Martin Lewis, “Relics” (1928), drypoint. Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine (courtesy of the estate of Martin Lewis)

Nighttime darkness compresses space and alters colors, making ordinary places both more terrifying and more freeing, changing the social dynamic of those who walk in them. With its array of artworks capturing these effects or otherwise engaging with the hours of darkness, Night Visions: Nocturnes in American Art, 1860-1960 at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, mines a narrow but persistent vein in art history.

Cross-sectioning a complex 100 years, the exhibition includes sculptures, paintings, photography, and prints ranging in style from the illustrational to the abstract, making stops at allegorical, realist, Impressionist, Surrealist, and whatever the heck you’d call what Louis Michel Eilshemius did. The exhibition’s thesis is that the depiction of nocturnes contributed to the development of Modernism, but its raison d’être is the thrill of the night.

The works on display skew to the two-dimensional, figurative, and descriptive. In these, there are two protagonists, light and dark, in a stirring, codependent liaison. The stakes of their relationship are high: too much darkness leads to annihilation – a non-picture. Too much light and the mood is lost. In a narrow victory for balance, Andrew Wyeth’s “Night Hauling”(1944) depicts a poacher collecting lobsters from another fisherman’s trap. He has taken the cover of a moonless night; his boat and the shore dim wedges of black on black. The only light besides a rime of grey along the horizon is the green sheen of phosphorescence in the water, sparkling along the rocks at the shore and glowing madly in the water draining from the trap. With the light, the poacher risks detection; without it, his task, and our view of it, is impossible.

Albert Pinkham Ryder, “Macbeth and the Witches” (after mid-1890s), oil on canvas. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C

In Albert Pinkham Ryder’s ominous “Macbeth and the Witches” (after mid-1890s), the dark very nearly wins. Ryder’s technique was idiosyncratic, using mediums and additives that have caused the paint surface to contract into the semblance of lacquered elephant’s hide, but this only adds to the sense of dread. Once the viewer’s eyes adjust to the darkness of the work, vaguely menacing shapes appear in the foreground, weakly lit by the jaundiced moon. Adjacent in the gallery, Ralph Albert Blakelock’s “Moonlight” (c. 1880s), teeters at the edge of nothingness, but prevails in carving out a dim sense of a moonlit lake from paint repeatedly caked on and then scraped down to produce a scarified, mottled surface.

In the late 1880s, the electric lights flick on. The city is the special beneficiary, streets finally lit to a satisfactory level of safety for nocturnal promenades, and just in time for American artists rising to the challenge, proffered by the French Impressionists, of depicting everyday life. In Childe Hassam’s “Cab Stand at Night, Madison Square” (1891), black-clad cabbies palaver in the street-lit expanse of icy sidewalk, streaked with the shadows of bare branches, snow collecting on their top hats. In a different city, a different season, and a different medium (“Nocturne: Railway Crossing, Chicago,” 1893), Hassam depicts light reflecting off a rainy pavement; at close range, his opaque watercolors are a swirl of orange and dark blue that resolve, when we step away, into streetcars traveling away from us into the damp.

Ralph Albert Blakelock, “Moonlight” (ca.1880s), oil on canvas. Sheldon Museum of Art, University of Nebraska – Lincoln, NAA-Nelle Cochrane Woods Memorial (photo © Sheldon Museum of Art)

For other artists, it is the lamplit window that offers new possibilities. Berenice Abbott (“Night View: Midtown Manhattan,” 1934) and Georgia O’Keeffe (“New York, Night,” 1928-29) choose bird’s eye views down into the jeweled canyons of the New York streets, literally heightening our sense of awe and alienation from these illuminated rooms. In “Relics” (1928), Martin Lewis chooses a lower but equally disembodied vantage point. Situated somewhere at about the third story, somehow in the middle of the street, the viewer sees a dimly lit intersection and catches a fractional view into the bright corner bar. (Lewis is the biggest revelation of the exhibition. An Australian émigré who taught Edward Hopper etching, he is just as moody but tends more toward narrative detail than his pupil.) In other etchings by Lewis or Hopper, which seem to anticipate film noir, the windows are viewed from lower down, but they are mostly blank or scrawled with curtains, mysterious ciphers of other people’s lives.

John Sloan, “The Cot” (1907), oil on canvas. Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine (click to enlarge)

Not content with suggestion, John Sloan peered in these windows, depicting what caught his attention there. This was mostly semi-nude women, as in “The Cot” (1907). The glowing rectangle in these works is more like reality TV, the lives of others demystified and tawdry. This effect becomes all the more clear after viewing “Untitled (I was Looking Back to See if You were Looking Back at Me to See Me Looking Back at You)” (2012-14), Michel Auder’s video installation of nocturnal surveillance in his own neighborhood, on display in the nearby media gallery in conjunction with the exhibition.

Once Modernism infiltrates the American art scene, chiaroscuro in depictions of night becomes optional. Joseph Stella says yes in his “Factories at Night – New Jersey,” (1929), where he uses darkness and raking light to extract an alien monumentality out of an industrial site; with “City Moon” (1945), Lyonel Feininger says no, producing a canvas with a faceted moon and daintily gridded skyscrapers against a mottled pastel background.

Entirely abstract, Lee Krasner’s “Assault on the Solar Plexus,” (1961) figures the night emotionally. The painting was made during a year of insomnia, and Krasner worked on raw canvas with a liquid sepia paint, occasionally erasing it with strokes of opaque beige the exact shade of the canvas. The restricted palette, demanded by the nocturnal light of her studio, and the gestural, vanishing brushstrokes combine to generate the punch to the gut that her title proposes.

Louis Michel Eilshemus, “Interior with Nude” (1915), oil on masonite. Private collection

The catholicity of the show’s approach to American art during its designated time period makes room for a lot of quirk, such as Paul Manship’s bronze “Figure of the Night” (1938), whose allegorical figures swan through the air supported by an intestine-like cloud, or Marsden Hartley’s amiable bird nocturne in oil on board, “Love on the Cliff” (1939), which depicts a gannet chick enjoying a midnight snack from its mother’s throat. Louis Michel Eilshemius’s “City Street in the Moonlight” (1908) is straightforward enough, but in “Interior with Nude” (1915), do the woman’s nipples and navel glow vermillion so that she can be found in the semi-darkness?

In the figurative nocturnal works, there is a sense of never-before-seen naturalism that meshes well with never-before-depicted subjects, like Winslow Homer’s “The Fountains at Night, World’s Columbian Exhibition” (1893). Yet this naturalistic immediacy can hardly have been captured at the scene, en plein air. This is especially the case for early photographers, the limitations of whose equipment prevented them from photographing actual night scenes. Seneca Ray Stoddard, for instance, whose subject was the hunting camps of the Adirondacks, resorted to painting on his negatives in order to attain the effects of a burning fire (“The Antlers, Open Camp, Raquette Lake,” 1889).

Winslow Homer, “The Fountains at Night, World’s Colombian Exposition” (1893), oil on canvas. Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine

Thus, simultaneous with the immediacy of the works, there is also a sense of artifice, of the artist conjuring the nocturnal scene in his or her studio. The creation of nocturnes may point the way towards Modernism, but it also leads back to the notion of artists as magicians and tricksters, themselves elusive creatures of the night.

Night Visions: Nocturnes in American Art, 1860-1960 continues at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art (245 Maine Street, Brunswick, Maine) through October 18.

Natasha Seaman is a professor of art history at Rhode Island College with a specialty in 17th-century Dutch painting.