GREENWICH, Conn. — Everything was illuminated at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, from 5,000 electric lamps igniting the Eiffel Tower to the Grand Waterfall, a cascading fountain animated by colored lights. Within the Palace of Electricity, Loïe Fuller mesmerized the crowds, the drapery that swirled around her catching the changing hues of electric projections, transforming the Illinois-born dancer into the “Electricity Fairy.” Although artists like Toulouse-Lautrec depicted her whirling movement, and the filmmakers Auguste and Louis Lumière captured another performer demonstrating her famed “serpentine dance,” in those vivid days she embodied the wider metamorphosis of the City of Light.
An 1893 poster of Fuller caught in her whirlwind of lights is included in Electric Paris, on view at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut. The exhibition expands on a 2013 show at the Clark Art Institute curated by S. Hollis Clayson, who worked an advisor on this iteration with curator Margarita Karasoulas. In a catalogue essay, Clayson explains that although we often connect the “la ville lumière” (“city of light”) nickname to those electric evening illuminations, the moniker existed prior to the new technology.
“Before the city became known for pioneering éclairage — first gas and then electric — it was linked metaphorically to lumière,” Clayson writes. “In symbolic recognition of its Enlightenment, it was first called la ville lumìere in the eighteenth century. The city’s increasingly abundant industrialized light, starting in the mid-1800s, caused the figurative honorific of the 1700s to morph into a descriptive epithet.”
It’s those decades of late 19th- to early 20th-century light that Electric Paris explores, with around 50 works showing how Impressionists, photographers, and Modernists interpreted artificial light. As with Fuller’s dance, Electric Paris also concentrates on how people used the opportunities of an illuminated night, whether to stroll after dark in the park or to totally change the city’s infrastructure, as with Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann.
The official city photographer of the time, Charles Marville, was commissioned to document Paris before and after the Haussmann-led reconstructions, which went from the sewers below up to broadened boulevards above. From 1853 to 1870, some 20,000 gaslights were installed on these streets, and a series of six photographs from the 90 Marville took of the lamps in Electric Paris demonstrate Haussmann’s attention to design detail. Whether shaped like a victory column or adorned with a five-branch candelabra, the lamps were intended to be prominent new features of Paris.
Paintings like Childe Hassam’s 1888 “Bois de Boulogne” capture how the gaslights changed the quality of the night, where orange carriage lamps mingle with the yellowy street lamps and the white points of the stars. In John Singer Sargent’s 1879 “In the Luxembourg Gardens,” a glowing moon hovers over the dusk promenaders walking by gaslight, with small details like the spark from a man’s cigarette adding to the contrast between the natural and artificial. Meanwhile, artists like Everett Shinn were drawn to the bright nightlife, with his 1906 “Theater Box” depicting a music hall with the green electric glow on the stage masking and revealing the faces in the audience. Others found the quiet interior moments, such as Jean-Louis Forain’s 1890 “Dancer in Her Dressing Room,” where a ballerina lacing her shoes emerges from the offstage darkness.
As a relatively small exhibition, Electric Paris doesn’t tell every story of light technology and its influence on Parisian society. One absence is the connection of the gaslight to prostitution and other symbols of urban decay, something which was touched on in last year’s Splendour and Misery at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, as well as the Light! The Industrial Age 1750-1900 exhibition in 2000–01 at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. And it focuses almost exclusively on Impressionism and Realism, although there is a striking exception with two pieces by Sonia Delaunay-Terk from the 1910s. Both are effervescent abstractions inspired by the orbs of light from the incandescent electric street lights, primary colors orbiting as she responded to that radiating illumination.
Even before the 1900 Exposition, Paris was arguably supplanted as the world’s most electric city. After an 1891 trip to Paris, Thomas Edison, who had recently installed the first American electrical generating station in Lower Manhattan, gloated: “Paris impresses me favorably as the city of beautiful prospects, but not as a city of lights. New York is far more impressive at night.” Nevertheless, light remained integral to Paris, and even now the twinkling of the Eiffel Tower and reflecting of lamps on the Seine are among its defining features. The introduction of gas and electric light extended the social life of Paris, and also gave it another side, where each night when the sun sets, the city is lustrously reborn.
Electric Paris continues at the Bruce Museum (1 Museum Drive, Greenwich, Connecticut) through September 4.
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