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La France dans le regard des États-Unis

 | 
Frédéric Monneyron
, 
Martine Xiberras

Beaux-arts et cinéma

4- Outsiders: American Painters and Cosmopolitanism in the City of Light, 1871-1914

Hollis Clayson

Résumé

En 1877, Henry James a constaté: « d’être – d’être devenu par la force des choses – un cosmopolite est nécessairement souvent de se sentir tout seul ». Le cosmopolitisme mélancolique de James informe cette étude comparative de deux catégories de représentation moderniste de la ville de Paris. Notre article a pour objet le contraste entre la capitale nocturne et utopique inventée par les peintres américains (les étrangers) et la ville lumière dystopique créée par les modernistes Parisiens (ostensiblement les indigènes). Ayant pour objet principal les œuvres des artistes venus des États-Unis et leurs représentations obsessives de la lumière nocturne, cet article creusera également la disjonction entre l’entrain des nocturnes « étrangers » et le malaise connu par beaucoup d’artistes américains dans le contexte souvent xénophobe du « café de l’Europe ». Nous espérons révéler ainsi le côté sombre du cosmopolitisme bohémien américain à Paris de la Belle Epoque, et la manière dont ces peintures américaines fonctionnent comme des rêves rassurants de Paris.

Texte intégral

  • 1 Letter to Grace Norton, quoted in M. Bradbury, « Second Countries: The Expatriate Tradition in Amer (...)

1In 1877, Henry James observed: « to be – to have become by force of circumstances – a cosmopolitan is by necessity to feel a good deal alone. »1 James’s melancholy cosmopolitanism informs this discussion of the technologized French capital as idyll invented by American artist-visitors to Paris. I will also reference the gulf between the utopic nocturnal French capital coined by U. S. painters (the outsiders) and the dystopic ville lumière fashioned by Parisian modernists (the ostensible insiders). What is at stake here is the demarcation of competing conceptualizations of Parisian modernity in 1 the last quarter of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century within the framework of a new component of the French capital’s modernity: a specific technological change – the transition from gas to electric street light.

  • 2 The latest discussion of this phenomenon is K. Adler et al., Americans in Paris, 1860-1900, London: (...)
  • 3 H. James, « John S. Sargent », Picture and Text (1887), New York: Harper and Brothers, 1893, quoted (...)

2My interest centers on night paintings made by U. S. artists in the French capital during the decades following the American Civil War and the 1867 Exposition Universelle in Paris, the first era of mass transatlantic travel and the decisive acceleration of the dependence of American art upon Paris2. Whether artists from the United States came to Belle Époque Paris as students, cultural tourists, or to expatriate, they headed for the French capital for two primary reasons: 1) to gain a superlative art skill set and knowledge base in the world headquarters of contemporary art and prestigious art instruction, and the home of the Musée du Louvre; and 2) to acquire cultural distinction in the most chic and international city on earth: American socio-cultural formation, unfinished and rough by definition, could only be completed by hewing to the Parisian model of sophistication and cosmopolitanism. Indeed, to quote James again (1887): « It sounds like a paradox, but it is a very simple truth, that when today we look for "American art" we find it in Paris. When we find it out of Paris, we at least find a great deal of Paris in it »3.

  • 4 U. W. Hiesinger, Childe Hassam: American Impressionist, Munich and New York: Prestel, 1994, p. 179.
  • 5 A. Boime, « The Chocolate Venus, "Tainted" Pork, the Wine Blight, and the Tariff: Franco-American S (...)
  • 6 M. Doezema, « Americans and Paris: Training, Credentials, and the "divine fair sex" », in Michael M (...)

3The story I have to tell about these painters and their nocturnes is a far cry however from an art historicization of an upbeat Vincent Minelli-–Gene Kelly film (viz. An American in Paris, 1951). It is set instead in conditions of conflict and resentment (a Bohemian stance was sometimes assumed as a kind of protective armor or a mode of inoculation against nationality-based affronts). An articulation of tell-tale umbrage surfaces, for example, from an April 8, 1889 letter written by the American painter, Childe Hassam, near the end of his three-year stay in Paris, to his friend, William Howe Downes, the art critic for the Boston Evening Transcript. Hassam was reporting on the acceptance of his pictures for display in the American Section of the Exposition Universelle art exhibition that spring, but because fed up with vexing Parisian jury practices, he apostrophized: « If you could live over here a couple of years to see how things are run here in art matters it would make you sick. Americans ought to know this. It ought to be shown up. The "French disinterestedness" does not exist for any stranger »4. Indeed the heyday of American study of art in Paris coincided with mounting xenophobia in the political and economic registers, accelerating and taking on an explicitly anti-American cast after the crash of the Union Générale bank in 1882.5 According to Marianne Doezema: « Whatever their eventual successes, virtually every American artist who traveled to France in search of professional credentials at some time or another found the doors of the Paris art world closed firmly against them »6. Technophobia also arose in the sphere of modernization as the electrification of Paris post-1880 was read as a problematic instance of Americanization.

