True Painters of Light

When the artist Thomas Kinkade rose to fame, I could net help but be irritated when he styled himself as the “Painter of Light” and then proceeded to trademark it as his title.  Because there are artists among the Pre-Raphaelite circle that captured light.  And they did it better.

William Holman Hunt painted The Light of The World in 1853, not too long after the founding of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848.  He used model Elizabeth Siddal to paint Christ’s hair; Christina Rossetti was the model for the head.  It was at this point that we see that Siddal was no ordinary model, for as Jan Marsh tells us in Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood (no relation to this blog), “That she interested herself in the work in progress is shown by Hunt’s recollection of how, on one occasion, she went all the way to his studio in Chelsea on her own initiative, to tell him that she had seen in a religious bookshop a print that exactly resembled his picture.  Originality of composition was a great concern of professional painters but, happily for Hunt, his own visit to the bookshop revealed only slight similarities between print and painting.  He believed that Lizzie’s imagination had transposed his lantern and crown accessories on to a conventional image of the Saviour.  However it is clear from the anecdote that she took a personal interest in his work.”  That is perhaps one of my favorite stories of Elizabeth Siddal, it perfectly illustrates that she cared more about art than the average artist’s model, she was concerned about Hunt’s work and made an effort to make sure that his work was not too similar to something else.  So, my reaction to this story is the same as my reaction to her posing in freezing water as Ophelia:  Bravo Lizzie!  The painting has become an iconic symbol of Christianity; Christ stands knocking at a door with no handle.  Standing in twilight, the only sources of light being his seven-sided lantern (from the seven churches mentioned in Revelation) and his halo.

I think that the lantern and the rays captured on Christ’s robe are one of the finest examples of painted light that exist:

Another example of light I find beautiful is The Vale of Rest by John Everett Millais:

It is not the same intense, concentrated glow as The Light of the World, but it is a stunning example of the light at dusk.  In the midst of sunset, two nuns appear.  The subject matter is mysterious and foreboding.  I find the image compelling, partly because I am not entirely sure what is going on, apart from one nun digging a grave and the other seems to be just watching.  But I know that it is beautiful and sad.

The light in this next painting is subtle.  The Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt is an effort to explore the theme of a fallen woman and I’ve written about this painting before.  Look at the back wall and we can see a brilliant example of daylight as the mirror shows us the window’s reflection.  On the floor, right hand corner, we can see the sunlight shining through that window on the floor:

Artist Arthur Hughes painted the next two paintings by lantern light in order to achieve the right lighting:

L’enfant Perdu:


Jack O’Lantern:

I saved my favorite for last.  Here in America, I think that most people have forgotten that the original tales of Jack O’Lantern were tales of the will o’the wisp, airy fairy will o’the wisp to lure us and enchant us, perhaps even entrap us.  I was thrilled this summer to see my precious will o’the wisp in the Disney/Pixar movie Brave:


I predict that you will see a will o’the wisp this week.  And if you are bold enough to pursue it, it will be a nice one, a kind one, and it will lead you to the road you didn’t even realize you were searching for.  The road less traveled.  A dirty, brambly, beautiful Pre-Raphaelite road.  I will be there too.

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10 Replies to “True Painters of Light”

  1. Just started following your blog and have been enjoying it! Lovely to be greeted by The Light Of The World this morning (I don’t usually go online this early but I felt there’d be something for me!). I live near the Hogsmill River in Surrey where Holman Hunt painted at least one version of this painting so it’s especially dear to me. Thank you – I look forward to walking that brambly road with you.

  2. Hi Stephanie,
    I recently discovered your site, and I am so impressed by the research and passion for the subject present in your posts. Thank You for helping me indulge my Pre-Raphaelite obsession!
    I have always been annoyed by Thomas Kincaide as well, and never understood the appeal of his work. I think John Atkinson Grimshaw is eons ahead of Mr Kincaide as far as portraying natural light, particularly moonlight.

    1. Ah, Grimshaw! I love him as well. His night skies are beautiful and haunting. Kinkade’s light is strange and seems to be all about weird pastels. Blech.

  3. Hi Stephanie,

    Agree totally about Kinkade (painter by numbers) but FWI I associate ‘Painter of Light’ with Turner who predates the Pre-Raphaelites by a few years. Do you happen to know when Turner began to be knicknamed ‘Painter of Light’?


    1. I’m not sure when Turner became known as the painter of light. Isn’t his painting of the burning houses of Parliament intense and striking? Now that you mention it, I do wonder if Kinkade was aware of Turner’s nickname and simply decided to appropriate it for himself?

  4. I’ve always loved The Light of the World. My mom had a Bible that included that painting. I agree with you that Thomas Kinkade was neither the first nor the best “painter of light.”

  5. Hi Stephanie, just saw your blog and I love it. I’m also an avid fan of beautiful lighting in a painting. Though you can create amazing picture with the help of photoshop I’m still being pulled by the old masterpiece like the The Vale of Rest.

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