Democratic light: phenomenology and the worldliness of painting

Prendeville, Brendan. 2018. Democratic light: phenomenology and the worldliness of painting. In: Malcolm Baker and Andrew Hemingway, eds. Art as Worldmaking: Critical Essays on Realism and Naturalism. Manchester: Manchester University Press, pp. 165-180. ISBN 9781526114907 [Book Section]

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Light, at once quotidian and unearthly, and as a concern of painters, lies at the heart of my enquiry. History enters at once, for while painting is of its essence the art of light, as music is of sound, painters only began to depict light, that is to say, portray its action, the phenomenon of light, at a particular time, in particular places. In the familiar narrative of European painting from the late middle ages through to the sixteenth century, the phenomenon in question is that of visibility, the action of light in making visible. What emerges only more gradually is an apprehension of light’s invisibility, and of its temporality: its phenomenality as such. This is a finding, decisively, of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, of the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment, and also, I hope to show, of seventeenth-century painting. Phenomenology is central to my approach, which entails taking the encounter of the viewer with the work as the occurrence of meaning: a painting is not an object but an event, by virtue first of its making and then of its manifold viewings. The latter, I contend, do not repeat the former and are mutually independent. I consider how this vindication of the first-person eliciting of meaning can be reconciled with third-person factors of historical and social mediation. My discussion will focus historically first on two works by Pieter de Hooch and then – with reference to democracy – on a painting by Manet.

Item Type:

Book Section


painting, light, visibility, phenomenology, Pieter de Hooch

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

Visual Cultures


31 October 2018Published

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Date Deposited:

26 Jun 2018 11:33

Last Modified:

18 Mar 2021 11:36


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