ART 1. C. Hassam Along the Seine Winter (All Rights Reserved)

ART 1. C. Hassam Along the Seine Winter (All Rights Reserved)

ART 2. C. Hassam A Paris Nocturne ca 1889 (All Rights Reserved)

ART 2. C. Hassam A Paris Nocturne ca 1889 (All Rights Reserved)

ART 3. C. C. Curran Paris at Night (All Rights Reserved)

ART 3. C. C. Curran Paris at Night (All Rights Reserved)

ART 4. T. E. Butler Place de Rome at Night (All Rights Reserved)

ART 4. T. E. Butler Place de Rome at Night (All Rights Reserved)
  • 7 See H. Clayson, Painted Love: Prostitution in French Art of the Impressionist Era, New Haven: Yale (...)
  • 8 W. Sharpe, « The Nocturne in fin-de-siècle Paris » in B. T. Cooper and M. Donaldson-Evans (eds.), M (...)
  • 9 If I were also tracking photography and/or pompier painting my argument would have to change. The p (...)

4Because I come to the American pictures as a student of French paintings of modem city life of the third quarter of the nineteenth century7, I am struck by the clash between the alluring and congenial nocturnal city coined by U. S. artists and the dystopic ville lumière created by Parisian modernists (in art works by Edgar Degas and Georges Seurat and the poetry of Charles Baudelaire, for example). The Outsider Nocturnes, the representations of the nighttime French capital fashioned by striving trespassers from the States in Paris, plainly work against the grain of apposite prior French nocturne conventions (devised by Impressionist and "Post-Impressionist" predecessors), or rather took root in alterative ideological assumptions and purposes. William Sharpe, a scholar of the nocturne in art and literature, agrees about the dissonance of the Parisian examples: « the French do not seem to give special emphasis to the idea that the city itself is lovely at night »8. Indeed, the local modernist specialists in urban imagery did not use the artificially lit nocturnal Paris street, sidewalk or place as a locus or topos of serene and pleasurable modernity9. My approach to the American pictures insists that the U. S. pictures, unlike many French ruminations on the discordant and edgy qualities of modem Paris (set for the most part indoors), were instead self-healing dreams of a comparatively soothing outdoor Paris; depictive imaginings that originated in the painters’ trenchant aesthetic goals but clearly inflected by their experience of the sometimes bruising particularities of transatlantic American social experience during the Belle Époque. The pictures are also distinctive moments in the history of the imagination of nighttime street life in Paris, which elucidate outsiders’ reactions to the city’s lighting technologies and its shifting purchase upon technological modernity – seen through a distinctively Electrified American consciousness.

  • 10 W. Schivelbusch, Disenchanted Night: The Industrialization of Light in the Nineteenth Century, Ange (...)

5One purpose of this paper is to argue that affable night-time pictures like the canvases by Hassam, Curran and Theodore Earl Butler – twinkling with gas street lights, Morris columns, and cab lights – fashioned credibly « true » images of Paris as a technologically modem and up-to-date city, but also as a welcoming, adopted temporary home. I read the American Parisian nocturne as an act of imagination whereby a mythic and split modernity is conferred upon the French metropolis by observers who longed to be participants. Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s great history of the industrialization of light in the nineteenth century labeled its outcome « Disenchanted Night. »10 I want to argue that American paintings of a beguiling nocturnal City of Artificial Light re-enchanted the Paris Night.

ART 5. M. Prendergast Early Evening (All Rights Reserved)

ART 5. M. Prendergast Early Evening (All Rights Reserved)

ART 6. M. Pendergast Lady on the Boulevard (All Rights Reserved)

ART 6. M. Pendergast Lady on the Boulevard (All Rights Reserved)

6Hassam and Prendergast (in ART 2, 5 and 6) accord the elegant respectable woman pedestrian a featured role, and disavowed thereby the indigenous iconography of the venal woman on the nighttime Paris street. Butler’s nighttime square contains numerous untethered patches of intense light, both on and above street level, while pedestrians are barely laid in. Also of note in these three canvases is their setting in interstitial space. As with all the other art works in question here, the figured spaces are outdoor public links between destinations; social activities are never set within interiors.

