A Tent in the Rockies by John Singer Sargent

I recently asked how John Singer Sargent managed to capture the incredible sense of luminosity of the tent in A Tent in the Rockies. I’ve seen the painting in person; trust me, the interior of the tent looks even more luminous in the painting than it does in the web reproduction above.

Karl made two excellent comments about what’s going on, one dealing with contrast of chromaticity and one based on the viewer’s inferences about the tent material. I think those two comments are on the right track, but I also think there’s something else going on – I think Sargent is taking advantage of some quirky properties of the human visual system.

Check out this web page: http://web.mit.edu/persci/gaz/; if you don’t get the pop-up window (I didn’t) click on the ‘click here’ link as directed. Run the little animated demos, which are all about the sort of effect I thinking Sargent is using to good advantage. These demos (and the embedded explanations) are a fascinating exploration of some of the properties of our visual system.

It looks to me like Sargent has cleverly chosen the composition of this work to be similar to the ‘simultaneous contrast’ illusion – the bright, translucent area of the tent is cunningly surrounded by a region of darker ‘shaded’ canvas, so that the central portion seems even brighter.

I’ve found my minimal understanding of some of these effects to be useful when I’m adjusting a photo to be printed. I’d imagine they’d be similarly useful to any visual artist who has to contend with trying to eke out an expanded sense of brightness or darkness from a medium with fairly limited brightness range. Does the painting world know about this stuff and use it on an everyday basis?