul
  • Hockey J M
  • Hofer K
  • Holloway E
  • Houbraken A
  • Howarth A E
  • Huggins W
  • Hunnerstone P
  • Hunt W Holman
  • Ilsted P
  • Jacque C
  • Janes N
  • Jettmar R
  • Joliffe M
  • Kalckreuthe L Graf von
  • Kapp H B
  • Kirkpatrick J
  • Laage W
  • Law D
  • Lee S
  • Lee-Hankey W
  • Legros A
  • Leighton C
  • Le Sidaner H
  • Liugini F J
  • Lupton T
  • Mander C van
  • Matham J
  • McBey J
  • Menpes M
  • Molyn P
  • Morgan G
  • Mouilleron A
  • Müller K
  • Munch E
  • Muyden E L van
  • Naill J C A
  • Nathan P d’Avigdoer
  • Nevinson C R W
  • Orlik E
  • Ostade A
  • Paillard H
  • Palmer S
  • Paton H
  • Pisarro C
  • Plenderleith D
  • Pontius P
  • Rembrandt
  • Robertson W G
  • Roussel T
  • Royds M A
  • Rubens P P
  • Sadeler J
  • Schalcken G
  • Schallhas C P
  • Seaby A W
  • Servandoni G N
  • Shannon C H
  • Short F
  • Simmonet J
  • Slocomb C P
  • Stacey D M
  • Staeger F
  • Stengelin A
  • Storm van s’Gravensande C
  • Sutherland G
  • Thomas M F
  • Todd A R Middleton
  • Toulouse-Lautrec H de
  • Tournour Sister M
  • Turner J M W
  • Velde J van de
  • Velkolje N
  • Veneziano A
  • Verpilleux E
  • Vos M de
  • Walker B E
  • Ward L M
  • Whistler J M
  • Whitehead L
  • Witte P

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