Illuminated Paris: Essays on Art and Lighting in the Belle Époque

Illuminated Paris: Essays on Art and Lighting in the Belle Époque

by Hollis Clayson

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The City of Light. For many, these four words instantly conjure late nineteenth-century Paris and the garish colors of Toulouse-Lautrec’s iconic posters. More recently, the Eiffel Tower’s nightly show of sparkling electric lights has come to exemplify our fantasies of Parisian nightlife. Though we reflect longingly on such scenes, in Illuminated Paris, Hollis Clayson shows that there’s more to these clichés than meets the eye. In this richly illustrated book, she traces the dramatic evolution of lighting in Paris and how artists responded to the shifting visual and cultural scenes that resulted from these technologies. While older gas lighting produced a haze of orange, new electric lighting was hardly an improvement: the glare of experimental arc lights—themselves dangerous—left figures looking pale and ghoulish. As Clayson shows, artists’ representations of these new colors and shapes reveal turn-of-the-century concerns about modernization as electric lighting came to represent the harsh glare of rapidly accelerating social change. At the same time, in part thanks to American artists visiting the city, these works of art also produced our enduring romantic view of Parisian glamour and its Belle Époque.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226594057
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/31/2019
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
File size: 75 MB
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About the Author

Hollis Clayson is professor of art history and the Bergen Evans Professor in the Humanities at Northwestern University.

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Cherchez la lampe

Charles Marville, Gustave Caillebotte, and the Gas Lamppost

With the arrival of gaslight, the Parisian night is profoundly transformed. ... The new illumination is able to create, for the first time on an urban scale, an all-embracing visual and sensory spectacle which permanently affects city dwellers' perception of their daily ritual.

Martin Bressani, 2015

Charles Marville's Streetlamps

The series of lamppost photos taken by Charles Marville (1813–1879), a celebrated photographer of the city, was the most tightly defined in his entire œuvre. He took about ninety different photographs of the range of gas lamps installed in the city of Paris, focusing upon those erected during the Second Empire. It appears he inaugurated the work when he assumed the title, Photographe de la ville de Paris, in 1862. His photographs were thus taken between about 1861 and the early 1870s for the most part, though some were made all the way into the later 1870s. This means that while most of the streetlamp photos were taken during the intense phase of public works enhancements of the second half of the twenty-year-long Second Empire, Marville's photographic account of the city's street furniture, le mobilier urbain (hereafter MU), did not end with the fall of the empire.

According to the Service des Promenades et Plantations, which was charged with installing the new street furniture (including the streetlamps), the MU was defined as "the ensemble of objects or devices or apparatuses, public or private, installed in public space and tied to a function or a service offered to the collectivity." The architect Gabriel Davioud, the chief architect for the service and indeed the chief architect of the city of Paris during the Second Empire and again in the 1880s, was a key figure in this realm. According to Marie de Thézy, he was the "véritable père du MU" (the true father of street furniture). Jean-Charles Adolphe Alphand, engineer and chief of the Service des Promenades et Plantations from 1854, and from 1867, director of Voierie et Plantations (roads and plantings), played a major role in the specific realm of éclairage. While Marville's photos of newer gas lampposts — the réverbères and candélabres of the Second Empire (the former single, the latter multiple) — dominate his streetlamp corpus, his photographs record older streetlamp forms and technologies as well, including torchères that appear in his Le Vieux Paris series of the 1860s (an album of 425vues.)

Marville's photographs give the streetlights a human scale (figs. 1.1, 1.2, 1.3). The combination of the artist's angle of address (motif and photographer, eye to eye) and the framing tactic that he used in shooting the individual lampposts gave them an arresting presence. He often framed the individual machines dexterously: each lamp is positioned symmetrically against a rectangle of pale backdrop (in both figs. 1.1 and 1.2), and is just about bordered and embraced by identical columns in figure 1.3. Lamp photographs like these deserve to be regarded as portraits, in the full sense of the word. The lamps are enough like us to engage our curiosity and sympathy, yet sufficiently distinct to fascinate as singular individuals that could activate our capacity for empathy. Not only are they unexpectedly sensate and alert, for iron-and-glass appliances, but also their isolation from their "peers" in Marville's series serves to individualize each lamp, making each post appear well poised for an interaction with, and equivalent in presence to, any passerby. Each light machine has a head, after all.

