Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy - Radiant Night

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Image of Radiant Night

Oscar Bluemner , (Jun 21, 1867–Jan 12, 1938)

Radiant Night

33 7/8 in. x 46 7/8 in. (86.04 cm x 119.06 cm)

Medium and Support: Oil on canvas
Credit Line: Museum purchase
Accession Number: 1957.48


Gallery label for Walls and Beams, Rooms and Dreams, January 23 - July 31, 2016

Based on a charcoal sketch, Burnett’s House, Bloomfield, 1917-20, this painting typifies Bluemner’s approach toward nocturnal scenes. Bluemner lived, with some interruption, in Bloomfield, New Jersey—a small town of approximately 22,000 residents, according to the 1920 census—between 1917 and 1924. Bluemner’s former vocation as an architect in the two decades around the turn of the twentieth century would have afforded him greater intimacy with his subject. Yet, his focus on mood rather than form implies the shift from his architectural practice towards a deeply sentimental approach toward his depiction of houses and other types of buildings from the 1910s onward. The artist’s familiarity with the locale ideally positioned him to capture an eerie tone in this drawing—an evocative contrast between the darkness of mystery and the light of clarity. By the time Bluemner translated this composition into the painting Radiant Night, his circumstances had changed significantly; in addition to being destitute, Bluemner lost his wife in 1926. Hence, his ghostly portrayal of the house in the painting can be read as a lament for the unattainability of the warmth of home in the artist’s own life.

Kelley Tialiou
Charles H. Sawyer Curatorial Assistant | Librarian | Archivist

Catalogue entry from 65 Years: A Selective Catalogue

As an Expressionist painter, Oscar Bluemner used color and form to invest his landscapes with strong personal feeling. Fall River and Radiant Night exemplify the diverse, often contrasting emotional states that characterize his art.

Fall River is a small, freely executed waterfront view that Bluemner rendered on site during one of his summer sketching treks through southern New England. During his career he made hundreds of such watercolors, which he regarded as "stock" for development into larger oil or casein paintings, although in this case no later version was produced. Despite the industrial tenor of the buildings and chimneys, and Bluemner's own difficult circumstances at the time—he had little income and had recently been evicted from his Bloomfield, New Jersey, home—Fall River makes an exuberant impression consistent with many of his high key, colorful vistas. The typical central band of bright red factories is buoyed by the cool gray road and strips of rich green grass below, and accented by the thinly brushed, transparent planes of blue water and yellow-green shoreline in the distance. Along the left margin, two great trees stand in watch as if privileged, like the artist, to witness such a resplendent scene. A week after completing Fall River, Bluemner confirmed his intent "to transform the pragnanteste [most suggestive] Lines ... and to emphasize the 'Exstatic Colors' of objects or their maximum effect on clearest days." Invoking Romantic color theory and Symbolist aesthetics as guides, he further described his goal:
To state such colors as states of space, as Expression of deepest emotions
or Urkrafte [elemental powers] from which as well our moods or
Seelenzustande [psychic states] originate . . . in
pulsating colors:
Goethe's, not Newton's. Blue is infinity of space; red is positif, force, love;
green is general living force....To simplify all objective forms: foliage,
rocks, waves, clouds, buildings in order to express their fundamental
general essence.

Radiant Night, one of three nightscapes begun by Bluemner in May 1932,2 differs markedly in design and mood from Fall River. Its lone building, ghostly lighting, turbid space, and somber palette well suit a historical context of worldwide Depression. Based on a charcoal sketch, Burnett's House, Bloomfield, 1917-20, which Bluemner called "typical of thousands" but "changed & colored to nox" in 19313

Radiant Night recalls other psychologically charged architectural subjects painted between the wars by Edward Hopper, George Ault, and Charles Burchfield. Bluemner's own profound sense of anxiety is conveyed by an unusual cast of symbolic elements interspersed throughout the setting: cat "claws" in the tree at left, "madonna hair" above the roof, "red hand rising" from the rocks at right, "wet feet" at the base of the composition, and the "black eyes," ashen façade, and gaping doorway of the solitary home. To unify this animated ensemble, Bluemner conceived Radiant Nightas "a free Tone play ... not a picture ...with 10 Tones from pure White to full Black. Red = 5." As the painting evolved slowly over the course of eighteen months, he added "intermediate half tones" for transition, studied the composition "in reverse [upside down]" to expunge illustrative detail, and specifically compared his modulation of values to that of the Romantic composer Franz Schubert, whose appreciation of Goethe and belief in the affinities between poetry, painting, and music were much like his own. Indeed, among Schubert's richly textured lieder, Nachthelle (Night's brightness) evokes an air of mystery and deep longing comparable to the effect of Radiant Night.

Toward the end of his life, Bluemner confessed:

I prefer the intimate landscape of our common surroundings [for] we carry into them our feelings of pain and pleasure…I am able to let the simple objects of a scene, a house, a tree, a sky or water be my actors [because] I do not paint an impossible nature, but rather an aesthetically-psychologically possible free creation for play upon the spectator's soul.4

Fall River and Radiant Night, inspired by very different times and places, amply support that assertion.

Jeffrey R. Hayes, Addison Gallery of American Art: 65 Years, A Selective Catalogue (Andover, Massachusetts: Addison Gallery of American Art, 1996), pp. 332-33

1. Oscar Bluemner, Painting Diary, 24 June 1922, Bluemner Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., microfilm reel 339, frames 1249-50. Following his move to the United States in 1892, Bluemner, German-born and trained as an architect in Berlin from 1887 to 1891, used a highly personalized combination of German, English, Latin, and assorted symbols in his notebooks and diaries.

2. The others are In Low Key and In Scarlet and Black see Jeffrey R. Hayes, Oscar Bluemner (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp. 154-55, nos. 103 and 104, respectively.

3. Documentation on Radiant Nightfrom Bluemner, Painting Diary, 1932-33, Bluemner Papers, microfilm reel 340, frames 2133, 2139-50, 2166-67, 2196-97.

4. Bluemner, "Foreword" to unfinished book on color, n.d., Bluemner Papers, microfilm reel 343, frames 1360-61.

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