Moonlight and Lamplight 1937 is a rectangular abstract painting by British painter Winifred Nicholson. The work features a large flat off-white circle, a russet-coloured pentagon and a wide central vertical greyish-white band that is bowed slightly on its right side. The white circle is positioned in the left of the composition while the russet pentagon tilts slightly inwards from the right, so that overlaps with the central band. On top of the band are layered four additional flat shapes: three pale grey rectangles and one pale blue geometric form. The background of the work is a vibrant yellow ochre, but on the left-hand side there is a thin overlay of off-white paint that dampens the intensity of the colour in that area.
Nicholson made Moonlight and Lamplight in her apartment at 48 Quai d’Auteuil in Paris’s sixteenth arrondissement in 1937. Nicholson painted on both sides of this canvas, blanking out the reverse composition with blue and white paint before restretching. She applied the oil paint with a mostly dry brush leaving some small areas of exposed ground and also abraded the dry painted surface with sandpaper or wire wool leaving fine scratch marks and causing some paint loss in the central section. Some graphite trace lines of a preparatory sketch are also visible in the finished work. The title of the work and the artist’s name are inscribed on the stretcher.
The artist began spending winters in Paris between 1932 and 1938 after the breakdown of her marriage to the British abstract artist Ben Nicholson in order to ‘get to know about abstract art’ (quoted in The Tate Gallery 1974–6: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1978, p.134). Prior to her move to Paris Nicholson was recognised as a figurative, landscape and flower painter – all subjects deemed appropriate for a female painter by art critics in the 1920s and 1930s. While in France Nicholson befriended several prominent abstract artists including Piet Mondrian (who would return to London with her in 1938), Constantin Brancusi, Hans Arp, George Braque, Alberto Giacometti and Naum Gabo. The ideas of these artists were a crucial influence on Nicholson’s work during this period, as were the artistic exchanges she maintained with Ben Nicholson.
The first abstract paintings Nicholson produced date from around 1934 and were mostly angular with clean lines (see Quarante Huit Quai d’Auteuil 1935, Tate T01995). Later works such as Moonlight and Lamplight 1937 began to incorporate softer edges, illustrating a departure from the influence of her Parisian contemporaries and the formulation of her own specific style of abstraction. Art historian Christopher Andreae has observed that Nicholson’s abstract works never feel ‘technically perfect’ in the way that Ben Nicholson, Mondrian or Gabo’s might, but are rather deliberate attempts to reflect what she viewed as the inexact and imperfect qualities of life (Andreae 2009, p.125).
In the same year that Moonlight and Lamplight was painted Nicholson was invited to publish an essay on colour by Gabo in the journal Circle: International Survey of Constructivist Art. Nicholson wrote in her contribution that she was ‘using colour to express colour – the form could take whatever form the colour wanted’ (see Tate, London 1978, p.135). Having embraced abstraction, Nicholson contended that ‘material resemblances were of no account – and that art could be valid without resemblances to physical objects’ (see The Tate Gallery 1974–6: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1978, p.135). Returning to the UK in 1938, Nicholson began to re-establish herself as a landscape and figurative painter, arguing that in the aftermath of the Second World War it was no longer possible to supress emotion or summon the necessary clinical detachment needed to produce the kind of mathematical abstract works she had painted in Paris during the early 1930s (see Andreae 2009, p.131).
The Tate Gallery 1974–6: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1978, pp.134–5, reproduced p.134.
Winifred Nicholson, ‘Unknown Colour. Circle: International Survey of Constructivist Art 1937’, in Andrew Nicholson, Unknown Colour: Paintings, Letters, Writings by Winifred Nicholson, London 1987, pp.99–103.
Christopher Andreae, Winifred Nicholson, Farnham 2009, reproduced p.120.
Supported by Christie’s.