Posted on 3/11/2013 2:13 PM by Grace Jeffers

What material changes how we see every single other material around us? Light. You may not automatically consider light a material in the traditional sense, but it is critical to how we perceive our world. It has an impact on our daily work, lives and schedules like no other. Without the invention of gas light, electric light, then neon light, New York City would never have earned the moniker “the city that never sleeps.” 

Alexandre Lunois (French, 1863–1916), The Department Store (Le Bon Marché), 1902. Color lithograph on paper, sheet: 21 1/4 x 27 3/8 in. (54 x 69.5 cm). Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, 1990.14

It’s hard to imagine how different a city would be without light on the streets. The closest we can come to experiencing that now is the occasional power blackout. Once the sun went down, nightlife took place in rooms lit by candles or oil lamps; the streets, though sometimes dimly lit by lanterns, were dark, shadowy, and threatening. Before the introduction of the gas street lamp in London in 1812, travel by night was treacherous—most people waited until there was a full moon to go out after dark. Gas lamps, powered by gas made from distilled coal tar, were a vast improvement, and became ubiquitous in Europe by the mid 1800s. Gas lighting was used in factories, public buildings and outdoor spaces—huge urban gas works were built to supply gas to the masses.

Yablochkov's original electric candle, 1875, showing two types of filament and the candle in a globe.

Over the course of the nineteenth century, “artificial” lighting became more sophisticated. In 1875, Russian Pavel Yablochkov invented the first electric street light, which used a carbon arc lamp referred to as an “electric candle.” The first of these lamps to be installed were outside the Grands Magasins du Louvre department store in Paris, forever linking lighting with consumer culture. Arc lights spread through Paris like wildfire, and were part of the reason it is called “the city of lights.” Electric arc lights give off a distinctively bright but harsh light, and the carbon creating the arc burns quickly and tends to flicker. The next improvement in lighting came towards the end of the 19th century with the invention of the incandescent light bulb, and again Paris was among the first to utilize this new technology in its public spaces.

The Palace of Electricity, Paris International Exposition of 1900, illuminated by incandescent lights.

Illumination: the word means both “a source of light” and “intellectual enlightenment.”  Never has this fact been put forth as beautifully as in the current exhibition at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., “Electric Paris.” 

Théophile Alexandre Steinlen (French, born Switzerland, 1859–1923), The Shop Window, plate from Les Maîtres de l’affiche, 1898. Color lithograph on paper, sheet: 15 1/2 x 11 1/4 in. (39.4 x 28.6 cm). Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute Library, Williamstown, Massachusetts

Changing forms of lighting at the turn of the 20th century affected the way that artists saw the world around them. Showcasing paintings, drawings and photographs by artists from Henri Toulouse-Lautrec to Pierre Bonnard to Mary Cassatt to Degas, the exhibition focuses on their depictions of light in public and private spaces, their vibrant use of light and shadow. When we look at theatres, cafes and nightclubs through the eye of these masters, part of the spark and excitement comes from the way light is depicted—sharp, lurid, brilliant, crackling with energy.  With “Electric Paris,” the Clark is showing us how to look at these familiar images in a “new light.”

Pierre Bonnard (French, 1867–1947), The Square at Evening, from the series Some Aspects of Paris Life, 1897–98. Color lithograph on paper, sheet: 15 15/16 x 21 1/16 in. (40.5 x 53.5 cm). Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, 1962.13© 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Childe Hassam (American, 1859–1935), Bois de Boulogne,  1888. Oil on panel, 12 1/16 x 9 3/8 in. (30.64 x 23.82 cm). Mead Art Museum, Amherst College, Amherst, Massachusetts. Museum Purchase, AC 1953.10