John I.H. Baur first coined the term "luminism" in 1954 to distinguish a group of Hudson River School artists, including Francis Silva, Martin Johnson Heade, and Fitz Henry Lane, among others, for their particularly American consciousness of the effects of light and atmosphere. Barbara Novak, whose seminal publication American Painting of the 19th Century, broke ground in the discussion of luminism, stated that the movement fostered "some of the nineteenth century's most profound thoughts on nature," offering the spectator "an irresistible invitation in terms of empathy" which "brought the nineteenth century as close as it could come to silence and void." She continued, "Luminist light tends to be cool, not hot, hard not soft, palpable rather than fluid, planar rather than atmospherically diffuse. Luminist light radiates, gleams, and suffuses on a different frequency than atmospheric light...Air cannot circulate between the particles of matter that comprise luminist light" (Nature and Culture, London, 1980, pp. 18, 29).
Silva traveled constantly up and down the coast, from New Jersey to Massachusetts, in search of subjects. The eastern seaboard was a favorite subject of the luminist painters, who felt the clear light and undeveloped shores were ideal for their aesthetic aims. In Sailboats at Sunset, Silva deliberately manipulated the effects of light and atmosphere to elicit a personal response from the viewer. Sailboats glide across a crystalline surface reflecting translucent veils of color in their white sails.
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