Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 26, 2017
Hélène Valance Nuits américaines: L’art du nocturne aux États-Unis, 1890–1917 Paris: Presses de l'Université Paris-Sorbonne, 2015. 356 pp.; 149 color ills. Cloth €39.00 (9782840509950)

Anyone who cares about the representation of night in the modern era will want to have this beautiful book for the images alone, and anyone who can read French will profit from the strong analysis of nocturnal art and politics. Hélène Valance has written a much-needed history of how image makers reacted to the ways in which the American night was lit, exploited, and commercialized from the turn of the twentieth century until the U.S. entry into World War I—between the “closing” of the frontier and the new American presence on an international stage. The prewar night was a battleground itself, Valance shows, whereon aesthetic, racial, imperial, and economic interests competed with earnest and sometimes deadly conviction. There is a wealth of valuable material here, and this review can only sketch some of the ideas and topics covered.

The introduction to Nuits américaines: L’art du nocturne aux États-Unis, 1890–1917 provides a straightforward résumé of the nocturne’s rise as a genre in the late nineteenth century. It notes James McNeill Whistler’s influential role in promoting soft-edged landscapes and cityscapes that were atmospheric, non-anecdotal, formally self-conscious arrangements of shape, color, and line. Valance traces Whistler’s impact on tonalism and sets the popularity of peaceful nocturnal images by artists such as Ralph Blakelock or Birge Harrison in the context of electrification, industrialization, and the nostalgic desire to obscure the rapidly altering landscape by cloaking it with a veil of harmonizing darkness. Yet the deeper cultural meaning of the nocturne, Valance argues, is something more than a response to electricity or an aesthetic strategy designed to transform the ugliness of modernity into a timeless dreamworld. She locates the nocturne as an expression of what Jackson Lears has called “antimodernism,” the turning of American elites troubled by accelerating change toward foreign cultures and philosophies as a way of handling an ambivalent attitude toward “progress” in its various manifestations. “Representations of the night are in effect characterized by a double movement of rejection and acceptance, distancing and adaptation, very close to the attitude described by Lears” (30, my translation, as are all subsequent quotations). The aim of the book is “to show that [the nocturne] constitutes a coherent artistic movement and, beyond that, a particularly significant cultural phenomenon” (26).

Valance sets out to accomplish this task by organizing her text under three main rubrics: obscurity, racism, and cosmopolitanism. She takes a highly contextual approach, a “vertical slice” (30) of American visual culture in the period under study, looking at fine art, illustrations, cartoons, comics, and advertisements, as well as political and social developments that include racism at home and a growing imperialist presence abroad. The first section explores how the dim, delicate, blurry nocturnes of Whistler and his followers harnessed European symbolist aesthetics to say more by showing less. Reacting against a growing scientific and cultural emphasis on making things visible—from x-rays, to documentary photography, to hard-edged realism—artists employed the nocturne to suggest rather than proclaim, to argue for the benefits of imagination-encouraging darkness rather than all-scrutinizing light.

Here as in subsequent sections, Valance adeptly uses evidence drawn from the wider visual culture to consider what it meant to favor darkness against the overwhelming drive for ever-greater illumination in literal and cognitive senses. The night was so valuable, Valance argues, because of its ambiguity: “If the nocturne permits the harmonizing in a certain manner of the American landscape at the turn of the twentieth century, the dissonances persist” (318). What nocturnal harmonizing meant in practice was the depiction of a fairly static scene using a low-keyed, narrow range of tonal values, favoring blues and greens, lit by off-canvas sources, particularly moonlight or distant gaslight. The topic itself could be urban or rural, but the artists’ cultivation of what Valance calls “antivision” (109) or interior reflection, guided not by the eye and accessory technologies, challenged received definitions of what painting was. Controversial as Impressionism could be, it had at least worked traditionally with light to delineate a scene, whereas many nocturnes seemed deliberately to refuse that duty, dissolving boundaries, disorienting the viewer, provoking uncertainty, invoking dream psychology, and courting an obstinately opaque abstraction. Problematizing vision and pushing the limits of perception, artists such as Henry Tanner, Thomas Dewing, Edward Steichen (his paintings get well-deserved attention here), and even realists like Winslow Homer and Frederic Remington required the viewer to participate more strenuously in the processing of the nocturnal image, to “see” as much with the mind as with the eye.

