New light on the ‘City of Light' at the Clark Art Institute


WILLIAMSTOWN -- Light defines what we see -- forms, colors, shadows, distances. Without it, we'd be in the dark.

That's how it was through most of human history, with only fire to light the way. When artificial gas and electrical illumination were developed in the 19th century, everything changed.

A new exhibition, "Electric Paris," opening at the Clark Art Institute this weekend, looks at the ways artificial illumination took hold in the "City of Light," how people reacted to it, and how it affected the ways artists saw and created images.

Organized by S. Hollis Clay son, professor of art history at Northwestern University, it is said to be the first exhibition anywhere to examine this topic. Made up of paintings, prints, drawings, and photographs by Edgar Degas, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Pierre Bonnard, among others, it shows how the new technology transformed Paris -- for better or worse.

"Changing light environments were of obvious interest to visual artists," said Clayson in an email interview. "Many aesthetic decisions were made in response to new lighting environments, but of varying sorts."

Some artists saw the new lighting technologies as harsh and destructive of traditional Parisian ambiance.

Others embraced them..

"The era of new lighting technologies made light a topical and indeed debated topic," Clayson said. "And it was not just a visual and aesthetic issue. It was also social, environmental, cultural and political."

Think of the impact on the public of compact fluorescent bulbs and ultrabright halogen lights in our own time. Or, by extension, cell towers and wind turbines.

A Clark fellow in the fall of 2003, and 2009 and a visiting Clark professor in the fall of 2005, Clayson developed the exhibition project during her 2009 residency. She is also writing a book on the subject, *Electric Paris: The Visual Cultures of the City of Light in the Era of Thomas Edison," to be published by the University of Chicago Press.

"It's a subject has not been explored before," said Sarah Lees, the Clark's associate curator of European art, who was point person for the exhibition.

Advances in artificial illumination were emerging in other European capitals, but it was Paris that embraced the technology, Lees said. The city was the first to electrify a public square -- the Place de La Concorde -- in the 1840s and the first to hold an "Inter national Exposition of Elec tricity" in 1881. From the 1880s on, incandescent street lighting spread across the city, particularly at entertainment venues, where it gave big spaces a lively, raucous quality.

As the cultural capital of the western world in the 19th century, Paris was a hub for visual artists, who responded to the new illumination in different ways.

Edgar Degas, whose images of the ballet are well known, shows in his "Dancers in the Wings" etching how light played in different ways offstage and on.

Gustave Barry in his "Waltz at Mabille" lithograph, pictures bright teardrop-shaped gas lights hanging above the dance hall throngs.

James Tissot's etching "The Ladies of the Chariots" shows costumed equestrian performers in the Hippodrome de l'Alma awash in the glow of electric arc lights.

Alfred Maurer uses contrasts between the different light levels of gas and electric lights in his images of The Bal Bullier. And Mary Cassatt in her acquatint "The Visit" takes viewers into a lamplit domestic interior.

Artists like these wanted to be in Paris in the 19th century. They and others like Edouard Vuillard, Pierre Bonnard, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and many others far less known, were inspired by the ways modern innovations like electric lighting, steam-driven transportation and new industrial processes were affecting French life.

Although the Clark's major exhibition this winter in its pioneering topic, "Electric Paris" is a small-scale show of about 40 works, mostly on paper, drawn from the Clark's own collection. Space is an issue with many of the galleries closed for ongoing reconstruction,

Opening with scenes of the city in natural moonlight, the show progresses through the spread of gaslight and finally incandescent light at the end of the 19th century. It is organized, however, more by the types of spaces being illuminated, Lees said -- interiors, streetscapes, performance venues and in-between environments.

Postcards and stereographic slides of the City of Light at the turn of the century along with illustrations of battery-operated chandeliers, bicycle lamps and jewelry are also part of the show.

On exhibit ...

What: "Electric Paris," an exhibition examining the impact of artificial illumination on the City of Light in art in the 19th century.

Where: The Clark Art Institutre, Williamstown.

When: Sunday through April 21. Tuesday - Sundays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Admission: Free until June 15.

Information: (413) 458 2303;

To reach Charles Bonenti:,
or (413) 496-6211.
On Twitter: @BE_Lifestyles


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