ART 7. J. S. Sargent Luxembourg Gardens (All Rights Reserved)

ART 7. J. S. Sargent Luxembourg Gardens (All Rights Reserved)

ART 8. John Singer Sargent The Luxembourg Gardens at Twilight (Minneapolis Institute of Arts)

ART 8. John Singer Sargent The Luxembourg Gardens at Twilight (Minneapolis Institute of Arts)
  • 11 P. Hills, « The Formation of a Style and Sensibility », John Singer Sargent, New York: Whitney Muse (...)

7The two very similar 1879 paintings of the twilit Luxembourg Gardens by John Singer Sargent fall about half way through the decade he spent in Paris. They were unusual for him, insofar as his lifelong pattern was painting « subject pictures » only while away from the city on trips.11 Unusual too is the fact that both the setting and thematic ingredients of the paintings mark rare instances of overlap between the expatriate’s interests as an artist and those of his American contemporaries who, unlike the entirely branché Sargent, were only temporarily scrutinizing the French capital city, and much less integrated into Parisian cultural, social and linguistic circles. The gardens, the largest area of green open space on the left bank, were quite close to Sargent’s Quartier Latin studio, 73 bis rue Notre Dame des Champs, an address just southwest of the park. The summer full moon and the dome of the Panthéon (visible in the Minneapolis version) designate the eastern orientation of both views.

  • 12 P. Hills, The Painter’s America: Rural and Urban Life 1810-1910, New York: Whitney Museum of Americ (...)

8Sargent divulges an idiosyncratically American fascination with evening light effects in both canvases. He put five twilight effects into play: 1. the dusky sky is gently brightened by the faded sun of twilight, 2. the orb of the rising full-moon reflects bright silver-yellow light, 3. the dazzle of yellow moonlight reflects on the boat basin, 4. « the detail of the [man’s] glowing cigarette interrupts the scene with the discreteness of a firefly on a July night »12, and 5. the street lights along the bustling Boulevard St. Michel are shown to twinkle in orange through the greenery.

  • 13 H. B. Weinberg et al., American Impressionism and Realism: The Painting of Modern Life, 1885-1915, (...)
  • 14 Galignani’e New Paris Guide, for 1874, Paris: The Galignani Library, ca. 1874, 287.
  • 15 See L. Merrill et al., After Whistler: the artist and his influence on American Painting, New Haven (...)
  • 16 Ann Arbor, Michigan, November 2004.

9The glimpsed gas lights on the boulevard are an especially interesting inclusion for they unmistakably index the artist’s acknowledgment of and interest in the material modernity and artificiality of the garden. And the broad foreground in each canvas emphasizes stone and concrete in the garden at the expense of its grass, flowers and trees13. Indeed the gardens had been extensively remodeled during the later 1860s. Quoting Galignani’s New Paris Guide (1874): « The garden has of late lost much of its former size: the eastern side has been encroached upon by the Boulevard Saint Michel and the rue de Medicis. »14 But Sargent nonetheless enchants the modernized garden. While noting the points of industrialized light on the adjoining slice of boulevard he selects nonetheless the quintessentially poetic moment of twilight (the specialty of his influential contemporary James McNeil Whistler, the inventor of the visual nocturne15) complete with full moon – a staple of Romanticism. The twinkle of gas lights combined with his attention to the social and environmental modernities of the park thus only partially inflect and disenchant an otherwise entrancing crepuscular moment. Sargent’s large scale sleepwalking perambulating figures may remind you of the prominent strollers, especially the prominent black-clad Parisienne, in Hassam’s 1889 Paris Nocturne. All the passersby are large-scale and up close but nonetheless strangely distant from the spectator; or rather pictorially prominent but disengaged. As a consequence, Howard Lay has encouraged me to think of the paintings as allegories of distance16: while they imagine sociability to be cordial, it is of an extremely generic even abstracted variety.

10They are not all the same, the American-in-Nighttime-Paris pictures collated here, but the family resemblance among them is strong enough to define them as a corpus of artifacts united by a noteworthy preoccupation with Night Light and a singular definition of Night Life. Recurring traits include a focus upon gas street lights, the avoidance of the institutions of commerce and organized leisure, an interstitial mise-en-scène, and a disinterest in or disavowal of the lurid and the tawdry. It is a shared voluntary alien’s dream of free and genial circulation that counts in these pictures, many alive with activity unlike Whistler’s nocturnal world, which is characteristically silent and still. But while Paris is often Eros for the visitor, it is not in these pictures, which instead figure the French capital as a City of Virtue, endowing the French City of Vice with the equivalent of a happy ending.

