In Brooklyn, Henri Fantin-Latour Masters Modern Lighting

THE DAILY PIC: At the Brooklyn Museum, a portrait by Henri Fantin-Latour foreshadows today's electric lights


THE DAILY PIC (#1626): On a recent visit to the European holdings of the Brooklyn Museum – this will be the last of this week of Pics drawn from there – some friends and I came across this 1882 portrait by the French almost-Impressionist Henri Fantin-Latour. Its sitter, a certain Madame Léon Maître, struck us as having an especially contemporary air.

That must partly be because of her unusually self-contained look – you can just about think of the space she is in as a Woolf-ian Room of Her Own.

But I think there’s another, more concrete explanation for the very modern aura she gives off. Part of her sense of comfortable alone-ness comes from the moody shadows that her eyes are lost in, and those in turn are caused by a light that comes from above, catching her nose and cheekbones but failing to reach into her eye sockets. And that specific illumination is particular to the gas lamps, and then electric ceiling fixtures, that came with the advent of the Industrial Age lighting technologies that we still bathe in today, and intuitively recognize.

I’ve argued before that Impressionist and post-Impressionist light had as much to do with lamps as with sunshine. I think this painting counts as another little dollop of evidence for my claim.

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