Looking for Light in American Art

View artworks from the collection that illuminate our world

On these short December days we’re all looking for a little extra light to break through the darkness. The idea of warmth, whether literal flame, spiritual comfort, or an intellectual spark, lends a distraction from seemingly endless cold, dark days. From a cozy lamp-lit scene to a lustrous pot that reflects the light to a shimmering, blinking display that never repeats itself, let’s take an art and light-filled break together.

Unexpected sparkle

Media - 1994.57.4 - SAAM-1994.57.4_1 - 52010
James VanDerZee, GGG Photo Studio at Christmas, 1933, gelatin silver print with applied color, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase through the Julia D. Strong Endowment and the Smithsonian Institution Collections Acquisition Program, 1994.57.4

Glittering found objects

Media - 1998.84.33 - SAAM-1998.84.33_1 - 62733

Simon Sparrow, Assemblage with Found Objects, after 1960, carved and painted wood with collaged pieces of costume jewelry, keychains..., Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Herbert Waide Hemphill, Jr., 1998.84.33

Tranquil glow

Media - 1975.43 - SAAM-1975.43_1 - 70125
Horatio Shaw, Barnyard in Winter, ca. 1885-1890, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase, 1975.43

Cozy embrace

Media - 2006.24.15 - SAAM-2006.24.15_1 - 67170
Loïs Mailou Jones, Greetings, ca. 1937-1948, pen and ink on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of the artist, 2006.24.15

Spiritual warmth

Media - 1981.153.41 - SAAM-1981.153.41_2 - 130041
Abraham Rattner, God's Light, color lithograph, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of Abraham Rattner, 1981.153.41

Light in the dark

Media - 1974.28.157 - SAAM-1974.28.157_1 - 89579
Unidentified (American), (Untitled) (Village Street on a Winter Night), ca. 1933-1943, lithograph on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Transfer from the General Services Administration, 1974.28.157

Endless digital dazzle

Media - 2016.13 - 2016.13_1a.jpg - 124817
Leo Villareal, Volume (Renwick), 2015, white LEDs, mirror-finished stainless steel, custom software, and electrical hardware, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Janet and Jim Dicke, Tania and Tom Evans, Paula and Peter Lunder, and Debbie Petersen in honor of Elizabeth Broun, 2016.13, © Leo Villareal

Words light the way

Media - 2020.25.2 - SAAM-2020.25.2_1 - 138937

Miguel Luciano, Pa-lan-te2017, neon, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase made possible by Marianna and Juan A. Sabater, 2020.25.2, © 2017, Miguel Luciano. photo: Jason Wyche

Radiant gleam

Media - 1989.26A-B - SAAM-1989.26A-B_1 - 72639
Beatrice Wood, Gold Lustre Teapot, 1988, earthenware with lustres, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase, 1989.26A-B

Almost luminescent

A photograph of a woven sculpture installed in the grand salon for WONDER at the Renwick Gallery.

Janet Echelman, 1.8 Renwick, 2015. Photo by Ron Blunt

May art and curiosity help everyone find new perspective in the new year.