It is naive to assume that what a painter represents or a writer proses on about is, in fact, their passion, the craving that fuels their productivity. Some artists, for instance, pretend to paint a pear, a mountain, or the feathered decoration on a hat when their primal subject is actually the light that is refracted off of different pigments and only seems to be the orange of onion skin, the white of linen, the blue of diligent embroidery.
So how are we to determine if their obsession is the thing which is illuminated or actually the light that illuminates the thing? If the objects of attention are common, of no special rarity, like women without wealth then perhaps he’s painting light. If his brush strokes are of lean dimensions moving in the direction of the light that might be another clue. Or if upon his death you discover in his studio there are stacks and stacks of paintings of nothing but the sun trapped behind massed clouds brilliant in their nebulous semi-transparency you can’t ignore that data. But, all and all, it is difficult to know with any surety that what kept any particular artist awake in the night was the riddled paradox that light is visible only when it bounces off of something solid and can only be known when it is absent, when the curtains are pulled shut or the planet has turned its back upon the sun.
One way to test your theory is to close your eyes and in your mind recreate this painting as if it had been brushed upon a surface of clear glass with a palette of colorless gel, thick glue and heavy transparent varnish.
If the same picture appears in the brush strokes as they are molded with the slant of the solar rays, curved in unison with the light as it falls upon the figures and then falls away . . .
If the slippery brittleness of onions is revealed again within the same field, same dimensions, some in shadow, some struck directly on the face . . .
If the whole vibrates with the constant, subtle pulse of atomic structure, shifting electrons from field to field, orbit to orbit then you have stepped with the artist into the matrix of meanings contained within the word “enlightenment.”
“Onions” painted by Auguste Renoir in 1881
Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA USA