WILLIAMSTOWN — Two hundred years ago, night was fended off only by the flickering lights of candles and oil lamps. Imagine how the introduction of public lighting in mid-19th-century urban centers changed everything: social life, commerce, entertainment, and the way city folk felt about and navigated the night. Around that same time, the French Impressionists began painting light. How the gaslights of Paris, and then its electric lights, must have ignited their visions!
“Electric Paris,” a tidy exhibition at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, examines the effects of the advent of gas and electric light outdoors and in. Paris was dubbed the City of Light during the Enlightenment, long before gaslights blazed in street lamps. But the city was an early adopter of artificial light, flooding the boulevards with gaslights in the 1850s, followed by electric street lamps in the 1870s. Meanwhile, dance halls, cabarets, and circuses were ablaze, and department stores illuminated their merchandise like never before.