“Electric Paris,” the new exhibit at the Bruce Museum, gives new meaning to “City of Light.”
By Arthur Stampleman
“Electric Paris,” the new exhibit at the Bruce Museum, gives new meaning to “City of Light.” Philosophers of the Enlightenment first used that phrase to describe Paris in the 18th century, but by the mid-19th century the term came to be associated with the blaze of artificial light that began to illuminate the streets of Paris. This exhibit examines the range of ways in which artists depicted light toward the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.
On display are some 51 paintings, prints, photographs, and drawings by artists such as John Singer Sargent, Sonia Delaunay-Terk, Edgar Degas, Mary Cassatt, Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Jean Béraud, James Tissot, Childe Hassam, Charles Courtney Curran, Alfred Maurer, Maurice Prendergast, and photographer Charles Marville. When we think of painting, light, and Paris in the period covered, we generally think of Impressionists. In addition to the Impressionists, the exhibit includes Post Impressionists, Ash Can School artists and their contemporaries, both European and American.
This exhibit is the first to explore the ways in which artists depicted older oil and gas lamps and the new electric lighting that began to supplant them by the turn of the 20th century. Curated by Margarita Karasoulas and Hollis Clayson, it is an expanded version of an exhibition first organized by the Clark Art Institute in 2013, also curated by Hollis Clayson.
The gallery is divided into four sections.
“Nocturnes” features works that look at the city in twilight, from early dusk to the dark grey-black of nighttime. Probably the best- known painting in the show, Sargent’s <In the Luxembourg Gardens,> which was borrowed from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, shows the different effects of light and color at twilight, creating a play of colors on the sky, moon, gravel paving, and stone architecture. Theodore Earl Butler’s <Place de Rome at Night> oil features the contrast between three bright electric streetlights in the foreground and the soft gaslights in the distance.
“Lamp-lit Interiors” looks at the interplay of lamplight with the human figure, architecture, furniture, and domestic objects. A Vuillard watercolor, <The Lamp,> contrasts a bright electric lamp shining on a chest and the nearby wall with a darkened figure in the corner of a room.
“Street Light” focuses on the light one sees in the street. Featured here are the work of Marville and Delauney-Trek. Visitors see six highly realistic 1865-69 Marville daytime black-and-white photographs of different street lampposts. Opposite them visitors see two highly abstract and colorful Delauney paintings showing vibrant images of prisms of electric light.
“In and Out of the Spotlight” brings viewers into spaces of entertainment. In Metcalf’s oil <Au Café>, with lively patterns of contrasting light and dark, figures converse under gas lamps. The steep recession into space terminates with a glimpse of the dark blue night sky beyond the café’s pale green awning. Also on view is Ash Can painter Everett Shinn’s <Theater Box> oil depiction of a range of light effects – striking chiaroscuro, the separation of figures into distinct registers, and the contrast between the darkened theater box, the shadowy proscenium, the bright stage, and the stage light reflection on the back of the lady in the box.
Several special events are planned at the Bruce in connection with this exhibit, which runs through September 4. For a complete schedule, visit www.brucemuseum.org.
On view at the same time as “Electric Paris,” is a show in the Gallery called “Electricity.” Developed by the Franklin Institute, it examines the science of electricity with engaging, hands-on inter-actives explaining the fundamental principles behind electricity such as magnetic fields, electric charges, and battery technology.