The visual language of many of Marville's lamp photos is noteworthy for its consistency. The photographic style used for the gas lamp pictures was honed by the aesthetic of his earlier photos of very different motifs, including, for example, the Treasury of Reims Cathedral (1854), a tree in the Bois de Boulogne (1862–72) (fig. 1.4), the Fontaine des Innocents (1858), and the spire of Notre Dame Cathedral (1859–60) (fig. 1.5). As in the lamp photos, the consistent organizational traits are the isolation and balance of vertical protagonist(s), resulting in frontality, centrality, symmetry, and balance.

Marville's approach to object photography matched Baron Haussmann's lamp aesthetic, marking one of the great convergences in nineteenth-century Parisian visual culture. According to François Loyer, "The Second Empire ... made the streetlamp a major theme." And thus the set of lamp photographs instantiates a correspondence between a great photographer and one of the celebrity objects of the era. Haussmann had strong views about the look, size, and placement of the new streetlights. He didn't like socles or pedestals. He wanted even to remove them from Jacques-Ignace Hittorff's famous earlier lamps, such as the colossal columnar fixtures in the place de la Concorde. The prefect preferred that the lamps be down on the ground. Just like a person.

Haussmann explained his preferences clearly in his memoirs of around 1890, emphasizing the quality of light obtained by maintaining a modest scale for the lamps:

A gaslamp that is placed too high up will project its light farther, but will not give adequate light to the immediate area around it. Obviously, that was not our goal. The higher a lamp, the greater the unlighted area at its base. By reducing the height of streetlamps and the distance between them, and decreasing the intensity of the flame in each lamp so as not to use more gas, we were able to light the city's streets better. Extremely bright lights are useless; they blind people more than they light their way.

Haussmann's technical reasons for preferring shorter lamps were inseparable from an evident preference for their chiaroscuro effects on the illuminated façades. François Loyer concurs: "At night this forest of cast-iron trees created a low layer of light. Lampposts were relatively short not only for technical reasons (turning the lamps on) but also for aesthetic ones. The light they gave off just reached the top of the ground floor; the stories above were no more than shadows." But since capturing a particular quality of illumination was not part of Marville's remit, he responded to their human size as well as their design and ornamental details. The down-on-the-street-ness and the nose-to-nose-with-the-passerby-ness of Marville's individual lamp portraits are their most striking features. For Haussmann, the réverbères needed roughly human stature to guarantee the effectiveness of the illumination produced by a group, line, or cluster of lamps thus sized, but Marville divided the forest into individual trees, and upheld the human scale and machinic singularity of each lamp scrupulously, even tenderly, by virtue of its solitude and painstaking composition. The time of day contributes to the humanity of the lamps.

The topic of the quality of the light shed by the gas lamps of the Second Empire drives home the great and irreconcilable paradox of Marville's streetlamp photos. The lamps are all recorded in daylight. They are not lit. They are off duty. Pursuing our characterization of the photographed lamps as sensate beings, their consistent daylight identity places them in a theatrical context complete with its defining temporalities. They resemble actors before they step on the stage, or after they have stepped off. They possess a kind of nonprofessional condition, placing them in performative limbo insofar as each has a day-off or time-out persona. They patiently (impassively) and alertly await the fall of night and their illumination. For all their indispensability to the appearance of Paris, they have no agency. The lamplighter (or later the network) acts; the lamps react. Or they might be seen as frozen in the aftermath of performance, as forlorn has-beens documented when the time of recital — the night — has been erased by the return of day. They are becalmed and functionless urban warriors in iron and glass, about the same size as, and sharing the pavement with, myriad mobile passing strollers. They are outright disenchanted by Marville's plainspoken daylight exposures. Unlit, they played no role in the signature enchantments of the gas era. Marville's photos of streetlamps — for the most part, réverbères installed in the central and better districts of the city — show us modernization but not modernity.

