Celebrating the first weekend of spring, with its accompanying gradual shift to warmer weather and longer periods of daylight, by marking the birthdate (March 22, 1816) of John Frederick Kensett seems most appropriate. American Luminists—as represented by a group of mid-nineteenth-century painters, including Fitz Hugh Lane, Martin Johnson Heade, and Kensett—stilled moments, usually involving a quick glimpse of wilderness or a seascape scene, frozen in particular times of dramatic atmospheric lighting with the hope of evoking a tone one might regard as meditative, almost spiritual.
These artists expressed emotions through their subtle use of illumination by displaying hazy midday sunshine, dying sunset, shadowy twilight, or stark moonlight, sometimes filtered by varying degrees of cloud cover or contrasted with the darker sky of an approaching storm. In addition, reflective elements, such as an ocean’s smooth surface and waves breaking on the shoreline of a bleached sandy beach or a river’s nearly calm current could create a greater sense of variety in light intensity on the canvas. These images advanced by the Luminists frequently struck viewers with their clarity and close attention to details of ambiance or weather indicating the transitory characteristics of time’s movement through days and seasons as they halted all those changes pictured within the frame of their study for everyone to appreciate.
Often observers discover in the Luminists’ art a careful representation of specific angles of light or depths of shadows associated with a particular hour of the day during a given season. These American artists arrested an ideal and tranquil, yet momentary, glance at an aspect of this nation’s nature, perhaps as a measure of meditative pleasure, in much the same way Ralph Waldo Emerson recommended in his well-known essay, “Nature,” written in the late 1830s: “In the pleasure of nature a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows. Nature says—he is my creature, and maugre all impertinent griefs, he shall be glad with me. Not the sun or the summer alone, but every hour and season yields in tribute to delight, for every hour and change corresponds to and authorizes a different state of the mind, from breathless noon to grimmest midnight.”
Walt Whitman turned to similar scenery in his verse for consolation and comfort in works like “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” written in an attempt to comprehend and cope with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln: “With floods of the yellow gold of the gorgeous, indolent, sinking sun, burning, expanding the air, / With the fresh sweet herbage under foot, and the pale green leaves of the trees prolific, / In the distance the flowing glaze, the breast of the river, with a wind-dapple here and there, / With ranging hills on the banks, with many a line against the sky, and shadows . . ..”
Indeed, how great the extent to which the Luminists’ perceptions of serene and quiet scenes of nature, usually spare landscapes uncluttered by the complicated lives of humans, initiate emotional response can be questioned; however, the influence of their methods may be seen in numerous works of art, as well as literature, even into the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries. One could suggest much of modern or contemporary lyric poetry dealing with nature, frequently developing arrayed shades of color or contrasting depictions of light and dark in the imagery, has incorporated somewhat similar portrayals, even if not directly indebted to the Luminists.
One obvious and excellent example would be Mark Strand’s poem appropriately titled “Luminism,” which appeared in his 1990 collection, The Continuous Life. In this poem Strand, who once studied at Yale as an art student under Josef Albers and has written commentary about other artists—such as Edward Hopper, William Bailey, and Giorgio de Chirico, figures interestingly engaging light and shadow in the subtle instances stilled in their paintings—humbly pays homage to the Luminists, just as he plays a bit on the word luminism, a term that also evokes emotional and spiritual illumination, as well as intellectual enlightenment through thought or luminous writing.
Mark Strand has long been a poet known and admired for work focusing on contrasts of light against dark while he presented brief incidents in succinct language inviting internal reflection or expressing moments of quiet contemplation, even though some nowadays seem to suggest such poems of quiet contemplation are something for which the poet should almost be apologetic. In fact, in a piece titled “Landscape and the Poetry of Self” from his aptly named collection of essays and “poetic inventions,” The Weather of Words, Strand writes: “What is usually experienced is something general and atmospheric, an impulse to identify with a certain light or the look of a terrain. Landscape incorporates and suggests, and its horizons are never final. It represents an escape from particularity of the sort associated with limited settings, cities, say, or interiors.”
Within this poem Mark Strand alludes to the Luminists, masters of landscape and exterior natural surroundings, while cleverly turning his attention more toward an urban cityscape, as well as inward upon himself and others among the living room furnishings around them.
And though it was brief, and slight, and nothing
To have been held onto so long, I remember it,
As if it had come from within, one of the scenes
The mind sets for itself, night after night, only
To part from, quickly and without warning. Sunlight
Flooded the valley floor and blazed on the town’s
Westward facing windows. The streets shimmered like rivers,
And trees, bushes, and clouds were caught in the spill,
And nothing was spared, not the couch we sat on,
Nor the rugs, nor our friends, staring off into space.
Everything drowned in the golden fire. Then Philip
Put down his glass and said: “This hand is just one
In an infinite series of hands. Imagine.”
And that was it. The evening dimmed and darkened
Until the western rim of the sky took on
The purple look of a bruise, and everyone stood
And said what a great sunset it had been. This was a while ago,
And it was remarkable, but something else happened then—
A cry, almost beyond our hearing, rose and rose,
As if across time, to touch us as nothing else would,
And so lightly we might live out our lives and not know.
I had no idea what it meant until now.
My extended review of poetry by Mark Strand, “Weather Watch: Mark Strand’s The Weather of Words,” appeared in the Spring/Summer 2001 issue (Volume II, Number 2) of Valparaiso Poetry Review. For further personal commentary in “One Poet’s Notes” about Mark Strand’s poetry, readers are invited to visit the following pages: “Mark Strand: ‘Lines for Winter,’” “Mark Strand: MAN AND CAMEL,” “Marking Mark Strand’s Birthday,” “Mark Strand: ‘Poem After the Seven Last Words,’” and “Giorgio de Chirico: Painting Poetic Images.”