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.
The show, put together by S. Hollis Clayson, an art history professor at Northwestern University and a former Clark fellow, anticipates the publication of a book by the curator, coming out later this year. It feels like a book: thoughtful, thorough, academic.
Visually, though, it could be so much more. A show about light in Paris sets up vaulting expectations that “Electric Paris” does not meet — a particular disappointment given the Clark’s deep collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings. For instance, the Clark’s “Jane Avril,” Toulouse-Lautrec’s ghastly portrait of the Moulin Rouge dancer, her face a pale yellow, soaked in the glare of artificial light, would be a perfect fit.
Clayson could easily have relied on fine art alone to tell her story, but she includes advertisements and early films of Paris expositions at which the newfangled miracles of electricity were celebrated. While educational, they’re dated and predictable in a way that an Edgar Degas work never will be. The exhibit features more than 40 pieces, and most of them are prints, which make for more intimate viewing than splashy paintings do — but electricity is a splashy topic and the roughly half-dozen oil paintings don’t do the trick.
Some of the works that lean more toward illustration than art are cheeky and fun, such as “Waltz at Mabille,” Gustave Barry and Philippe Jacques Linder’s color lithograph of the first Paris dance hall to be lighted entirely by gaslight. It depicts dandies with waxed mustaches twirling fleshy women on their tiny toes, with petticoats aloft, all under the warm glow of teardrop-shaped lamps.
But artists such as Degas, Mary Cassatt, and Pierre Bonnard had deeper aspirations for their art than illustration. Bonnard’s color litho “Child With a Lamp” offers much more to ponder. The light glares across the child’s face as he plays with a toy bus. Repeated arcs of the table lamp’s shade, its base, and the red tabletop suggest a ripple effect, even as the light feels contained. Bonnard seemed to rail against artificial light. In two color lithos from the series “Some Aspects of Paris Life,” it appears threatening. In one, a streetlight floods over a hunched woman, isolating her from others; in the other, light bounces from store windows to wet streets, leaving pedestrians in the muddy dark.
Clayson takes us out on the street; she takes us inside private homes. Prints by Édouard Vuillard from his “Landscapes and Interiors” series feature petroleum lamps in elaborate fixtures against wildly patterned wallpaper; the lights shimmer, and the patterns swim; look too long and you may feel you’ve got double vision.
Some of the most compelling works here capture lights in theaters and dance halls. They showcase how light could change within a small space, and play up its dramatic power. Cassatt’s etching “In the Opera Box,” like Bonnard’s “Child With a Lamp,” deploys multiples arcs: the theater’s balconies, the great fan spread in front of the central figure, a smiling woman whose face, like that of Bonnard’s child, has been washed out by light.
Degas’s pastel “Entrance of the Masked Dancers,” the most spectacular piece in the exhibit, depicts two performers, shadowed just offstage (albeit with glowing costumes), as behind them a chorus line steps spritely in capes the yellow of baby chicks. The piece is all rough motion, with tutus dissolving into blurs. One could slip-slide happily through the entire composition, but in the distance there’s a fellow in a top hat, half-hidden by the curtain at the far side of the stage, his black hat and suit a small still point in this sea of movement, light, and shadow.
A little gem of a print by Degas, “Singer’s Profile,” evinces his keen sense of formal abstraction. It merely shows a woman’s face in profile, surrounded by white circles almost the size of her head — presumably, the auras of spotlights. The artist has apparently captured her from just offstage, and he gives performer and lights equal dazzle.
Works such as this, and Sonia Delaunay-Terk’s “Disk,” a 1915 gouache study that makes the leap fully into abstraction, describing in bold hues the concentric, woozy haloes of a bright street light, contemplate the power of artificial lighting. Electric light captivated artists, but “Electric Paris” suggests that it also, at times, daunted them with its possibilities — just as new technologies enchant us and sometimes frighten us today.
Watching them wrestle, through their art, with artificial light’s possibilities, you get the sense that something was at stake. That’s much less the case with old films and advertising posters that merely trumpet the glory of the new.
Cate McQuaid can be reached at email@example.com.