The temporality of Marville's streetlamp photos jars into view as strikingly and strangely premodern. Although they are the contraptions that realize the great optical fact of nineteenth-century urban modernity — the alternation between light and dark that defines the night urban experience — in Marville's photographs, they do not. The lamps are off; frozen in prelude or aftermath. The photographer could not have done otherwise; exposures could not be taken at night in the 1860s and 1870s.

Consideration of Marville's photographs of a setting containing older gas lighting fixtures, documented in the Ancien Paris project, nuances the conclusions reached above. Marville photographed the passage de l'Opéra, for example, clearly delineating its old-fashioned hanging and wall-mounted gaslights, in 1868 (figs. 1.6 and 1.7). That arcade has not survived, but it endured long enough to house many of the key meetings and conversations of the Surrealists in the 1920s. This and the other arcades that Marville photographed in daytime acquired the capacity to enchant, even bewitch at night when the gas jets were lit. As Wolfgang Schivelbusch observes, "People seem to have been fascinated by the interplay between the brilliance of the light and the wares on display, and the lively crowd." The appearance and function of the passages of Paris are at the heart of the most influential account of the modernity of the nineteenth-century French capital, that written by Walter Benjamin during the 1930s. Indeed, the arcade is one of only two key spatial topoi of the nineteenth century that he pinpointed; the other is the domestic interior.

The arcade is a building type that proliferated in early nineteenth-century Paris before and as a precursor to the grand magasin. Typically sheltered beneath an iron-and-glass roof, the arcade was a block-long pedestrian passage nestled between two masonry structures, and lined on either side with small shops, tearooms, amusements, and other commercial attractions. At one time, some two to three hundred arcades punctuated the Paris cityscape. About thirty remain, most of them clustered on the Right Bank in the first and second arrondissements. The arcade represented a pivotal moment in modern social and economic history. With it, capitalist society began its transition from a culture of production to one of consumption. Beneath the arcade's greenhouse roof, a technical apparatus of the industrial society furnished objects of consumer desire. In Charles Rice's words: "Through a commercial logic the arcades come into being as phantasmagorias, worlds-unto-themselves which organized the visual experience of commercial splendor for a passing parade of citizens who experienced themselves as part of this splendid object-world, partners in the social relations of consumption." The glittering, transparent arcades chock full of goods on sale encouraged Benjamin to conceive of the nineteenth century as a dream — a nightmare — from which we twenty-first-century moderns have yet to wake. We are still mesmerized by, and at the mercy of, capitalist commerce, and the gaslit arcade was its crucible.

Indeed, the places and institutions most associated with luxury were the first to benefit from gaslight: arcades, grands boulevards (the old eighteenth-century network given a new lease on life in the nineteenth century), shops, cafés, restaurants, and theaters offered the greatest concentration of night illumination, and nocturnal pedestrians of the era (the pioneering respectable noctambulists) recalled the impression of living in conditions of a perpetual fête, as if they had been transported to an illusory city.

Lighting (éclairage) was obviously the primary and most efficient way to attract attention to the spaces, and to the goods on sale. Considering that the arcade and its flickering gas jets were an integral totality, Marville's daytime images of a passage are unsettling. Only a concentrated effort at projection can endow them with the ability to allure. The arcades, like the réverbères in Marville's photographs, are stripped of their ability to captivate. The gas lamps in the passage, cut loose from the job of lighting, are unable to generate the sensate conditions of raptness. To put it anachronistically but also admiringly: Marville's representations disenchant, but also critically demystify ground zero of the city's phantasmagorias in the gaslight era.

* * *

If you want Baudelairean images of Paris ... it is not in Marville's photos that you should look, but rather in Manet.

Eric Hazan, 2010

The gulf between Charles Marville's arcade photographs and Walter Benjamin's phantasmagorias should not block the discovery of resonances between some of his daylight Paris photos and other leading contemporaneous ideologies of urban modernity, both verbal and visual. There are striking parallels, for example, between certain of Marville's pictures of Paris and the attributes and modernities of the city in Charles Baudelaire's Paris Spleen, in whose poems the metropolis is often characterized by the juxtaposition of squalor and privilege, a place where pleasure and misery were often disposed cheek by jowl.

