Nightlife is a distinctly modern phenomenon. Prior to the invention of gaslights and electricity, the presence of sunlight dictated the timing of daily activities. A new exhibit at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Electric Paris, explores how gaslight and electric lights changed the landscapes of both Paris itself and artistic depictions of the famed “City of Light.” The exhibit, which opened on Feb. 17 and runs through April 21, features work by the great Impressionists Edgar Degas, Mary Cassatt and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, as well as work by lesser-known artists. Electric Paris is the first exhibit to give a detailed examination of the depiction of different types of lighting in late 19th century Paris.
The first piece, located immediately at the top of the stairs to the exhibit, is a large photograph of the Eiffel Tower lit up against the night sky. The Eiffel Tower was built for the 1889 Exposition Universelle, an event that glorified Parisian technology and culture. The first painting in the exhibit proper, Moonlight (Au clair de lune) by Belgian painter Alfred Stevens, shows a woman looking out her window at the moon and stars. While the exhibit began with this painting of natural light, it soon moved on to scenes focusing on artificial lighting. A section called Lamplit Interiors was a particularly interesting examination of how artificial light affected the private sphere of Parisian life. The label accompanying Mary Cassatt’s drawing The Visit emphasized “the psychological complexity of receiving an outside visitor in the modern domestic interior.” While the visitor in the drawing is literal, the label also speaks to the idea that artificial electric lighting was often seen as a harsh, foreign and anxiety-inducing presence.
The next section of Electric Paris, In and Out of Spotlight, focused on the use of light in entertainment spaces, such as theaters, cafés, circuses and nightclubs. As the label for In and Out of Spotlight described it, the viewers of these spectacles considered them to be “vulgar or alluringly desirable, or both.” In Waltz at Mabille by Gustave Barry and Philippe Jacques Linder, the teardrop lamps at the famous Parisian club Mabille cast a merry glow over the dancers and illuminate the brightly colored costumes of the women. There is a clear element of bawdiness in the painting; the women’s scant dresses reveal them as courtesans accompanying their wealthy gentlemen patrons. Another artist, Alfred Maurer, depicted the lighting in a different club, the Bal Bullier. As Paris transitioned from gaslights to electric lights, the two different types of lighting would sometimes clash in strange ways. In The Bal Bullier, the unexpected contrast between the two different kinds of light makes the club seem unsettling and depressing compared to the vibrant Mabille.
The development of electric light was contemporary with the development of photography, adding a new and exciting dimension to Electric Paris. In addition to the paintings, drawings and prints displayed in the exhibit, there were also two photographs by Charles Marville that captured the artist’s fascination with the newfangled electric lamps that lined the streets of Paris.
What was most effective about Electric Paris was that it addressed light both as a compositional element and as a theme in paintings of Paris. Painting the exhibit’s walls a deep royal blue was a clever touch, enhancing the sense of nighttime and highlighting the bright whites and yellows that jumped out of many of the paintings. The overall impression of Electric Paris left a feeling that electric light, though vibrant and exciting, must have also seemed gaudy and overwhelming when it was first invented. In Pierre Bonnard’s The Square at Evening, although the lights should illuminate the way and make the streets safer, they only serve to make the figures seem dark and isolated. Figures hustle and bustle by each other without interacting or even lifting their heads, and the only figure whose face we can see is a menacing man.
Electric Paris provides a fascinating examination of how new technology changes the landscape of a city.