  • 17 To paraphrase P. Wollen, « The cosmopolitan ideal in the arts », George Robertson et al. (eds.), Tr (...)
  • 18 E. W. Said, « No Reconciliation Allowed », in André Aciman (ed.), Letters of Transit: Reflections o (...)

11American artists like Childe Hassam, Maurice Prendergast, and Charles Courtney Curran, who worked and studied for stints in Paris in the 1880s and 1890s and returned to careers in major U. S. cities thereafter, have been studied as travelers, art students, bohemians, cosmopolitans, tourists, and Impressionist epigones as well as markers of « American national identity » – as if a birth certificate mattered but never a curriculum vitae17. But they and other artists converging on Paris from elsewhere are not typically studied structurally as strangers, foreigners, outsiders, or voluntary exiles painting as a « construction of realities that served one or another purpose instrumentally »18. I am therefore interested in drawing on the small pictures painted by American artist visitors to the City of Light before World War I to mount a fresh theorization of the optique of the voluntary alien in the big modem city. The most powerful theories of the optic and experience of the stranger or foreigner in the metropolis may help us to understand the conception of such pictures.

  • 19 G. Simmel, « The Stranger » (1908), in Donald N. Levine (ed.), Georg Simmel on Individuality and So (...)
  • 20 T. Adorno, Minima Moralia: reflections from damaged life, E. F. N. Jephcott (trans.), London: Verso (...)

12The signature of Georg Simmel’s stranger, for example, is a distinctive objectivity. « Because he is not bound by roots to the particular constituents and partisan dispositions of the group, he confronts all of these with a distinctly "objective" attitude, an attitude that does not signify mere detachment and nonparticipation, but is a distinct structure composed of remoteness and nearness, indifference and involvement »19. Simmel’s proposition holds out the promise of a gimlet-eyed perspective on the borrowed home. Theodor Adorno’s assessment of the lot of the émigré (written in exile in 1944) was altogether less sanguine. « Every intellectual in emigration, is without exception, mutilated, and does well to acknowledge it to himself, if he wishes to avoid being cruelly appraised of it behind the closed doors of his self-existence. He lives in an environment that must remain incomprehensible to him... he is always astray... His language has been expropriated, and the historical dimension that nourished his knowledge sapped. »20 I am interested in the idea of the inevitability of incomprehensibility, a notion that may help to account for the technological anachronisms in the U. S. canvases.

  • 21 E. Said, « Reflections on Exile », Granta 13 (Autumn 1984), 166.
  • 22 Ibid., 167.
  • 23 Ibid., 171-72.

13Edward Said’s figure of concern is the exile. « Once banished, the exile lives an anomalous and miserable life, with the stigma of being an outsider.... [but the exile carries with him compared to the refugee] a touch of solitude and spirituality »21. « Much of the exile’s life is taken up with compensating for disorienting loss by creating a new world to rule... The exile’s new world, logically enough, is unnatural and its unreality resembles fiction... No matter how well they may do, exiles are always eccentrics who feel their difference (even as they frequently exploit it) as a kind of orphanhood »22. The unreality of the new world that resembles fiction bears on the matter at hand. There is a resonance between Simmel’s and Said’s perspectives when the latter writes (cautiously) regarding positive things about the conditions of exile. « Seeing "the entire world as a foreign land" makes possible originality of vision »23. The internal quote is from Hugo of St. Victor, a 12th century monk from Saxony, but it could just as well have been Henry James speaking, as in the glum 1877 observation that opens this essay.

  • 24 Thanks to Serge Guilbaut for this.

14The link between Simmel, Adorno, Said and James is the concept of critical (sometimes melancholic, other times invigorating) disconnection from the (sometimes freely chosen) new home that disallows place-specific complacency. This positionality makes it possible to see the new circumstance clearly in light of the discarded homeland, because the uprooting produces the denaturalization of « home ». In the cases under study here, the stay in Paris (about which much was known and believed in advance producing the need and desire to go) fostered representation as dream work – therapeutic dream work. In order that the obligatory trip to Paris be worthwhile; in order that the object of desire, Paris, live up to expectations, it had to have encouraging environmental qualities as a city that differentiated it from their brashly developing hometowns (New York, Boston and Philadelphia). Social attributes were also sought or devised that compensated for the affronts experienced to varying degrees by every member of the U. S. passport-carrying and American English-speaking community. Furthermore, following the logic of the French proverb, « la nuit tous les chats sont gris »24, darkness provided a place to hide; to erase difference.

