How Electricity Transformed Paris and Its Artists, from Manet to Degas
“An artist has no home in Europe except in Paris,” asserts Friedrich Nietzsche in his 1888 autobiography Ecce Homo. For artists in the late 19th century, a stint in Paris was an important right of passage for the development of their philosophies and practices. As it approached the end of the century, Paris entered a period of rapid modernization and urbanization, a time characterized by a sense of prosperity and optimism among its population.
One of the major innovations during this era was the invention of the electric light bulb. For artists, the proliferation of both gas and electric lights throughout the city transformed their surroundings. With this change in scenery came a change in representations of the city—artists responded with stylistically avant-garde works that capture both the joie de vivre and the anxiety of modernization during the Belle Époque.
Vincent van Gogh, The Outskirts of Paris, 1886. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
This was an era of indulgence and innovation for an emerging middle class that had the resources and time to engage in fashionable leisure activities. Fin-de-siècle Paris was epitomized by the new, shimmering Eiffel Tower and the abundance of raucous, late-night cabarets like the Moulin Rouge. With innovation, though, comes the unknown, and artists at times painted their newly lit city with skepticism.
In the mid–17th century, Louis XIV, known as the Sun King, increased lighting throughout Paris in an attempt to reduce the crime rate. City- and community-wide efforts that placed lanterns on major streets and required citizens to light candles in their windows literally illuminated wrongdoing, making criminals visible to the police at night. This structured implementation made Paris one of the first European capitals to adopt street lighting, which contributed to its famous nickname—the City of Light.
Charles Marville, Chemin de fer de l’Est (Rampe de l’escalier) no. 70, 1878. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Fast-forward to the end of the 19th century, after Georges-Eugene Haussmann’s ambitious renovation project to update the infrastructure of the formerly medieval city and the invention of the gas lamp—by 1870, Paris boasted 20,766 streetlamps. The lamps themselves, placed between trees on groomed boulevards and perched next to park benches, quickly became Parisian icons; they likewise star in countless paintings and photographs of the city.
Charles Marville, appointed as the city’s official photographer in 1862, took a particular interest in the streetlamps, capturing what can only be described as portraits of lamp posts throughout Paris. In her 2019 book Illuminated Paris: Essays on Art and Lighting in the Belle Époque, Hollis Clayson notes the anthropomorphic qualities of Marville’s photographs: “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.”
The lamps have a commanding presence in this series, which Marville began in about 1861, and it seems to mark the new era of modern lighting. In the pictures, the lamp posts stand erect in front of buildings, street corners, and fences. Each one adopts a unique personality in its surroundings, with the different backgrounds informing the look and feel of the lamps as much as the flourishes at their bases or slight differentiations in their globes.
Towards the end of Marville’s photographic exploration of Paris’s lamp posts, Gustave Caillebotte painted Paris Street: Rainy Day (1877). One of the key elements in the work, which depicts a bustling Parisian intersection during a mid-day shower, is a street lamp. Centrally focused, the tall, green structure anchors the composition. In a review of the work for Le Bien Public, one critic asked: “Why does this streetlamp flaunt its unpleasant perpendicular right in the middle of the picture?” In the middle of the day, when the scene of the painting takes place, the lamp doesn’t serve a practical purpose. By this point, gas lamps had been woven into the fabric of the city; for Caillebotte, it was merely another architectural element of the modern Parisian streets. Yet there is a certain dissonance between the natural light of day and the useless invention that splits the canvas in two.
John Singer Sargent, In the Luxembourg Gardens, 1879. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Clayson further explores this dissonance in an analysis of John Singer Sargent’s 1879 painting In the Luxembourg Gardens. She identifies five depictions of light in the painting: the twilight sky; the Moon; glowing orange gas lamps; the bright, frenetic reflections of the experimental electric lights, called Jablochkoff candles, in the water of the boat basin; and the faint sparks of cigarettes that glitter throughout the serene park scene.
When electricity began to be installed throughout Paris in the late 1870s, the harsh, white light was a shocking departure from the muted glow that gas lamps offered. “The electric light is as cruel as the sun,” remarked a Chicago journalist visiting Paris in 1878. In Sargent’s picture, the reflections in the pool from the electric lights are almost indiscernible from the natural glow of the Moon. Nature and modernity meet in this boat basin in a poetic representation of the dawn of a new, electric era.
In 1881, the Exposition Internationale de l’Électricité (“International Exhibition of Electricity”) was held in the Palais de l’Industrie, and Paris was briefly known as the Electric Capital of the World. While the city’s slowness to actually replace the tens of thousands of gas lamps lighting the city kept this name from sticking (the last gas lamps remained until 1962), the excitement surrounding the fair was palpable.
The ubiquity of gas lighting throughout the city and the buzz around the future of electricity contributed to a new kind of social life for Parisians. “Nocturnalization,” a term coined in 2011 by American historian Craig Koslofsky, refers to “the expansion of social and economic activity into the night and the subsequent spread of illumination.” Cabarets proliferated during the 1880s and offered patrons more than just drinks and peanuts. Nightly performances debuting women in ruffled bloomers performing new dance moves made clubs like the Moulin Rouge and the Folie Bergère popular venues for night-time entertainment. Édouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Pablo Picasso are just a few artists who would look to the dazzling cabarets for inspiration.
Childe Hassam, A Paris Nocturne, 1889–90. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Edgar Degas, Au Café-concert: La Chanson du chien, ca. 1875–77. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Toulouse-Lautrec’s At the Moulin Rouge (1892–95) features the Who’s Who of the Moulin Rouge, which opened in 1889. Jane Avril—the celebrated cancan dancer and star of many of Toulouse-Lautrec’s works—sits facing away from the viewer, her red hair shining; a popular performer named La Goulue (“The Glutton”), known for chugging patrons’ drinks, checks her hair in a mirror; the artist himself, standing a foot shorter than his cousin next to him, sulks in the background. The canvas is dominated, though, by the cropped face of another dancer, May Milton.
“I paint things as they are. I don’t comment,” Toulouse-Lautrec once said. In the harsh glow of the artificial lights, Milton’s face is a deep, jarring shade of green. Electric lighting changed the color, depth, the texture of the scene, just as it changed the color, depth, and texture of Paris.