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Dusk till Dawn

The Irvine Museum Collection at the University of California, Irvine presents “Dusk till Dawn,” an exhibition that goes against the grain of what we typically think of as landscape painting. Usually, an artist will paint a beautiful landscape bursting in bright sunlight with colorful trees and flowers–things one would expect to see during the day. This exhibition is different, as the paintings on display show those same subjects but at night or at the outer edges of the day, when the sun is setting or when it is rising.

Painting at night presents a serious problem. How does the artist paint the absence of light, without creating a painting so dark that very little can be discerned? In centuries past, the artistic convention was to paint shadows dark brown, so a night scene was treated as a gigantic shadow and the entire painting was dark brown. With the advent of French Impressionism, artists recognized that within a shadow, there was clarity and one could see lots of color. To meet this concept, they settled on blue or purple to best represent shadow, as it conveys coolness and it is the direct opposite of the yellow in sunlight.

Working in the 1870s, James McNeill Whistler was among the first artists to paint blue night scenes, which he called “nocturnes.” In 1889, Vincent van Gogh painted “Starry Night” in multiple tones of blue. In America, many artists were painting blue night scenes, including Frederic Remington, Maxfield Parrish and Frank Tenney Johnson.

Some of the paintings in “Dusk till Dawn” rely on the old method of darkening shadows, such as “Landscape with Indians,” by Virgil Williams, and “Sunset in Monument Valley,” by James Swinnerton. In these paintings, the vivid sky effects of sunset supersede the need for clarity. Most, however, were painted by artists who were trained in Impressionism and thus use various tones of blue. Two remarkable examples are the “Nocturne” paintings by Granville Redmond.

“Inner Harbor,” painted in 1929 by Paul Sample, shows San Pedro Harbor aglow in the ethereal light of the full moon, while “In Morning Light” by Alfred Mitchell shows the beach at La Jolla just starting to warm up early in the morning.

This display also features a number of excellent works by award-winning contemporary landscape painters.

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