Figure in the Moonlight – A Detailed Analysis

Title: Figure in the Moonlight

Artist: John Atkinson Grimshaw (6 September 1836 – 13 October 1893)

Date: ca. 1880

Genre: Landscape

Movement: Romanticism, Impressionism

Technique: Oil painting

Support: Canvas

Dimension: Unknown

Location: Private collection (Unknown)

Figure in the Moonlight is one of the paintings done by the self-taught Victorian-era artist John Atkinson Grimshaw. Compared to other artworks by the artist, there is little to no information about this fine art piece. Moreover, even the artist himself did not sign it. Nevertheless, let’s take a closer look at this undated yet beautiful nocturne artwork by Grimshaw.

Figure in the Moonlight by John Atkinson Grimshaw, ca.1880.


The painting depicts a setting in a grove with a night scene. The tall, slender trees and wooden fences envelop the surroundings. On the horizon, a lake emerges through the trees. A veil of mist encloses the lake. We may assume it is Waterloo Lake, Roundhay Park in Leeds since the artist has multiple paintings set in that area. The distance of the lake gives a notion of depth in the painting. Thus, we understand this grove is at a higher level.

The sight of the moon is blocked by some branches of a tree, but the moonlit sky still stands out. There is a figure in the middle of the painting. Considering the outfit of this figure, we assume it is a man. The posture of the figure, however, is vague. He could be either leaning his back against the fences and showing no interest in the misty lake, or he could be peering at the view before him. Either way, he is in complete darkness. Again, taking Grimshaw’s similar paintings into account (see; Roundhay Lake), without objection, we may take it as a scene of a young man waiting for his lover to arrive. On the right upper corner, a very bright star gleams. Its brightness suggests that it may be Venus.

The sight of the moon is blocked by some branches of a tree, but the moonlit sky still stands out.

Symbolism in Figure in the Moonlight

Since John Atkinson Grimshaw was one of the representatives of the romantic movement and considering his keen interest in classical literature, it is possible to fancy the bright star to be Venus. As we know, Venus is the Roman equivalent of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. That is to say, the story of this painting relates to a romance. On the other hand, the position of the man being in complete darkness suggests that this romance has secrecy; besides, the hidden moon behind the branches also upholds this idea. The darkness may also suggest an unrequited love.

The figure is in complete darkness.
The moon behind the branches.

“Figure by a Moonlit Lake” – A Similar Work by Grimshaw

Figure by a Moonlit Lake is a similar painting done by Grimshaw in 1876. Unlike Figure in the Moonlight, the figure in this painting is a woman. Grimshaw again chose the subjects of lake and trees and created a composition out of them. And unlike Figure in the Moonlight, the figure is not in the dark, moreover, the woman beholds the sight in front of her. This painting is much lighter in contrast when compared to the previous one.

Figure by a Moonlit Lake by John Atkinson Grimshaw, 1876.

It seems John Atkinson Grimshaw had used the same color palette as on Figure in the Moonlight. The sharpness of the trees is softened with the atmospheric perspective. The sky is misty. We are not able to see the moon itself, but the hazy moonlight with a greenish hue shines out on the upper left. On the upper right, we depict a bright object which we have already seen in Figure in the Moonlight. And just like in that painting, the brightness of the object suggests that it could be Venus. So it is possible that this painting, too, could be related to romance.


This painting is basically trichrome. In other words, Grimshaw used only three basic colors in this painting. Two cool colors; blue and yellow, and one warm color; red. Essentially, blue for the sky and reddish for the ground. The moon’s outward is encircled with a green mist. With the mix of blue and yellow, Grimshaw provided the green paint. With the mix of red and yellow, he painted trees. He used a great deal of value. A low value for the foreground by using black, and a high value for the distance by using white. The high value creates an atmospheric perspective. The moonlight falls onto the lake and a tinted sparkle shines over it. This certainly creates depth to the painting.

Most of Grimshaw’s paintings have a strong contrast, and this painting is no different. The reddish ground and the dark trees are softened with the pale light of the moon. He also used the scumbling technique for the ground to create a broken color effect. This technique is basically painting a subtle layer over the previous dried layer by using a dry brush with some paint as media. To avoid the colors mixing up, the artist uses a loose hand when applying this layer.

Grimshaw and the Pre-Raphaelites

Grimshaw relied upon the dark and high value, the contrast between the warm and cool colors. He attached importance to the atmospheric perspective as much as the linear perspective. The soft moonlight and the misty atmosphere grab the attention, and it is the dominant part of the painting. He focused on the gradient of the colors in order to create a hazy scenery. In this painting, he had chosen three main colors and along with the value contrast, he applied warmer and cooler colours to create an enigmatic view.

John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836 –1893).

Grimshaw was inspired by the Pre-Raphaelites. The technique of painting on a white ground with various layers belonged to the Pre-Raphaelites. Grimshaw used this very technique. He painted thin layers of hued glow which turned out as luminescence. His fidelity to nature is also noteworthy which is also an influence of the Pre-Raphaelites. Despite the influence, Grimshaw had never been a Pre-Raphaelite.

Evening, Whitby Harbour by John Atkinson Grimshaw, 1893.

We should remember, there are quite a number of monochrome landscape paintings by Grimshaw. Monochrome is a technique an artist uses only one colour with different shades. Evening, Whitby Harbour (1893) is one good example of Grimshaw’s monochrome paintings. On the other hand, the Pre-Raphaelites are known for their colorful style. In Grimshaw’s landscapes, however, this technique is substituted with the value contrast.

Before closing up, here is another great example of the art pieces of the impressionism movement you will enjoy.

And here is a link for you, if you wish to buy Figure in the Moonlight painting.

So that’s it from us. Until next time, stay with art.. ????????✌