Light and Dark


Light and Dark

In this new blog series our curators, archivists, conservators and learning team will be bringing together works of art from across the Collection under one theme. From armour and jewellery, to portraits and porcelain, read about some of the most fascinating and marvellous pieces in the Collection here.

Today we will be looking at the theme of 'Light and Dark', delving into how light has been depicted by the master painter Rembrandt, the etched and gilded visual craftsmanship of Prince Bishop of Salzburg's armour and the astronomical clock of Jean Paris de Montmartel, one of the wealthiest men in eighteenth-century France.

The Virtuous Woman by Nicolas Maes, c. 1655

Nicolas Maes learned his treatment of light from his teacher Rembrandt. In this painting, a woman is seated by a window so that she has the optimal amount of light for her needlework and reading (a Bible is open on the chair beside her), indicating her industriousness and piety. However, her faint smile directed at the viewer and her gesture indicate that the little boy looking in from outside has interrupted her concentration on her work.

Find out more about the work here.

Titus, the Artist's Son by Rembrandt, c. 1657

In this moving portrait of his son Titus, Rembrandt uses light to brilliant effect. The face is strongly lit from the left, which casts the right side of his face in shadow, as well as around his eyes. This conveys a sense of the young man’s thoughtfulness and intelligence and also a maturity beyond his years. Rembrandt painted this portrait around the time that he was declared bankrupt and Titus assumed legal responsibility for his business. In a very real sense, this portrait marks Titus’s coming of age.

Explore the piece further.

Practice your own portrait skills with our learning activity:

Activity: Exploring Light and Dark

Mosque Lamp from Cairo, Egypt, c. 1350–7

This enamelled and gilded glass mosque lamp was made in Mamluk-ruled Cairo around 1350–7. Illuminated by an interior burning wick, it would have been suspended by chains from the ceiling of a religious building. Six medallions depict a red goblet on a red, gold and black ground, the blazon of the Great Amir Shaykhū (d.1357). The inscription around its neck is from the Qur’an, sura 24, the Sūrat al-Nūr (Verse of Light), verse 35. It translates, ‘God is the Light of the heavens and the earth; the likeness of His light is as a niche, wherein is a lamp’.

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Parts of a War and Tournament Armour of Wolf Dietrich von Raitenau, Prince Bishop of Salzburg, c. 1587

In combat or on parade, a rich armour might be seen from a great distance, or at close range. However far or near, its design must create a glorious visual effect. Renaissance armourers took great care in creating armour-art that worked whatever the distance. The best examples evolve as they approach, growing ever more intricate and fascinating.

Even from far away, we can see that this armour is fully etched and gilded- as luxurious as it was possible to be. As we get closer, we realise that the artist is doing something much more interesting with the contrasting light and dark areas.

The whole surface is divided up into strapwork bands, all of which are gilded and blackened. However, the bands alternate between gilded figures on a blackened ground, and vice versa. This continuous switching back and forth creates a higher level of depth, and an intense feeling of dynamic movement.

Discover more about this armour.

Astronomical clock by Michel Stollewerck after designs by Alexandre Fortier, c. 1750

Of course we associate light and dark with night and day, and there is no more sophisticated measurement of this than the superb astronomical clock – or planisphere - made in Paris around 1750. Decorated with gilt-bronze ornament and dark patinated-bronze figures, including the elderly Father Time at the top, even the decoration gives the effect of light and dark. Commissioned by one of the super-rich of his day, the clock’s functionality is extraordinary, and even more complex than many time-pieces today. Jean Paris de Montmartel (1690-1766) was Louis XV’s primary banker and one of the wealthiest men in France; his clock is testament not only to his enormous wealth, but also to his interest in scientific and technological developments of the time – indeed similar to many collectors of watches and timepieces today.

The clock tells two types of time: solar and mean, in hours, minutes and seconds. The large brass disc in the centre is engraved with a map, and Montmartel, an international business man, could have seen what time it was anywhere in the then-known world. A painted blue space representing the heavens surrounds the disc. A small gold disc travels round this, showing the movement of the sun, whilst a silvered disc, engraved with a face, represents the full moon. A third disc of blued-steel travels with the moon and obscures or reveals it to reflect the different phases of the moon, from full to new - as moonlight was the main source of outside light for most people at night, this was extremely useful. The day of the week and the month of the year are revealed in two openings under the planisphere and either side of these are two dials indicating the daily rising and setting of the sun and moon. They are painted to represent the skies in the day and at night – light and dark.

At the Wallace Collection we keep this clock running. After 260 years it still keeps excellent time, and it can still be used to predict the phases of the moon, the time of the setting sun and indeed to tell us what the time might be in London or Japan. It is a truly remarkable object – as much a work of art as a work of technology - and one that has delighted thousands of people over the years.

Find out more.

Pair of infant angels with candelabra by Ferdinando Tacca, c. 1647– 50

This pair of bronze angels holding elaborate candelabra are among Ferdinando Tacca’s most important documented religious commissions. They formed part of a larger group that included a second pair of angels and a Crucifixion, now lost, originally destined for the palace chapel of the Dukes of Massa, in Tuscany.

These sculptures follow the tradition of Pietro Tacca, Ferdinando’s father and closest pupil of the famous Flemish sculptor Giambologna. Pietro created the imaginative models for the feet of the candelabra, with their headless female tritons, while Ferdinando introduced a baroque sensibility present in the varied and expressive faces of the angels. These pieces are testament to the reputation of Tacca’s Florentine workshop, who masterfully rendered both intricate decorations and supple human bodies.

Read more about the pieces.