“Facing the Sun: The Celestial Body in the Arts,” an illuminating exhibition at the Musée Marmottan Monet, celebrates the sun as portrayed in art from the ancient world to the present.1 A main focus is Claude Monet’s Impression, Soleil Levant (Impression, Sunrise), painted on the morning of November 13, 1872. Impression, Soleil Levant is a centerpiece in the Marmottan Monet’s permanent collection, and the 150th anniversary of the painting’s creation inspired the museum’s present show together with Potsdam’s Barberini Museum and its large collection of Monets. By coincidence, the exhibition has opened after one of the sunniest summers in French history. Though we are now in the season of “mists and mellow fruitfulness,” to quote Keats, the recent Indian summer has reminded us of that celestial body’s persistent influence.

The exact moment depicted in Impression, Soleil Levant was 7:35 in the morning the day before the painter’s thirty-second birthday. The sun, a bright orange-red ball, rises through the gray-blue fog over little boats floating in the port of Le Havre below. By that time, Monet had already produced such masterpieces as Femmes au jardin (1866, Musée d’Orsay) and Jardin à Sainte-Adresse (1867, Metropolitan Museum of Art). He had been in London in 1870 at the time of the German invasion of France and was inspired by Turner’s paintings. In his way, Turner was an Impressionist before Monet. The exhibition includes two Turners: the misty Sun Setting Through Vapour (1809) and the glowing Mortlake Terrace (1827). 

Claude Monet, Impression, soleil levant, 1872, Oil on canvas, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris. © Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris / Studio Christian Baraja SLB.

Artists, famous or anonymous, have been depicting their visions of the sun—the “celestial body”—since antiquity, and the exhibition presents us with such visions from every period of human history. Small turquoise devotional amulets dated to over a thousand years before Christ show how the ancients worshipped the star as their central god. A bust of the sun depicted with Alexander the Great’s face sits nearby a medallion of Icarus, that early example of the potential ill effects of sunbathing. We also see a golden head of the Greek sun god Helios with twenty-eight emanating rays of light, a symbol later appropriated by Louis XIV. In the seventeenth century, Louis XIV, popularly nicknamed le Roi Soleil, adapted the sun to the context of absolute kingship: like the sun, Louis was the center of the universe. Medals made for Louis by Jean Varin and Jean Mauger merge the king’s likeness with the sun’s rays in a way reminiscent of the golden head of Helios—though much of Europe found that Louis’ sunlight burned a little too bright for comfort. In 1672, Charles de La Fosse painted a glorious Le Char d’Apollon (The Chariot of Apollo), a clear symbol of Louis’ glory. Other competing absolute monarchs, such as the Austrian emperor, replicated Louis’ sun motif.

Christianity discarded the sun as a god but still employed it as a symbol of divinity. This is exemplified in the anonymous Master of Valencia’s painting of circa 1450–60, which portrays the crucifixion with a sun in the background, though it seems more of a muted-clay than a bright-yellow star. The Adoration of the Shepherds (1622) by Gerrit von Honthorst, a gem of seventeenth-century chiaroscuro, makes the infant Christ himself the sole source of light illuminating the otherwise pitch-dark room. 

Luca Giordano, The Astronomer, 1655, Oil on canvas, Musée de Chambéry, Chambéry. © Musée de Chambéry / Grand Palais - Thierry Olivier.

The scientific world, too, obsesses over the sun, as seen in this exhibition. The seventeenth century witnessed great leaps in the knowledge of astronomy and of the sun itself, as reflected in Luca Giordano’s painting The Astronomer (1655), which depicts a contemporary astronomer grasping a golden celestial globe and gazing towards the sky. Giordano’s is also a masterpiece of light and shading. 

The sun is central to Carlo Saraceni’s trilogy of paintings from 1606 to 1607 depicting Icarus’s flight, his fall, and his father’s reaction to his death. The setting is the coastline of the Gulf of Naples, bathed in shades of blue. The coastal landscape’s serenity in the paintings underlines the tragedy in a way that calls to mind Auden’s great poem “Musée des Beaux Arts,” inspired by Pieter Brueghel’s portrayal of the same myth, albeit in a very different style from Saraceni’s.

The studio of Claude-Joseph Vernet, Port at Sunrise, ca. 1760–1800, Oil on panel, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London. © Dulwich Picture Gallery, London.

Renaissance and early modern artists began to depict the sun in landscapes that emphasized the majesty of nature rather than religious themes. Rubens painted a setting sun in Landscape with Bird Catcher (1635–40), a piece that Turner may have studied. The Embarkation of Saint Paula to Ostia (1650) by Claude Lorrain shows the evening sun descending into the horizon of a magical seascape, with only a far-away, departing ship giving an idea of the intended subject. The exhibition also includes yet another Claude, though not as famous as Lorrain, or Monet for that matter: Claude-Joseph Vernet (1714–89). These two Claudes, a century apart, are so close in style that one must look closely to find which of the two is at work. The sun in Port at Sunrise (after 1760), attributed to the studio of Vernet, communicates much the same peaceful feeling found in the other Claude’s pictures, but here also we see the light of a terrestrial flame as bandits or gypsies stoke the blaze of a campfire in their cave. 

The Romantic artists of the first half of the nineteenth century returned to the use of the sun to symbolize religion with Cross in the Woods (1822) and Easter Morning (1828–35), both by Caspar David Friedrich, and with Thomas Cole’s The Cross in Solitude (1845). Franz von Stuck bathed Christ’s head on the cross in a sole ray of light against an empty background darkened by an eclipsed sun in his stark Crucifixion (1913), an ominous prophecy given that World War I began a year later. Edvard Munch presented a powerful bright yellow sun in The Sun (1913), and André Derain depicted the star over the delightful London clock tower in Big Ben (1906) with a mosaic-like, impressionistic style. This exhibition provides a compact look at the sun across several ages of history—let’s hope for a sister exhibition in the future on the moon.

  1.   “Facing the Sun: The Celestial Body in the Arts” at the Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris, in collaboration with the Barberini Museum, Potsdam, opened on September 21, 2022, and remains on view through January 29, 2023.

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