During the second half of the 19th century, the French emperor Napoleon III assigned the prefect Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann to modernize Paris. In addition to razing crooked medieval streets to build grand boulevards and public gardens, Haussmann oversaw the installation of approximately 20,000 gaslights throughout the city. His purported slogan: “Light before all else.”
This phrase forms the premise of “Electric Paris,” an exhibition at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich that examines the City of Light through the lens of nighttime illumination. The 50 paintings, prints and photographs on view date from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as gaslight supplanted oil lamps, and electric lighting superseded gas.
These scenes — set mostly at night in homes, outdoors, in lively clubs and cafes — are responses by artists, including Mary Cassatt, Edgar Degas, Édouard Manet and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, to the evolving technologies that allowed and inspired them to see in the dark.
“There has been such an emphasis on the sun-dappled landscapes of the Impressionists and the atmospheric effects of natural light on the French countryside,” said Margarita Karasoulas, the show’s curator. “This show is about artificial light.”
A mixture of illumination — celestial, reflected and manufactured — is evident in John Singer Sargent’s painting “In the Luxembourg Gardens,” in which an elegant couple strolls arm in arm through the park at dusk. Ms. Karasoulas noted six different renderings of light in the painting: a twilit sky; a haloed full moon; its light reflected in the boat basin; the milky luminescence of gravel; fiery gaslights shimmering through the foliage; and a glint of ash at the end of a man’s cigarette.
Sargent’s painting appears in “Nocturnes,” one of four thematic parts of the exhibition. In that section, Ms. Karasoulas said, she “wanted to trace an artistic shift from nocturnes that feature celestial light to nocturnes that are increasingly urban in character.”
Alfred Stevens’s “Moonlight (Au clair de la lune),” which opens “Nocturnes,” shows a contemplative woman standing at a large window that frames a starry sky and a turbulent sea, her face and forearm accented by the light of the moon.
The moonlight in “Paris at Night,” a painting by Charles Courtney Curran, by contrast, is dwarfed by the artificial lighting illuminating the rainy streetscape. Here, yellowish gaslights glare along the sidewalks, their reflections wavering on wet pavement. Oil lamps burn inside horse-drawn carriages, and a lantern casts an orange blaze on a cart of fruit and a vendor’s face.
In the section “Lamplit Interiors” are selections of intimate rooms whose darkness is interrupted by lamplight. People are absorbed in solitary activities — reading, sewing — in prints by Cassatt, Manet and Norbert Goeneutte. In Pierre Bonnard’s painting “Interior: The Terrasse Children,” a pair of oil lamps takes center stage on a wooden table where two boys sit reading. One lamp is lighted, the other is not; its surrounding space remains dark. “The lamps are as intensely present as the figures,” Ms. Karasoulas said.
This area of the exhibition contains a more public interior, Le Bon Marché, the first department store in Paris. In Alexandre Lunois’s lithograph “Le Magasin de Nouveautés (L’Exposition du ‘Bon Marché’),” bustling shoppers are illuminated by the store’s electric arc lamps, evidence of the new technology’s role in fostering consumerism.
Another shopping scenario, this one in Théophile Alexandre Steinlen’s lithograph “The Shop Window,” involves two women admiring the goods for sale in a brightly lighted window on an otherwise murky street.
The print is in the “Street Light” part of the exhibition, which focuses on the technology of artificial light itself. Two abstract paintings by Sonia Delaunay-Terk, for example, use vibrant patterns of concentric circles to express her enchantment with the new incandescent electric lights on the Boulevard Saint-Michel.
That section contains six photographs by Charles Marville, a photographer charged with documenting Haussmann’s reconstruction of Paris. The prints show the varied motifs of the city’s new lighting fixtures, including a five-branched model at the Louvre and a post at the Palais Garnier opera house that incorporates a classically sculpted nude balancing the lamp on her head.
Marville’s shots are devoid of people, bringing the fixtures to the fore. “They communicate a sense of silence and stillness,” Ms. Karasoulas said.
For museum visitors who wish to learn more about the science of electricity, the Bruce is hosting a complementary exhibition, “Electricity,” developed by the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia and filled with hands-on activities for all ages.
Artificial lighting was embraced by Paris’s cafes and nightclubs, and artists’ passion for both the city’s night life and its illumination can be seen in the final section of the exhibition, “In and Out of the Spotlight.”
The flickering gas lamps and golden tones in Willard Metcalf’s painting “Au Café” evoke the spirited intimacy of the crowded cafe. Nearby, the stark contrasts in Jean-Émile Laboureur’s black-and-white woodcut “The Bal Bullier” suggest the harshness of the ballroom’s electric lights.
The allure of artificial illumination is apparent in “Mademoiselle Bécat at the Café des Ambassadeurs,” a small black-and-white lithograph by Degas. In the lower left corner, the popular singer Emilie Bécat, clad in a frilly dress, performs with arms outstretched. The rest of the picture is a mélange of artificial lighting: soaring fireworks, an ornate gas chandelier, a horizontal band of gas jets, a cluster of globe-like fixtures and a gas streetlight that towers over Ms. Bécat.
“She is visually upstaged by the lighting,” Ms. Karasoulas said. “This work is not about the performance. It’s about the light.”
“Electric Paris” is an expanded version of a 2013 exhibition curated by S. Hollis Clayson at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, in Williamstown, Mass. Ms. Clayson served as exhibition adviser for the Bruce adaptation.
The exhibition also explores the public’s fascination with artificial illumination, not only artists’ portrayal of it. Electricity amazed visitors to the 1889 world fair in Paris, where searchlights beamed from the top of the newly constructed Eiffel Tower and colorful fountains were illuminated with electric arc lighting.
Curran captured the thrill of the fair’s lighted fountains in “Evening Illuminations at the Paris Exposition,” in which a well-dressed woman perches on someone’s shoulders amid throngs in the shadowy fairgrounds vying to see the magical spectacle.
“The painting wonderfully captures how people reacted to the new lighting,” Ms. Karasoulas said. “Some are even holding umbrellas as if to shield themselves.”
“You can see that they are in awe,” she added.
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