Whether you’ve visited the City of Light many times or have always wanted to go there, the images Paris conjures in the mind’s eye are often of Paris after dark, with beautiful Second Empire street lamps lining the leafy boulevards and the elegant bridges over the Seine.
In its featured summer show, Electric Paris, the Bruce Museum in Greenwich offers a sampling of how 19th and early-20th Century artists reacted to the city’s adoption of artificial lighting, first with the gas lamps of the 1840s and 1850s and then with the electric bulbs which became widespread at the end of the 1870s.
Paris, the show’s introduction notes, “was known as the City of Light long before the widespread use of gaslight and electricity. The name arose during the Enlightenment, when philosophers made Paris a center of ideas and of metaphoric illumination. By the mid-nineteenth century the epithet became associated with the city’s adoption of artificial lighting. …Even as rivals, including Berlin, London, New York, and Chicago, increased the quantity of light in their rapidly electrified cities, Paris managed to maintain its reputation because of the beauty of its illuminations. Light remained and remains to this day a key signature of the French capital.”
Tourists in Paris quickly come to recognize the typical buildings designed under aegis of Emperor Louis Napoleon III and prefect Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, when many parts of Old Paris were demolished and narrow streets were replaced with grand boulevards lined with elegant mansard-roofed limestone buildings. In the redesign, known in France as Haussmannization, more than 20,000 gaslights were installed; the details of the lampposts varied, but all added an elegant touch to the new wider streets, avenues and boulevards.
In the first segment of Electric Paris, Street Light, Theodore Earl Butler’s Place de Rome at Night (1905), oil on canvas, captures the gentle glow of globed streetlights as Parisians go about their evening strolls. Charles Courtney Curran’s Paris at Night (1889) renders the brilliance of a rainy night, when the light spilling from street lamps and from the lamps on the dark carriages, splashing on and reflecting from the wet pavement. A small work (9 1/16 x 12 ¼), it draws the viewer in with a brightly illuminated vendor’s cart piled high with oranges.
While it’s a daylight view, Jean Béraud’s Windy Day, Place de la Concorde, uses the street lamps and a rostral column of the Second Empire style as vertical design elements that contrast with the central figure of a fashionable woman bent forward as she clutches her hat and struggles with the wind. Behind her, Parisians also fight the elements as one chases his wind-blown hat.
One of the most evocative works in the show is another small oil painting, this one by the American painter Alfred Maurer. His Nocturne, Paris (undated), features a view up the Seine towards the Eiffel Tower, whose lights, along with the riverside lights, sparkle on the rippling waters of the river.
As lovely as the outdoor evening scenes are, there are many paintings in Electric Paris that show how the new lighting changed daily life, in all social circles. Interiors took on new appearances with the advent of oil lamps and later gas and electric lighting fixtures and artists were intrigued by the compositional challenges they represented.
From the Moulin Rouge, the exhibit includes Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s At the Moulin Rouge, La Goulue and Her Sister, a painting bathed in the bright lights of the theater. Edgar Degas is represented by the lithograph Mademoiselle Bécat at the Café des Ambassadeurs (1877-78). In an outdoor performance his performer is illuminated by bright footlights and accented by the nearby streetlights, with her audience in shadow in the foreground. Light is much gentler in Jean-Louis Forain’s Dancer in Her Dressing Room (ca. 1890), where two lamps to the side of the scene softly light a young dancer as she leans forward to tie her ballet slipper.
Lights can also spotlight, and painters of Parisian social life used that aspect of the new interior lighting to highlight the subjects of their work. L’Ambitieuse, or The Political Woman (1883-85) by James Tissot features a young woman in a spectacular confection of a ruffled pink gown, beautifully lighted from overhead, as she moves through a crowd of high society glitterati. She’s on the arm of a much older gentleman and is the subject of speculative glances from some of the assembled. This painting was once owned by the American impressionist William Merritt Chase, who donated it to the Albright Art Gallery, now the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, in 1909.
Paris, in all its beauty, is alive at night, when the glow of lamplight and moonlight casts a romantic aura. One of the show’s highlights is John Singer Sargent’s In the Luxembourg Gardens (1879), which captures a stylish couple out for an evening stroll.
Electric Paris features some 50 works — paintings, drawings, prints and photographs — by artists including Edgar Degas, Mary Cassatt, Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Jean Béraud, James Tissot, Charles Marville, Childe Hassam, Charles Courtney Curran, Alfred Maurer and Maurice Prendergast. It is curated by Margarita Karasoulis and is an expanded version of an exhibition first organized by the Clark Art Institute in 2013, curated by S. Hollis Clayson, who is exhibition advisor to the Bruce exhibit.
A concurrent show in the science galleries is Electricity, developed by the Franklin Institute, which presents the science and history of electricity in hands-on interactive elements.
Electric Paris runs through Sept. 4; Electricity will be on view through Nov. 6. The Bruce Museum is at One Museum Drive in Greenwich and is open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 to 5 (last admission at 4:30). For more information, visit brucemuseum.org or call 203-869-0376.