15The combination of street light, urban space, and affable or cipher like people in the paintings of the voluntary exiles endowed the French capital (indispensable focus or motif for painters like these) with: 1) Technological modernity, or rather urban modernity indexed more or less exclusively by street light, thus acknowledging the city’s heritage vis-à-vis the invention and deployment of state of the art artificial lighting technologies. That the pictures anachronistically foreground tradition even romance in the city’s look and it was instead New York City that had moved to the forefront of industrialized lighting by circa 1882 are elements of the paintings’ ascription of a Janus-faced modernity to the City of Light. 2) A fuzzy, open-ended yet pleasant kind of sociability conjured up by the figures in these art works, moving through open space between destinations. The pictures thus bracket a figuration of intersubjectivity to evoke instead the kinesthetic pleasure of circulation through public space – its thoroughfares and parks – in the evening or at night.

16These nighttime images of Paris spaces make plain the artists’ understanding that painting the French capital was obligatory for innovative painters of modern life in town to hone their skills and acquire a new worldliness, and they instance a communal wish to master Paris and assert their comfort and sense of belonging and membership in the social worlds of la ville lumière. Yes, many must have been motivated by Whistler’s nocturnes, but surely they were also inspired to do nighttime Paris outdoor scenes to be au courant; to show they knew that streetlight, industrialized outdoor light, was the index par excellence of French metropolitan modernity, the Belle Époque marker of the progressively more spectacular City of Light.

17The critical remaining question is a technical one: what was the status of street light in modernity? This is of course a pressing matter when it concerns the metropolis known as the City of Light. The French capital has actually been known as la ville lumière since the eighteenth century. It acquired the epithet through its prominence in the Enlightenment, but the sobriquet as metaphor attained a descriptive valence only in the nineteenth century, especially during the glory days of gaslight, the 1840s and 1850s.

  • 25 J. Schlör, Nights in the Big City: Paris Berlin London, 1840-1930, Pierre Gottfried Imhof and Dafyd (...)
  • 26 C. Prendergast, Paris and the Nineteenth Century, Oxford: Blackwell, 1992, 31ff.

18Thus the association of the capital city with real light only arose towards the middle of the nineteenth century with the building of its signature brightly lit boulevards and illuminated glass-fronted shops and cafés. As Joachim Schlör explains, only with the provision of gaslight does the nocturnal city emerge as a discursive and sociological category25. Day continued into night thanks both to street light (the gift of the state) and commercial light (the boon of industry). The artificial light that bathed the more prosperous quarters of the city helped to foster the city’s reputation as the café de l’Europe and the eventual capital of the nineteenth century. Light came to be seen as one of the most precious commodities and hallmarks of the city26. The brilliantly glowing city conveyed a double promise: of excitement and the reassurance of security, allowing night to acquire its modern identity as a time of additional work, public entertainment, and education, but the association between artificial illumination and leisure constituted the strongest bond in the nineteenth-century imagination especially in Paris.

  • 27 A. Blühm and L. Lippincott, Light! The Industrial Age 1750-1900: Art and Science, Technology and So (...)

19However the link between Paris and Light has a contradiction at its core. While the nineteenth century saw the consolidation of its light-based nickname, light production in the 1800s changed more quickly than any other area of the capitalist economy. While Paris was an active center in the history of artificial lighting, of all the major cities in Europe and the United States, it was one of the slowest to adopt gas street lighting. « Gas street lights were not introduced in Paris on a major scale until 1829, and did not become generally available until the 1840s »27. London was far ahead.

  • 28 R. Fox, « Edison et la presse française à l’exposition internationale d’électrcité de 1881 » in F. (...)

20Paris was however one of the first cities to experiment with electric arc lighting. The Place de la Concorde, for example, was lit with blinding, enormous scale arc lights as early as 1844. But the Exposition Internationale de l’Électricité held in 1881 at the Palais de l’Industrie established the commercial dominance of the American Thomas Edison’s incandescent electric light already announced in the U. S. in 1879. The success of the Edison paradigm was not however, a purely technological matter. Robert Fox has demonstrated that the « triumph » of Edison owed to a systematic manipulation of public opinion. The famous victory was thus strictly speaking neither that of Edison nor of his lamp, but of an entire promotional system28.

  • 29 A. Blühm and L. Lippincott, Light! The Industrial Age 1750-1900: Art and Science, Technology and So (...)
  • 30 A. Blühm and L. Lippincott, Light! The Industrial Age 1750-1900: Art and Science, Technology and So (...)
  • 31 J. Portes, Fascination and Misgivings: The United States in French Opinion, 1870-1914, E. Forster ( (...)
  • 32 D. A. Nye, Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology, 1880-1940, Cambridge MA: MIT (...)

