Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 8, 2021
Hollis Clayson Illuminated Paris: Essays on Art and Lighting in the Belle Époque Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019. 320 pp.; 75 color ills.; 32 b/w ills. Cloth $55.00 (9780226593869)

In 1893 Jules Luquiens (somewhat prematurely) lamented the failure of electric light. “It dazzles,” he wrote, “but does not clarify” (9). It is to this poetics of light that at once illuminates and blinds that Hollis Clayson’s Illuminated Paris attends, though fortunately, it does not suffer the same malady. Surveying artistic responses to the proliferation of lighting technologies in public spaces throughout Paris in the late nineteenth century, Clayson triangulates material and urban history with rigorous close looking. Rather than fixating on particular light sources and their corresponding technologies, she focuses instead on the phenomenological effects of nocturnal illumination and their translation in paint or ink.

Proceeding by chronologically arranged case studies, Clayson sets herself a considerable task from the start: intervening in “art history’s century-and-a-half-long romance with natural light” (11). With the express goal of denaturalizing the plein air narratives that have long dominated the study of nineteenth-century French art, she extricates éclairage (lighting) from lumière (light), allowing us to see each more clearly.

The reign of daylight, however, is not the only inherited narrative with which Clayson contends. Her first chapter, examining Charles Marville’s photographs of lampposts from the 1860s and 1870s, counters the reductive understanding of the réverbères (streetlamps) as straightforward emblems of modernity in the era of Haussmannization. Instead, she tracks the multiple temporalities invoked by Marville’s streetlamps by specifically identifying the era in which they were built, including some reaching back to the 1830s. Further refining this argument, Clayson brings Marville’s photographs into constellation with paintings by Gustave Caillebotte and Vincent van Gogh in which streetlamps feature prominently, laying out how the réverbères “show us modernization but not modernity” (22). Whereas Marville’s photographs pictorialize the latest changes to the Parisian cityscape, the iconic streetlamp in Caillebotte’s Paris Street; Rainy Day (1877, Art Institute of Chicago) would have been recognized as a relic of a bygone era, a “lone survivor” within a rapidly developing neighborhood (32). Marville’s images, however, were impeded by contemporary photographic technologies; because the photographs could only be taken during the daylight, the streetlamps were always captured “off-duty” (22).

Chapter 2 turns properly to nocturnal light, focusing on John Singer Sargent’s 1879 paintings of the Jardin de Luxembourg (Minneapolis Institute of Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art). Clayson sets the scene of the Luxembourg garden as “a product of contentious urbanism and state-of-the-art public works interventions” (41), including the installation of Jablochkoff candles (electric arc lights named for their Russian inventor, Pavel Yablochkov, popularized in the 1870s and 1880s) near the eastern entrance to the garden. Sargent, who was living nearby at the time, would have registered the shift in the visual atmosphere of the garden; his paintings take on the challenge of representing many different light sources (Clayson counts five total) in a single space, ultimately producing an image of the Jardin as “a locus of subtly disenchanted twilit repose” (41). The severe white light of the Jablochkoff lights, Clayson argues, stripped the moonlight of its Romantic enchantment, giving way to a sense of dissonance and unease. Looking at the figures that populate these canvases, Clayson reads Sargent’s paintings against a classed discourse of decency and ignominy, uncovering the threat of invasion by “shadowy inhabitants”—heavily silhouetted figures whose class markers are obscured by the night—promised by the new lights (53). Overstated though this may seem, Clayson provides a wealth of written and pictorial evidence, such as period caricatures that conflated the Jablochkoff lamps with the moon, the harshness of the former threatening to overtake the sweetness of the latter.

Caricature, it transpires, was one of the most responsive forms of social commentary when it came to the lighting revolution. Chapter 3, “Bright Lights, Brilliant Wit,” looks to the coincidence of the “era of nonstop innovation in electric light” (57) with the revival of the journal La Caricature in 1880. Caricatures dramatizing the blinding effects of newly installed arc lights are equally playful and instructive. An 1883 series by Cham, for instance, absurdly pairs the distinctive globe lights installed in the Place de l’Opéra with figures shielding their eyes, relying on guide dogs to navigate the streets. Of great interest to those invested in exhibition history is an excursus on lighting experiments at the Paris Salons of 1879 and 1880, which were ultimately abandoned but no less rich for the diverse critical responses they prompted. Setting the stage for a later discussion, this chapter also introduces how electric light became a flashpoint in the cultural exchange between France and the United States. Caricatures of Thomas Edison—whose scientific celebrity reached an apex with the 1881 International Exposition of Electricity, held in Paris—represented him as a mad inventor, at once recognizing his genius while still maintaining a sense of superiority over Americans.

