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Painting With Lights

( Originally Published 1916 )

FROM the pigments that must be permanent, the natural progression in following the ever-changing, kaleidoscopic stage design, is for the artist to find lights that may be changed in hue and position at will, on a permanent ground. Herein lies a principle of Adolphe Appia, who aims for pure atmosphere " in a stage scene. Light is necessarily more " living " than color, a fact of which I have never been more convinced than in seeing the swaying opalescent curtains in Margaret Anglin's New York production of " Twelfth Night," which were contrived almost wholly by illumination.

It may be said, subject to discussion, of course, that no pigment color may be as luminous as a similar hue provided by light. In all events, the tendency of the modern scene painter seems to be toward greater dependence upon light, while some artists are designing all their scenery for the collaborative effects of stage illuminants.

Livingston Platt brought such a method with him to the Toy and Castle Square Theaters in Boston as result of his work at the Royal Opera House at Bruges. But first he drew forth all the luminosity he could from intelligent combinations of pigments. Instead of the heavy blues, deep browns, and soggy reds so common in stage settings, with their fierce lightings that aid them not a whit, and bearing in mind the pink and blue-washed walls of the countries where color contributes to the joy of living, he reversed the usual process, and painted his presentments of solid objects in pale monotones, lighted by a meager, much-suffused illumination.

The luminous quality of his pigments is obtained in an adaptation of the " Pointilliste " system of the Impressionist school of art. He uses only primaries. The colors are not mixed on his palette, but placed together in tiny brush strokes, side by side and over and over again, across the surface of his canvas, so that they blend together when viewed from slight distance—a sort of exaggerated application of the principle of two and three-color printing. Each color thus has its positive value, even when run into another by the eye.

Josef Urban also introduced what he called the " pointillage " system at the Boston Opera House, and so won the observation that his scenery had a " leprous look." Only his object was more subtle. He wanted a surface which had a local tone befitting place and action, upon which he might produce still other different tones by means of lights. Therefore, he spotted his scene with all the colors to be used throughout, and then brought each into prominence as required by a similarly toned light. A red light, for instance, absorbed everything but the red on the surface, and showed the scene as such.

His complication of the device in using mixtures of mixtures instead of simple primaries, which he put into most successful operation, may be imagined when it is realized that a set of primaries is used for light different from that used for pigments; that yellow and blue lights, for instance, produce the appearance of gray, and the combination of similarly colored pigments produces green. Then, more delicate mixtures of pigments must carefully be matched by appropriate illumination.

Urban's plan was yet a compromise between the old system and the new, for his settings still could stand as something indicative of place and character without the aid of light. Other men had contrived scenery that was so much dependent on light that it could not exist as such without it. Whether this was a merit or not remains undetermined here; though the fact is remarked that shadowy backgrounds against which vague figures move, are not popular as a steady diet. As a variation, in pertinent places, the indefinite, " atmospheric " scene becomes an object of de-light; and it would seem that lack of appreciation in that event, betrays a degree of refinement as rudimentary as the over-sedulous desire for just " atmosphere."

There is, on the one hand, the work of the late John W. Alexander, long president of the American Academy of Design, whose association with the stage chiefly through the offices of the late Charles Frohman and his leading star, Maude Adams, made him a practical man of the theater; and, on the other hand, that of young Ottomar Starke, of Mannheim and Frankfurt-am-Main, an avowed "seccessionist" from traditional methods. Herr Starke believes in " atmosphere " throughout, and achieves his hazy effects with a quantity of gauze drops, coarse and fine, transparent and semi-transparent, to transmit and diffuse lights cast variously from above, at sides, and at back.


Mr. Alexander placed his scheme in operation with the American production of Rostand's " Chantecler " at the Empire Theater, New York, 1911. It was arranged particularly for the forest scene, painted by J. Monroe Hewlett. His tall tree trunks in the foreground, were cut in profile from semi-transparent gauze stretched on chains and merely toned in—there with blue-to show gradations of bark. A more elaborate group of trunks and foliage in the flat, made on the same general plan and mounted on a single curtain of scrim, came behind that, and backing all was a great black velvet drop. A sort of trough de-pressed in the stage floor, just in front of this drop, contained a blaze of light directed not against any of the scenery in front or the drop behind, but straight upward.

