A Movement in a Moment: Luminism

As fireworks light up the sky this Fourth of July, we look at another light that is uniquely American
Lake George (1869) by John Frederick Kensett
Lake George (1869) by John Frederick Kensett

A term coined mid-20th century, Luminism ambiguously defines a group of American land- and seascape painters in the late 1800’s. With an integral focus on the painted manifestation of light, Luminism ran concurrently with its European cousin Impressionism, but with a “strong emphasis on a quality” that was “deemed distinctly American.”

A movement with a palpable absence of “founders or acknowledged leaders”, and lacking coherency in a traditional sense, there did however exist quintessentially Luminist characteristics. Concealed brushstrokes transcribed hazy skies over expanses of tranquil water, constructing an aura of emphasised intimacy, even on large canvases.

John Frederick Kensett’s Lake George rendered light the chief protagonist, artistic license permitting the omission of more aggressive visual incident – such as human activity, rocky outcrops or, indeed, entire islands – in his pursuit of visual poetry. Dubbed the “American sublime”, Kensett’s work embodied core Luminist principles, present also in the work of Martin Johnson Heade’s Haystacks on the Newburyport Marshes and Fitz Henry Lane’s Owl’s Head, Penobscot Bay, Maine, as a romanticised portrayal of light on a low horizon line.


Owl's Head, Penobscot Bay, Maine (1862) by Fitz Henry Lane
Owl's Head, Penobscot Bay, Maine (1862) by Fitz Henry Lane

Captured predominantly on the north-eastern coast of America, Luminists sought a ubiquitous tranquillity and a “sense of near airless calm,” according to our book Art in Time: A World History Of Styles And Movements.

Indeed, Kensett’s procuring of his studio on an island off Connecticut, and its subsequent naming “Contentment”, wholly embodies the Luminist ideal. Despite a 1980 exhibition at the National Gallery of Art its validity is nevertheless questioned.


Haystacks on the Newburyport Marshes (1862) by Martin Johnson Heade
Haystacks on the Newburyport Marshes (1862) by Martin Johnson Heade

A lack of organisation within the movement and a shared subject matter with the Impressionists have led academics to sustain an argument that 20th century interest in Luminism was entrenched in a Cold War narrative of definitive national identity.

There is no doubt however, in the unfaltering execution of the American landscape amongst these paintings, and the serenity permeating through them provides a welcome relief from the clutter of our modern, busy, everyday lives. Something perhaps to ponder as you stare at the firework sky tonight. - Rosie Minney 


Art in Time

For more on this movement and many others order a copy of Art in Time here.

You May Also Like



Phaidon is the premier global publisher of the creative arts with over 1,500 titles in print. We work with the world's most influential artists, chefs, writers and thinkers to produce innovative books on art, photography, design, architecture, fashion, food and travel, and illustrated books for children. Phaidon is headquartered in London and New York City.
Read more