WILLIAMSTOWN -- For more than a century, Paris has been known as "The City of Light." That moniker's origins are both figurative and literal. This weekend the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute will delve back into history by opening "Electric Paris," an exhibition looking at the effects on period art of early artificial lighting.
Museum director Michael Conforti said "Electric Paris" is the first exhibition to explore how artists depicted the changing appearance of interior and exterior spaces as the city transitioned from oil lamps to gas and electric lights, and how Parisians experienced these illuminated places.
"The concept for this exhibition grew out of Holly's research for a book that she was working on during her fellowship here at the Clark," Conforti said. "Both the book and the exhibition provide a fascinating look at a distinct moment in time when emerging technology transformed a city."
Drawn chiefly from the Clark's permanent collection, the show includes 45 paintings, prints, drawings, and photographs from high art and popular culture, including works by Edgar Degas, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Pierre Bonnard. The exhibition is curated by S. Hollis Clayson, Professor of Art History and Bergen Evans Professor in the Humanities at Northwestern University, and Sarah Lees, the Clark's associate curator of European art.
Artists have long been interested in the effects of light and lighting. The impact of the expanded use of gas and electric lighting on Paris's public and private interiors didn't go unnoticed by those living and working there in the latter 19th century. The nickname "The City of Light" first appeared in the 18th century when Enlightenment philosophers made Paris a center of ideas and metaphorical illumination. Later, it extended to create a relationship with street lights that had begun to appear in the French capital.
In the 1840s, Paris was one of the first cities to experiment with electric street lamps. An increase in gas light in the 1850s solidified "The City of Light" label. By the 1880s, electricity began to illuminate boulevards, and culminated in widespread incandescent electric lighting in the early 20th century.
A new creative light
In the latter 19th-century Paris was the site of historic changes. Lees, who assisted in curating "Electric Paris," said that Georges-Eugène Haussmann reconfigured the city streets in the 1850s and ‘60s. In 1874, the artists of the Impressionist group staged their first exhibition independent of the Salon.
"What ‘Electric Paris' aims to demonstrate is that while many of the works we're presenting, by Mary Cassatt, Edgar Degas, Pierre Bonnard, and others, are familiar on one level, they've never really been considered from this perspective," Lees said. "The transition from oil to gas lights, and then from those to electric, was nearly as important a shift in everyday experience as the reconstruction of the streets, but the evidence of this shift is less obvious to us now when we look at the art of the period."
In considering the kinds of lights depicted artistically, Lees continued, the contexts they appear in, and how they define the spaces they illuminate, one realizes that the evidence has been there all along; it's just not typically noticed.
"Artist's responses to artificial light were widely varied. There was nostalgia for warm, soft gaslight, but too much light, even gaslight, could mark a place as catering to a crude and unrefined crowd," Less said. "Light, whether gas or electric, could also redefine time and place, so that night became as bright as day, indoors as outdoors, or on stage as off stage - and all became hard to distinguish."
In 1889 and 1900, electrical technology was celebrated at the Paris Exposition Universelles (World Fairs), and it directly generated visual expression for an artist such as Sonia Delaunay-Terk, whose work is included in "Electric Paris." However, in some circles, this same innovation was deemed disruptive in the intensity of light it was capable of producing.
Given this, Less explained that in most exhibitions, one of the challenges is to present an idea through images; to make a point visually, so that the works speak for themselves with ideally only a little support from a wall text label.
"In this case, "Electric Paris" is just a small sampling of Holly's rich and detailed exploration of the ways in which artists responded to the changing appearance of public and private spaces as new lighting technologies were introduced," Lees said.
She said each grouping of paintings and prints serves as a sort of microcosm, an investigation in just a handful of images of a series of different ideas, which are then organized to tell the larger story as a whole.
"Light, whether then or now, is easy to take for granted, but it's one of the most basic elements required to make art," she said. "'Electric Paris' will prompt viewers to look closely at each image and consider how specific light conditions shape both the form and the meaning of what they're looking at."
"Electric Paris" opens Sunday and runs through April 21 at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown. Info: Call 413-458-2303 or visit clarkart.edu.