As we approach Labor Day, the psychological end of summer, I’ve been noticing how much shorter the days are already. Maybe that’s why I fell under the spell of “Electric Paris” on view at the Bruce Museum.
Only the French would design an electric light pole that looks like this.
Charles Marville went around the city photographing the extraordinary lamp posts.
Even so, perhaps no surprise to you, I could give a pass on most of the French artists and their take on their city. But I was mesmerized with this Curran painting, with its Americanist approach and style. Look at how the gas lamplight dances on the street and the oil lamps on the carriages glow. I can hear this painting. Can’t you?
1889 was a big year in Paris, as it hosted the Universal Exposition celebrating the centennial of the French Revolution. Artists like Curran were quick to capture the buzz of the spectacles–readymade scenes that pull us in and put us right there.
Careful! You might get jostled by the crowd!
See that vertical streak of color in the background on the right? That’s the effect of the water fountains lit each night at 9 p.m. during the fair. The water jets were illuminated by electric arc lamps with colorful glass plates to create the cotton candy effects you see.
You might just be able to make out the Eiffel Tower, at this moment of its unveiling to the world, in the far right background. It served as the entrance to the fair and was the tallest human-made structure at 1000′ at the moment Curran captures. It was lit by two electric search lights at the top, with thousands of gas lamps. By the 1900 World’s Fair, the Eiffel Tower was fully electrified by 5000 incandescent lights.
Here’s Alfred Maurer’s look at the monument.
Now you can make out the beams at the top. Maybe we can take a break and lean up against the rail, too. You can see why the Eiffel Tower has become the symbol of Paris as the City of Light.
And you can get a sense of how fascinated American artists were with painting the night scene, as it was changing with technology.
Don’t you have a sense of the night energy? Light slashes on the wet pavement. People are mere impressions as they move about their night. Everything pulses with the vigor of the city. Butler takes us way up over the scene, several stories up. We look down on all the hustle and bustle, transfixed by light and color, now anathema to the dark night.
Night life moves inside with Everett Shinn. In many of his paintings, he puts us right up front in the theater.
We’re seated in the box, just behind this woman with her deeply-decolletaged, sage green, pillowy dress. Don’t you love how the faces of the other audience members get lit up? This is truly a shared experience.
But sometimes, the night is just quiet. And who better to give us such a scene than the painter of quiet, Henry Ossawa Tanner? An African American painter, Tanner left the U.S. to live in Europe where his classically-inspired religious works were better received with less overt racism.
For Tanner, light was religious. Sparks of spirit. Perhaps you feel that, too.
With nights like this, we might not mind the shorter days so much. Happy Labor Day!