21New York City was the first in the world, in the early 1880s, to install a central electric power generating plant for municipal lighting. « In the field of lamps and lighting, Americans were considered the world’s leading innovators »29. Mastery of electricity was read at the time as a sign of American dominance in engineering, economics, and ingenuity tout court30. According to the historian Jacques Portes, who studied French travelers to the States between 1870 and 1914, « The omnipresence of electricity as early as the 1880s [in American cities] made all the European cities look dark to the returning European traveller »31. And the electricity historian, David E. Nye, informs us that the fairgrounds of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago had eleven times more light than had been used in Paris at the 1889 Eiffel Tower-centered Exposition Universelle32.

  • 33 R. L. Stevenson, « A Plea for Gas Lamps » (1881), Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers, New York: (...)

22It was those blinding experimental arc lights in Paris that inspired one of the great screeds against Parisian electricity of the later nineteenth century, « A Plea for Gas Lamps », by Robert Louis Stevenson. In 1881, he inveighed against the replacement of gas light by electricity33 :

« The word electricity now sounds the note of danger. In Paris, at the mouth of the Passage des Princes, in the place before the Opera portico, and in the Rue Drouot at the Figaro office, a new sort of urban star now shines out nightly, horrible, unearthly, obnoxious to the human eye; a lamp for a nightmare! Such a light as this should shine only on murders and public crime, or along the corridors of lunatic asylums, a horror to heighten horror.... That ugly blinding glare may not improperly advertise the home of slanderous Figaro... but where soft joys prevail, where people are convoked to pleasure and the philosopher looks on smiling and silent, where love and laughter and deifying wine abound, there, at least, let the old mild lustre shine upon the ways of man ».

  • 34 E. de Amicis, « The First Day in Paris, 28 June 1878 », Studies of Paris, W. W. Cady (trans.), New (...)

23In his description of Paris in 1878, Edmondo de Amicis, an Italian travel writer, responded theatrically to the arc lights that had replaced gaslights on primary boulevards34:

« Let us return to the heart of the city. Here it seems as if day were beginning again. It is not an illumination, but a fire. The Boulevards are blazing. Half closing the eyes it seems if one saw on the right and left two rows of flaming furnaces... all this broken light, refracted, variegated, and mobile, falling in showers, gathered in torrents, and scattered in stars and diamonds, produces the first time an impression of which no idea can possibly be given... There is not a shadow on the sidewalks, where one could find a pin. Every face is illuminated. »

24Looked at again beside this capsule history of the industrialization and spectacularization of light in the French capital, the twinkling U. S. Paris nocturnes acquire a patina of undeniable anachronism – celebrations and records of the light-saturated French capital to be sure, but cleaving almost uniformly to gas light and avoiding the glaring presence of newer electric light technologies. Clearly the American nocturnistes ignored the vulgar, brash, high-visibility experiments in electric outdoor lighting in Paris, and lavished their attention over and over again upon gaslights. They did so, I would argue with two things in mind from which they sought to distance themselves: 1) Their countryman, Thomas Edison, rock star of science, whose perfected incandescent bulb had won the day, and 2) The rapid recent emplacement of commercial and municipal electric systems in American cities, their home towns. The latter move shored up the difference between Paris and U. S. cities.

  • 35 B. Highmore, « Cultural history’s crumpled handkerchief », Art History 25, 5 (November 2002), 702.
  • 36 Thanks to Onur Ulas Ince for a helpful discussion of these issues.

25By way of a conclusion, let’s return to my opening proposition: that in these paintings we discover a conceptualization of metropolitan modernity that is distinctive from that given form by contemporaneous Parisian paintings of the nocturnal city. According to Karl Marx and Walter Benjamin, thinking the future and recalling the past were interdependent in an era of hectic modernization. The cultural historian Ben Highmore’s encapsulation is helpful « Karl Marx and Walter Benjamin, in their very different ways, understood that the modernizing impulse in nineteenth-century France carried with it a cargo of archaic and atavistic tendencies. Modernization, for them, was haunted by the ruins of a time it sought to surpass »35. The works of the Parisian Painters of Modern Life were haunted by unpredictability and attempted to figure the edginess of a modernity defined by that very quality. For them, the brash city interior at night was a preferred indeed paradigmatic site for such explorations (e. g., works by Edouard Manet as well as Degas and Seurat). The Americans, by contrast, sought in Paris a way out of or an alternative to their boredom and disenchantment with the cities of the United States. Paris was imagined by them as the answer to that signature ennui, and 35 their romanticized depictions of the outdoor city at night must be understood to bracket unpredictability (along with other proverbial Paris nighttime baggage: crime, prostitution, vagrancy and the like) as part of their effort to assuage their pre-Paris dissatisfactions. The painters from the United States thus neglect or disavow the negative social valences of the erratically modernizing city, especially its brashest technological innovations, in favor of more stable and congenial forms of intrigue – thereby endowing Paris with the capacity to please, excite and sooth simultaneously36. The American artists’ invention in paint of a Janus-faced modernity for the city of Paris instances a viewpoint drenched in longing, which is recognizable as that of the bruised but enthusiastic foreign artist; of the storm-tossed but upbeat voluntary exile in the City of Light.

