On the right of Adam Elsheimer's Flight into Egypt a full moon hangs above trees which are silhouetted against the night sky. Nothing ruffles the surface of the stream, which reflects both the trees and the carefully detailed face of the moon. A scattering of bright stars spreads to the Milky Way, which strikes across the sky from the top left corner. The wedge of trees which rises from right to the left is pitch black, but two other sources of light push back the darkness. In the centre foreground a mother and child on an ass are lit by the torch carried by a bearded man who holds his hand out towards the child. One can see that the ass has already entered the stream - the torchlight catches a ripple by its foot. On the far left, light from a fire two herdsmen have made carves a foliage-lined hollow out of the night, gilding at its edges the heads and flanks of animals and the surface of the stream. The only strong colour is Joseph's red coat; the rest is moon-silver, pale fire-lit yellow, midnight blue or black. It is a small picture, so you lean forward to read it. You enter its space and wonder, item by item, what next? Will the moon rise or set? Will the family stop with the herdsmen? A picture like this is as close as a single frame can come to telling a sequential story. In the opening pages of The Woodlanders Thomas Hardy shows light pulling fragments of life out of darkness in much the same way. A stranger approaches a village: 'they turned into a half-invisible little lane, whence, as it reached the verge of an eminence, could be discerned in the dusk, about half a mile to the right, gardens and orchards sunk in a concave, and, as it were, snipped out of the woodland.' The lit windows are uncurtained; the stranger stops opposite each one, 'endeavouring to conjecture, from the persons and things he observed within, the whereabouts of somebody or other who resided here'.
LRB 2 November 2006 | PDF Download