Marville photographed the brand-new rue Soufflot in 1876–77 (fig. 1.8). (Its construction is discussed in chapter 2.) The photo records the quartier of the Panthéon in the fifth arrondissement just up from the Jardin du Luxembourg, which was changing fast; Marville's photograph defined it in terms of contrast and incommensurability. The new street's very pavement appears unstable. The broad triangular swath of rutted fresh roadway has an oddly indistinct surface, to the degree that its materials are not easily defined: dirt? macadam? gravel? cobblestone? brick? The road seems to hover between horizontal spatial strata. The causes of the new pavement's vagueness include (but are not exhausted by) the ghostly pentimenti of pedestrians and carriages (in motion when the shutter was opened) concentrated at the rear center, not far from the façade of the somewhat blurred yet imposing Panthéon. The prevailing structures in this capacious view of a sector undergoing extensive change are paradoxically the most diminutive elements of the built environment: the street furniture composed of two rows of spiky, up-to-date gas streetlamps spaced along the rims of the two facing, perspectivally splayed orthogonal sidewalks flanking the new street. (One in-focus, dark-clad pedestrian, though tiny, shares visual standing with the third lamp at right.)

This is the only case of a Marville photo examined so far that contains more than one lamp: six identical posts are fully legible here (maybe there are two more), but the largest lamp, in the right foreground, holds sway. The lampposts constitute a team, as they should: arrayed and coordinated as identical sentinels, as soldierly, sharply focused examples of up-to-date construction; alert (on duty), ready for illumination, unmindful of (oblivious to) the human blur close by.

Cherchez la lampe

Why does this streetlamp flaunt its unpleasant perpendicular right in the middle of the picture?

Paul Sébillot, 1877

The importance of the lamps in Marville's photograph of the rue Soufflot (fig. 1.8) echoes the role played by the prominent daytime gas lamp at the center of Gustave Caillebotte's 1877 Temps de pluie (fig. 1.9), a venerated demonstration (or performance) of social disaffection. Caillebotte's canvas reminds us that all the canonical vanguard images of the 1870s and earlier 1880s of the Paris boulevard or square (place) are daytime pictures. Rummage through your mental Impressionism archive — Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Degas, Caillebotte — and this is quickly verified. No Impressionist Paris nocturnes were made in these years. Camille Pissarro's The Boulevard Montmartre at Night (1897; National Gallery, London) is the belated exception that proves the rule. That Claude Monet never painted an outdoor night picture in Paris, but did indeed paint a handful of electric nocturnes set in London (fig. 1.10) at the turn of the twentieth century should set us wondering about the very particular connotations of the nocturnal City of Light that prevented the Impressionist gaze from falling upon it. The Impressionist painters did not choose the artificially illuminated street, boulevard, or square as a fitting setting for their records of the Parisian everyday. None of these nighttime outdoor locales was evidently reckoned appropriate for a modernist account of the fraught characteristics of the intersection of social and infrastructural modernity. A related point: while the Parisian modernist record of the city's ur-spaces of modernity has been well mapped by art history, the privileged time of day has not previously been much worried over. For Parisian Impressionists, the telltale practices of urban modernity were lived and made out of doors by day, and indoors by night. That the case was decidedly otherwise for nonindigenous Painters of Modern Life, energetic creators of outsider Paris nocturnes, is the subject of chapter 5.


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Table of Contents


Introduction: Paris, City of Éclairage

1          Cherchez la lampe: Charles Marville, Gustave Caillebotte, and the Gas Lamppost
2          Losing the Moon: John Singer Sargent in the Jardin du Luxembourg
3          Bright Lights, Brilliant Wit: Electric Light Caricatured
4          Night Lights on Paper: Illumination in the Prints of Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas
5          Outsider Nocturnes: Americans in Paris
6          Man at the Window: Edvard Munch in Saint-Cloud

Conclusion: Art Fueled by Lights


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