Looking from the audience, the opaque portions of the gauze became shadow, and the transparent parts lent an appearance of rotundity, all with the illusive shimmer of Nature. Best of all, the light-absorbent velvet, seen through the upward flare, provided an effect of infinite distance. And, in describing the effect, John Alexander, practical man of the theater, particularly remarked that the entire setting could be packed in one trunk for transportation.

The secret is in the velvet, one learns; and if the effect of daybreak and the gradual increase in light to the point of high noon is desired, just paint in a sky and foliage and whatever else is needed, in usual colors, merely making the distinction that sky and necessary portions are opaque for shadow at first. Then light the succession of gauzes from the front, beginning with the first and continuing to the last—the flare in back going all the while—and so bring the sky from a black through a dim radiance, to the full light of day, the rest of the landscape becoming proportionately clearer and clearer.

The real inventor of the process—and Mr. Alexander gave him credit to the full—was J. Monroe Hewlett, a young architect, who, with Ralph Willis, an artist, exhibited some speciments of stenciling through gauze one year at the architectural exhibition in New York. Mr. Hewlett passes the credit along to the Japanese, who long have been securing delicate effects by stenciling through gauze. Mr. Hewlett, his brother, A. T. Hewlett, and Charles Basing, a landscape painter, worked over the " Chantecler " scenery for six months. After study and sketches were complete, a model was made, one-sixteenth of the actual size. After completion, this was taken apart, and each gauze screen was used as a stencil and projected in greatly enlarged form on gauze and canvas stretched on the floor. The finished surfaces were made with a spray of dye and a brush. The idea is still being employed by the Frohman Company—lately in the revival of " The Little Minister."


The keynote of it all is suggestion, the first principle in the stage scene, and the line of demarcation between reality and art. As the demands of a play may go first on one side of this line and then on the other, there should be allowance made for the poetry of imagination and the sordidness of truth—for both artist and tourist.

" The dignity of the snow-capped mountains is lost in indistinctness," says James MacNeill Whistler in his " Ten O'Clock," but the joy of the tourist is to recognize the traveler on the top. The desire to see for the sake of seeing is, with the mass alone, the one to be gratified; hence the delight in detail. And when the evening mist clothes the riverside with poetry, as with a veil, and the poor buildings lose themselves in the dim sky, and the tall chimneys become campanili, and the warehouses are palaces in the night, and the whole city hangs in the heavens, and fairy-land is before us—then the wayfarer hastens home; the workingman and the cultured one, the wise man and the one of pleasure, cease to understand as they have ceased to see, and Nature, who for once has sung in tune, sings her exquisite song to the artist alone."

And the artist, having recorded his impression, raises the " others " from their depths, unconscious of the means, to heights of beauty. Carroll Beckwith, noted artist and instructor, took his pupils to study the settings of " Sapho and Phaon " when produced in New York by Harrison Grey Fiske as an invaluable lesson; and Henry Ranger, whose paintings hang in the Metropolitan, waxed enthusiastic over the famous lettuce field in " Leah Kleshna."


In surveying the facilities of latter-day scene painting, one is struck with the fact that each is appropriate to time and place—that individually they are circumscribed by conditions in which they are to be used. The peculiar wide, high, and deep recess at the back of the Lyceum Theater stage in New York, made possible the street disappearing straight away into murky darkness punctuated by pitiful lights at the curbs, down which the thief ran in " The Dawn of a To-morrow," where it could be but the merest makeshift in other places; the poetic pools and shallows of a play by Maeterlinck admit of an atmosphere of a dim suggestiveness, while the gauzes there might seem absurd for even the fjords of Ibsen.

While their permanence cannot always be recommended, neither may their abolition be recommended. They are instruments to be employed for appropriate purposes, and the rest of the time kept hidden away. Ideally, every stage should be prepared to accommodate any or all. Unfortunate it is, sometimes, that high values in real estate cramp life within. Winthrop Ames was found hard at work at his drawing board one day while convalescing from an illness, and when asked what he was doing, replied, " De-signing the theater I'd like to have if I had my choice of any place for a site of any size and shape."

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