Literary Chiaroscruo: Conrad’s use of light and dark to model and scew accepted symbols in Kurtz’s “sketch in oils”

“Then I noticed a small sketch in oils, on a panel, representing a woman, draped and blindfolded, carrying a lighted torch. The background was sombre–almost black. The movement of the woman was stately, and the effect of the torchlight on the face was sinister.” (Conrad 30)

In Heart of Darkness, Conrad explores “the systematic annexation and exploitation of Africa by European powers during the last decades of the nineteenth century” (Knowles xvi). He tackles this subject in order to reveal the “criminality of inefficiency and pure selfishness” that occcured when Europeans engaged in “civilizing work” in Africa (Knowles xvi). These ideas are prevalent not only in the book as a whole, but particularly evident in the symbols rendered in Kurtz’s “small sketch in oils.” As an oil “sketch” is an abbreviated version of a final painting, the sketch in oils created by Kurtz stands not only as an artifact of his perception in the story (ie. his view of the situation in the Congo) but can also be analyzed as an abbreviated version of prominent themes in Heart of Darkness.

Marlow comes upon the painting in the room of the Brickmaker at the Company’s Central Station. It “arrests” him as he learns that the chief of the Inner Station, Mr. Kurtz, had painted it at the Central Station a year ago. Kurtz, an emissary of “pity”, “science”, and “progress”, is described by the Brickmaker as a “prodigy” and, like Marlow, part of the new “gang of virtue” (30).

The central image of the painting is a representation of a woman: she is “draped and blindfolded” carrying a “lighted torch.” This image appears to be an amalgamation of two female figures: Astraea, the Roman goddess of justice, who is often depicted as blindfolded, and Liberty, who is often depicted as holding a lighted torch (125). 

The presentation of “Liberty”, is uncommon as it has been perverted by the added elements that surround her in the painting: the darkness of the background and the effect of light on the face of the female figure. The background is “sombre” and “almost black” which casts a gloomy and opressive mood onto the painted panel. Early in the story, Marlow states that Africa “had become a place of darkness” (9); the “almost black” background of the painting can be seen to represent Africa, which is represented as “dark” due to its being uncivilized, or “in the dark” with regards to European knowledge and culture. The background is not completely black, however, because the female figure is holding a torch which casts limited light around her. The torch that the figure carries could signify “the philanthropic concern” of Europe which figures Marlow as an “emissary of light” whose mission, according to Marlow’s aunt, is to wean “those ignorant millions from their horrid ways” (Conrad 14). This “philanthropic concern” links to the idea that Marlow and Kurtz are described as being part of a “gang of virtue,” a group of Europeans bringing “light” (ie. progress and civilization) to the “dark” savages of Africa. But, as Kurtz reveals in his painting, “light” is not necessarily virtuous. 

The effect of the torchlight on the face of the figure is described as “sinister” which casts the figure in a negative, not virtuous, light. What can be seen here is that the “light” carried by the figure has little effect on the “darkness”: black is being transformed to an “almost black” backdrop, as opposed to a backdrop that is “bright” or full of light. What can also be seen, is that the torchlight has a more noticeable effect on the torch holder, as it seems to transform her face. This perhaps represents the effect the actions of the Europeans had on themselves: the “virtuous” guise is revealed as sinister and those that were once deemed “civilized” are perhaps reverting to a more ugly and savage state. While the torch associates the female figure in the painting with Liberty, what the oil sketch reveals that the natives of the Congo are not “liberated” by the European presence, and further, that this expedition has cultivated something “sinister” within the Europeans.

With her blindfold, the figure in the painting can also be associated with the mythological figure of Astraea; an exploration of her myth can bring further complexity and texture to the analysis of the painting. Astraea had lived among humans during the golden age (time of the golden race), but “had withdrawn to the hills” when “morals had declined in the time of the silver race, now satisfying herself with reproaching human wickedness from a distance” and finally “in horror at the violence and injustice of the bronze race, had fled to the heavens, where her figure may still be seen in silent reproach” (Rose 224). This violence and injustice of the bronze race is described by Ovid in The Metamorphoses:

And this, the worst of ages, suddenly gave way to every foul impiety; earth saw the flight of faith and modesty and truth–and in their place came snares and fraud, deceit and force and sacrilegious love of gain. (Ovid 12)

This “sacrilegious love of gain” could represent the behaviour of the Belgians in the Congo during the late nineteenth century which Conrad described as the “vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience and geographical exploration” (Conrad xiv). While the blindfold of Astraea is typically meant to signify the impartiality of justice, in light of the colonialist context within Heart of Darkness it can have a different meaning. The distance Astraea creates between herself and the “wickedness” of humans could have a correlation to the distance the Europeans created between their actions in the Congo and the resulting effects (the exploitation of its native inhabitants). They are purposely “blinding” themselves to escape the horrors of their own actions:

They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force—nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind—as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness.The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. (Conrad 9)

The painting by Kurtz not only points to the themes of Heart of Darkness but also to the larger context of the time and place in which Conrad was living. The story seems to mirror the mission of King Leopold II of Belgium to bring “light” to the “dark” continent (Africa) (Conrad xiv) and the resulting horrors of colonial exploitation. In order to reveal the “horror” that was happening around him, Conrad utilizes the recognizable personifications of Liberty and Justice but tempers them with light and dark imagery to transform what is expected: here light is seen as bad, with the power to transform and to reveal ugly truths; liberty enslaves those it purports to guide; justice is not impartial but blinding itself to injustice. 



Featured Image Credit: Vincent van Gogh, Head of a Skeleton with a Burning Cigarette, 1886

Works Cited:

Conrad, Joseph, Owen Knowles, Robert Hampson, J. H. Stape, and Timothy Hayes. Heart of Darkness And, the Congo Diary. London: Penguin, 2007. Print.

Ovid, and Allen Mandelbaum. The Metamorphoses. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. Print.

Rose, H. J., and Robin Hard. The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology. New York: Routledge, 2003. Print.

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