Notes

1 Letter to Grace Norton, quoted in M. Bradbury, « Second Countries: The Expatriate Tradition in American Writing », The Yearbook of English Studies 8 (1978), 31.

2 The latest discussion of this phenomenon is K. Adler et al., Americans in Paris, 1860-1900, London: National Gallery Company Limited, 2006.

3 H. James, « John S. Sargent », Picture and Text (1887), New York: Harper and Brothers, 1893, quoted in M. Simpson, The Rockefeller Collection of American Art, The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1994, p. 219.

4 U. W. Hiesinger, Childe Hassam: American Impressionist, Munich and New York: Prestel, 1994, p. 179.

5 A. Boime, « The Chocolate Venus, "Tainted" Pork, the Wine Blight, and the Tariff: Franco-American Stew at the Fair », A. Balugrund (ed.), Paris 1889: American Artists at the Universal Exposition, London: Harry N. Abrams, 1989, p. 76.

6 M. Doezema, « Americans and Paris: Training, Credentials, and the "divine fair sex" », in Michael Marlais, Americans and Paris, Waterville ME: Colby College Museum of Art, 1990, p. 47.

7 See H. Clayson, Painted Love: Prostitution in French Art of the Impressionist Era, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991 and Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2003; and Paris in Despair: Art and Everyday Life under Siege (1870-71), Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

8 W. Sharpe, « The Nocturne in fin-de-siècle Paris » in B. T. Cooper and M. Donaldson-Evans (eds.), Modernity and Revolution in Late Nineteenth-Century France, Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1992, p. 123.

9 If I were also tracking photography and/or pompier painting my argument would have to change. The paradigmatic vanguard Parisian painting of a decently and complexly thronged boulevard – whether by Caillebotte, Monet, Renoir, Degas, Manet or Pissarro – is emphatically a daytime picture in which conditions are variously sunny, cloudy, rainy or snowy, but the sun is uniformly above the horizon. When streetlights are present, they are always unlit. The proverbial exception that proves the rule is one canvas by Camille Pissarro, who belatedly turned to boulevard painting between 1895 and 1903, the last eight years of his life. He painted over three hundred canvases of urban subjects in Paris, Rouen, Le Havre and Dieppe, but his strenuous city view campaign netted only one nighttime boulevard picture, The Boulevard Montmartre: Night, 1897, National Gallery, London, an unfinished picture set in the rain. See R. R. Brettell and J. Pissarro, The Impressionist and the City: Pissarro’s Series Paintings, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.

10 W. Schivelbusch, Disenchanted Night: The Industrialization of Light in the Nineteenth Century, Angela Davies (trans.), Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

11 P. Hills, « The Formation of a Style and Sensibility », John Singer Sargent, New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1986, 31.

12 P. Hills, The Painter’s America: Rural and Urban Life 1810-1910, New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1974, 97.

13 H. B. Weinberg et al., American Impressionism and Realism: The Painting of Modern Life, 1885-1915, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1994, 138.

14 Galignani’e New Paris Guide, for 1874, Paris: The Galignani Library, ca. 1874, 287.

15 See L. Merrill et al., After Whistler: the artist and his influence on American Painting, New Haven: Yale University Press in association with the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, 2003.

16 Ann Arbor, Michigan, November 2004.

17 To paraphrase P. Wollen, « The cosmopolitan ideal in the arts », George Robertson et al. (eds.), Travellers’ Tales: Narratives of Home and Displacement, London: Routledge, 1994, 189.

18 E. W. Said, « No Reconciliation Allowed », in André Aciman (ed.), Letters of Transit: Reflections on Exile, Identity, Language, and Loss, New York: The New Press, 1999, 106.

19 G. Simmel, « The Stranger » (1908), in Donald N. Levine (ed.), Georg Simmel on Individuality and Social Forms, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1971, 145.