One of Illuminated Paris’s great strengths is how it moves fluidly between media. Waving off retrograde hierarchies, Clayson grants nearly equal space to prints and popular illustrations as she does to painting, the benefits of which are readily apparent in chapter 4. Turning her attention to prints made by Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt for the (ultimately failed) prints journal Le Jour et la nuit (Day and Night) around 1879–80, Clayson argues that concomitant developments in urban lighting and printmaking techniques were not unrelated. The syntax of light and dark in the artists’ work, she contends—already native to the practice of monochrome printmaking and reiterated in the journal’s title—was directly informed by the widespread discourse of éclairage. Picking up on a thread interwoven throughout her other chapters concerning the erotics of electricity, Clayson examines the ways in which artificial light intersected gender discourse at the end of the century. In Degas’s prints, the glaring globe lights of the café-concert share a visual kinship with the heads of female performers, suggesting an equivalence between the brashness of artificial light and the vulgarity of the performers. Cassatt, on the other hand, rejected this equivalence, often constructing a clash between her women subjects and public lighting. The chapter concludes with a masterful close reading of Cassatt’s Under the Lamp (1882), a print (and related drawing) that brings artificial illumination inward to the domestic space. The titular lamp at once splits and sutures the space, dazzling but not illuminating. The women within, however, appear perfectly unbothered, content in their companionable solitude. I am here reminded of Clayson’s contributions to feminist methodologies in nineteenth-century art history; rather than falling into the interpretive trap of alienation and fragile subjectivity, Clayson rightfully identifies the self-assurance of Cassatt’s women, despite their seeming tension with the uncanny effects of the light.

Reaping the fruits of seeds sown in earlier discussions, chapter 5 focuses on American artists working in Paris and how their experiences of electric light in the United States inflected their representation of Parisian nocturnal light. A refreshing take on an otherwise familiar narrative of the Parisian pilgrimage of American artists, Clayson’s discussion of these “outsider nocturnes” is grounded in a sociological study of being a stranger in a strange land, wherein the night acts as a safe hiding place. In contrast with the unsavory or even threatening reputation of nocturnal light among native French artists, the illuminated nocturnes of American painters such as Charles Courtney Curran and Childe Hassam are devoid of such anxiety. Curran’s Paris at Night (1889, Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago), for instance, suggests the tranquil coexistence of natural star- and moonlight with their artificial counterparts. Hassam’s Paris Nocturne (1889–90, formerly Manoogian Collection) is equally imbued with an atmosphere of geniality and salubrious sociability among women. Clayson convincingly drives home this point by contrasting Hassam’s Paris scenes with similar compositions carried out in New York and Boston, rife with the “American-style brashness and vulgar infrastructure” (150) that are absent from their Parisian equivalents. Chapter 6 takes on yet another “outsider nocturne”: a series of works from Edvard Munch’s time living in Saint-Cloud, just downriver from Paris, in 1890. Munch’s treatments of nocturnal light transgress the boundaries of interior and exterior, indoor and outdoor, all negotiated via the window of his own home. Governed by the sense of yearning occasioned by the window—the longing to go out into the world, the desire to let it in—Munch’s nocturnes tap into the erotic associations of nocturnal light while preserving the sense of the impenetrable darkness of the night. For Clayson, Munch resolves a central tension that runs throughout the works treated in her book: how to maintain the enchantment of the night in the age of modern lighting.

Illuminated Paris productively brings art historical methodologies to bear on the question of nocturnal lighting in Paris, laying important ground for future research into what Clayson deems “illumination discourse.” One avenue of investigation that warrants close attention is how this dialectic of light and dark maps onto racialized colonial violence throughout the nineteenth century. Clayson notes that the Parisian sobriquet of the “City of Lights” originated in the eighteenth-century “Enlightenment,” but she does not consider the mutual codefinition of such terms with the so-called Dark Continent of Africa and its conquest by the French. That the book may have benefited from the application of a postcolonial lens speaks to the expansiveness of the subject; indeed, Clayson’s conclusion provides a refreshing and generous reflection on the unpredictable nature of research. Discussing the gap between her initial hypotheses about the nature of artificial light in turn-of-the-century Paris and her final product, Clayson reminds us that good research is self-directing, and that rigorous looking rarely results in a grand, unified theory. What emerges instead is a rich tapestry of coeval artistic responses, each, in its own way, illuminating.

Nicole Georgopulos
National Gallery of Art