Painting with Light at Tate Britain

This exhibition at Tate Britain explored the relationship between photography and painting. The Exhibition Guide explains “the invention of photography in 1839 contributed to a period of change for the visual arts in Britain. The development of new materials and techniques influenced painters and photographers who shared ambitions and ideas. These conversations were at the heart of artistic innovations in the Victorian and Edwardian ages”.

I found it a fascinating study of the subject. Some of the gallery notes explain how the two practitioners (photographers and painters) were intertwined. “Many photographers trained as painters” and “painters and illustrators used photographs as preparatory studies and as a substitute for props, costumes and models”.

There were some striking counterpoints in this exhibition. For example John Brett’s “Glacier of Rosenlaui” 1856 alongside Friedrich von Martens photograph of the same name from 1855.

John Brett

John Brett [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I found Brett’s oil painting much more evocative conveying a sense of place far more than the photograph was able to do. This is not a criticism of the photographer so much as a recognition of the nature of photography in its early days. It was interesting to note that Brett drew on photographic sources for his painting.

I tried to assess why I much preferred the painting to the photograph. I think that perhaps comes down to a number of factors:

  • Lighting of the scene. The photographer had to expose the film to represent the light grey of the sky, the whiteness of the snow and glacier. The difference in tonal range was huge and would be difficult to capture today let alone in the 1850s. In comparison Brett was able to apply his own interpretation to the dynamic ranges of light in the picture. This has given a more even illumination and allowed detail to be seen in all parts of the scene both very light and dark.
  • Brett has used the striations and formations of the rock and ice to emphasise pattern and rhythm which is not apparent in photograph.
  • The subtle use of colour in Brett’s painting has emphasised the scene. Obviously colour photography was not an option at the time. I don’t know how von Marten’s scene would have looked had he been able to capture it in colour, but I think that the limitations of black-and-white film are borne out in his photograph compared to the oil painting.
  • While the painter no doubt tried to faithfully record the scene, he was able to have his own’ interpretation’ to it, something not available to run Martin’s.

It was also interesting to see how painters used photography in their work. For example there were a number of photographs on display taken by John Robert Parsons of Jane Morris. The photographs were taken by Parsons, but Morris’s pose was determined by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the subsequent images were the source of both composition and natural detail for a series of paintings made by Rosetti of Morris including “Mariano”. The exhibition guide explains how the photographs were set up to emphasise Morris’s striking beauty, “they were set against flat backgrounds to accentuate the effect of the folding drapery and set off the dark hair profile. The focus emphasises Morris’s large dreamy eyes, and her attitude recalls Watt’s advice to Cameron that relaxed poses would create more beautiful impressions.”

Another area where photography and painting were totally intertwined was shown in the work of John Atkinson Grimshaw who took daytime photographs of street scenes and painted directly onto them using a technique of thinly applied paint coated with quick drying varnish. He may well have purchased some commercially published views of London for this purpose.

This led me to consider which is the art form in the “nocturnes” that he produced – was it in the original photographs? There must have been some artistic merit in the original scene, at least in terms of composition – the scene that Grimshaw painted would have been dictated by the photograph he chose to use.

Is there artistic merit in the painting of a photograph or is it just an early version of “painting by numbers”? Personally I thought that there was a lot of skill involved in Grimshaw’s method, the final product is very appealing as an image, he may well have “improved” on the original. What would have been interesting to see, though probably not feasible, would have been an original photograph that Grimshaw worked on and the final image that he produced.

All in all a really interesting exhibition on how photography has been used to produce classic images – both as photographs and as paintings.