20 T. Adorno, Minima Moralia: reflections from damaged life, E. F. N. Jephcott (trans.), London: Verso, 1974, 33.

21 E. Said, « Reflections on Exile », Granta 13 (Autumn 1984), 166.

22 Ibid., 167.

23 Ibid., 171-72.

24 Thanks to Serge Guilbaut for this.

25 J. Schlör, Nights in the Big City: Paris Berlin London, 1840-1930, Pierre Gottfried Imhof and Dafydd Rees Roberts (trans.), London: Reaktion Books, 1998, 47ff.

26 C. Prendergast, Paris and the Nineteenth Century, Oxford: Blackwell, 1992, 31ff.

27 A. Blühm and L. Lippincott, Light! The Industrial Age 1750-1900: Art and Science, Technology and Society, New York: Thames and Hudson, 2001, 182.

28 R. Fox, « Edison et la presse française à l’exposition internationale d’électrcité de 1881 » in F. Cardot ed., 1880-1980. Un siècle d’Électricité dans Le Monde. Paris: PUF, 1986. pp. 223-235.

29 A. Blühm and L. Lippincott, Light! The Industrial Age 1750-1900: Art and Science, Technology and Society, 204.

30 A. Blühm and L. Lippincott, Light! The Industrial Age 1750-1900: Art and Science, Technology and Society, 186.

31 J. Portes, Fascination and Misgivings: The United States in French Opinion, 1870-1914, E. Forster (trans.), Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000, 138.

32 D. A. Nye, Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology, 1880-1940, Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1990, 38.

33 R. L. Stevenson, « A Plea for Gas Lamps » (1881), Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1891, 277-278. Walter Benjamin would later view the electric and neon lighting of the 1930s as a nightmare representation of the controlling power of bourgeois, fascist society.

34 E. de Amicis, « The First Day in Paris, 28 June 1878 », Studies of Paris, W. W. Cady (trans.), New York and London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1887, 29-30. Thanks to Charles Harrison for alerting me to this source. Blühm and Lippincott (Light! The Industrial Age 1750-1900: Art and Science, Technology and Society, 182) explain that in 1878 « it was still too difficult and expensive to illuminate the grounds of the Exposition Universelle at night. It was the last of the great world’s fairs to close its doors at sundown »

35 B. Highmore, « Cultural history’s crumpled handkerchief », Art History 25, 5 (November 2002), 702.

36 Thanks to Onur Ulas Ince for a helpful discussion of these issues.

Table des illustrations

Titre ART 1. C. Hassam Along the Seine Winter (All Rights Reserved)
URL http://books.openedition.org/pupvd/docannexe/image/23529/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 19k
Titre ART 2. C. Hassam A Paris Nocturne ca 1889 (All Rights Reserved)
URL http://books.openedition.org/pupvd/docannexe/image/23529/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 15k
Titre ART 3. C. C. Curran Paris at Night (All Rights Reserved)
URL http://books.openedition.org/pupvd/docannexe/image/23529/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 22k
Titre ART 4. T. E. Butler Place de Rome at Night (All Rights Reserved)
URL http://books.openedition.org/pupvd/docannexe/image/23529/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 18k
Titre ART 5. M. Prendergast Early Evening (All Rights Reserved)
URL http://books.openedition.org/pupvd/docannexe/image/23529/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 21k
Titre ART 6. M. Pendergast Lady on the Boulevard (All Rights Reserved)
URL http://books.openedition.org/pupvd/docannexe/image/23529/img-6.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 16k
Titre ART 7. J. S. Sargent Luxembourg Gardens (All Rights Reserved)
URL http://books.openedition.org/pupvd/docannexe/image/23529/img-7.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 17k
Titre ART 8. John Singer Sargent The Luxembourg Gardens at Twilight (Minneapolis Institute of Arts)
URL http://books.openedition.org/pupvd/docannexe/image/23529/img-8.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 20k

Auteur

(Professor of Art History and Martin J. and Patricia Koldyke Outstanding Teaching Professor, Northwestern University) est historienne de l’art, spécialisée dans le XIXe siècle français. Elle a publié en 1991 Painted Love : Prostitution in French Art of the Impressionist Era (repris par les Getty Trust Publications en 2003) ; en 2000, avec Alexander Sturgis, Understanding Paintings : Themes in Art Explored and Explained, (traductions espagnole, portugaise, russe, hongroise, allemande et française, 2002-2003) ; et en 2002 Paris in Despair : Art and Everyday Life Under Siege (1870-71) (repris en édition de poche en 2005). Elle est présidente du comité éditorial de The Art Bulletin. Ses recherches actuelles portent sur les artistes américains à Paris de 1865 à 1914.

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