The book’s second section, “the nocturne as metaphor of racial difference” (141), may well be the most significant contribution of Nuits américaines. Here the nocturne’s dissonances turn into a painful screech. While the book’s overall demonstration of the nocturne’s reach into numerous corners of the American psyche is in itself impressive, Valance digs most deeply into the link between literal darkness on the one hand and cultural “benightedness” and racial inferiority on the other. Valance goes well beyond the more general claims that I made in New York Nocturne: The City After Dark in Literature, Painting, and Photography, 1850–1950 (William Chapman Sharpe, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008) about the ways in which nocturnal imagery was entangled in the discourse of imperialism and racist ideology. In the 1850s Henry David Thoreau had characterized the nighttime sights and sounds that he encountered on his moonlit rambles as a dark continent to be penetrated, explored, and exploited as avidly as Africa. By the 1890s, Thoreau’s comparison could no longer be dismissed as innocent. The annexation of Cuba and the Philippines in the Spanish-American War, the genocidal conclusion of the Indian wars, and widespread lynchings in the Jim Crow South had given the perennial symbolic tension between dark and light a particularly and cruelly American inflection. Expressing the country’s implicit moral duty to bring the dark Other to the brink of actual or metaphoric extinction, image-makers used objects—from searchlights to soap—to “whiten” landscapes and herd people toward an Aryan, Anglo-Saxon ideal of racial perfection. Analyzing Homer’s Searchlight on Harbor Entrance, Santiago de Cuba (1901), Remington’s prairie scenes of imminent danger, and Joseph Dixon’s photographs of Native Americans against setting suns, as well as documents from the Wounded Knee massacre, Valance dissects the unequal battle between civilizing light and degenerate night. Particularly strong is Valance’s treatment of the Paris-based Tanner, the only African American artist who worked in the “white” genre of nocturnes, in the context of a racist visual culture that denigrated blacks at almost every turn.

The book’s final section focuses on night in the city, particularly New York. Valance’s well-documented appraisal overlaps to some extent with New York Nocturne, as well as the work of David Nye (Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology, 1880–1940, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990) and Rebecca Zurier (Picturing the City: Urban Vision and the Ashcan School, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006) (click here for review). But Valance’s dedication to exploring the social context of nocturnal urban imagery leads her to uncover new material in periodicals, to consider farther-flung nocturnal settings such as Pittsburgh and Chicago, and to analyze rarely seen images by John Sloan, Alvin Langdon Coburn, and others. She gives nocturnal photography its due, and gives fresh readings of works by Jacob Riis, Steichen, and Alfred Stieglitz, posing the perceived threat of immigrants and crowds against the troubling qualities represented by shadowy, solitary figures that take their morally dubious way through dimly lit streets.

Returning to the notion of obscurity, the last chapter points out how extensively silhouettes inhabit representations of the nighttime city, from Steichen’s famous cabman in The Flatiron (1904), to the numerous single women that navigate the sidewalks in Childe Hassam’s wet or snowy scenes, to the isolated figures of the poor, among them presumed prostitutes that trudge into what Stephen Crane memorably called in Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) “the blackness of the final block.” Making the city aesthetically acceptable without totally black-washing its tensions and inequalities, the urban nocturne hovered between the agitated strokes and social activism of Sloan and Everett Shinn, and the reassuring, picturesque quiescence of Harrison and the fashion-conscious illustrators at Harper’s Weekly.

Far-reaching as it was, the nocturne’s popularity was short-lived. By the time that a self-consciously vibrant United States flexed its muscles in the War to End All Wars, the comforting blur of harmonious colors that were the nocturne’s trademark no longer had much cachet in the marketplace of artistic and political ideas. Bright lights, big cities, and brash commercialism insured that the electrified night would triumph over the nocturne’s dated premises. The signs of the times were now neon, and what after-hours visual culture had to say about aesthetics, race, and cities, not to mention gender, was recoded into the language of an ever-more aggressive light. The final pages of Nuits américaines offer a close analysis of Edward Hopper’s Night Windows (1928) as symptomatic of how artistic treatments of the night evolved as the nocturne faded. Seen from a passing El train, the lit-up windows of an apartment reveal a woman preparing for bed; they seem to flash by like frames on a strip of film. Gesturing toward cinema and film noir, Valance concludes that “the nocturne draws its evocative power from its capacity to act, in the final analysis, as a formidable space of projection” (322). This is the most thorough book to date on how those painted projections resonated in American culture in the decades just before and after 1900.

William Sharpe
Professor, Department of English, Barnard College, Columbia University

A translation of Nuits américaines: L’art du nocturne aux États-Unis, 1890–1917 is forthcoming from Yale University Press in fall 2018.