Light and Lighting Design in the Museum

Lighting designer Jane Cox has worked on numerous theater, opera, dance, and music productions, including The Color Purple, currently running on Broadway. She is also a lecturer in Theater in the Lewis Center for the Arts. When we first met to discuss her class “Lighting Design” (THR 318/VIS 318), it was immediately apparent that Jane’s passion for the performing arts is matched by her enthusiasm for her students and the visual arts. Jane and I planned for three visits to the Museum to frame the students’ hands-on experience in class with object-based discussions of the varying roles and symbolism of light in artworks spanning several cultures and time periods.

During the first visit, the class moved from the filtered light entering a medieval stained-glass window to the divinely symbolic rays in the Renaissance Annunciation by Nosadella and the Baroque tenebrism of Giulio Cesare Procaccini’s Martyrdom of Saint Justina. Chris Gorzelnik, senior lighting technician, joined the class to illustrate his process for lighting works in the collections. We learned about his oblique projection of light to effectively display a relief sculpture and his efforts to replicate the light source suggested within a painting when illuminating it, as with Jacques-Louis David’s Death of Socrates.

The second visit began with a discussion in the Asian art storage room with Zoe Kwok, assistant curator of Asian art. We examined three works, including a Qing dynasty hanging scroll, Boats Returning Home in the Wind and Rain, an example of Chinese artists’ interest in capturing different effects of atmosphere and weather. We then met with Bryan Just, Peter J. Sharp, Class of 1952, Curator and Lecturer in the Art of the Ancient Americas, who showed us several Maya vessels. The students were fascinated by the Maya artists’ approach to chiaroscuro (the contrast between light and shadow), in which a greater saturation of color corresponds to a denser area being represented.

The final visit of the class began with a discussion of Claude Monet’s radical use of light and shadow in the Impressionist Water Lilies and Japanese Bridge and continued in the Works on Paper Study Room with an examination of drawings, prints, and photographs. We considered Rembrandt’s experimental method of etching nocturnal scenes and Guercino’s masterful brush-and-wash drawings that transform the paper’s negative space into radiant highlights. Finally, Katherine Bussard, Peter C. Bunnell Curator of Photography, led a discussion of several photographs from the collections, considering light as pattern, politics, and means of persuasion. These class visits provided students with an opportunity to join practice with theory and design with visual analysis. As Jane noted at the end of one of the visits, “My students discovered that artists over the centuries have thought about contrast, angle, intensity, composition, narrative, and color in different ways—all of which the students could apply to their work in theater.”


Veronica M. White

Curator of Academic Programs