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Illuminated Paris

Essays on Art and Lighting in the Belle Époque

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.

320 pages | 75 color plates, 32 halftones | 8 1/2 x 10 | © 2019

Art: Art--General Studies, European Art

History: European History, History of Technology


“Like Clayson’s groundbreaking Painted Love: Prostitution in French art of the Impressionist era (1991), Illuminated Paris peels away the layers of conventionally accepted opinion, offering a finely argued corrective to the romantic, brightly illuminated image of nocturnal Paris during the belle époque.”

Times Literary Supplement

"Coining the term illumination discourse, Clayson contextualizes art and visual culture produced in late 19th-century Paris in relation to the forms of illumination such as gaslight and electric light used in the French capital during this period. . . . [an] erudite work."

Library Journal

"Clayson is one of the best-known scholars working on the French nineteenth century; a new book from her is bound to be an event. The University of Chicago Press, Clayson’s longtime publishers, have made Illuminated Paris: Essays on Art and Lighting in the Belle Époque an especially beautiful book."

Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide

"In studying works that reveal the coexistence of different kinds of lighting, the author constructs a fascinating analysis, which, in addition to its contributions to art history, helps us to better understand the daily use of light in the city, which was so impacted by these transformations."

Archiscopie (Translated from French)

"Illuminated Paris is a beautiful book whose fine colour plates make even paintings of the darkest scenes legible, and its intellectual heft is punctuated by a lightness of spirit that makes it a pleasure to read"

Journal for the Association of Art History

"Far from taking the easy route of aligning nineteenth-century lighting with the romantic view of the City of Light, Clayson examines selected examples of visual culture to trace the complex engagement of visual arts with artificial illumination. In this work, she lays bare the shifting and sometimes controversial representations of the Illuminated Paris in the later nineteenth century. This book is therefore relevant beyond art history and should interest readers eager to enrich their knowledge of the industrialization of light and attitudes towards the adoption of a new lighting technique . . . . Moreover, the discussion of urban artificial lighting that the author proposes here is a serious challenge to the popular history of modern art, where scholars emphasize the romance of artists with plein air and the nuances of daylight. . . . this persuasive and beautifully written examination of the entanglement of artificial lighting and visual culture is a complete success in counterbalancing art history’s obsession with daytime plein air, and instead, denaturalizing its light."

Benjamin Bothereau | Technology and Culture

"In these dark times, when obscurity and gaslighting have cast their gloomy shadows on public discourse, [Clayson's] book is a delightful example of research-based historical analysis."

Marnin Young, Yeshiva University | H-France Forum

"This beautifully illustrated book showcases art history’s disciplinary investment in artful printing and methodologically foregrounds the artifacts studied, letting readers analyze Clayson’s sources with her: drawings, paintings, photographs, and prints. The study deftly balances its art historical pedigree with interdisciplinary dialogue."

Peter Soppelsa, University of Oklahoma | H-France Forum

"Whether it is showing us a gaslight gleaming on a Paris street, a newfangled electric light glaring in the Folies-Bergère, or an oil lamp shining in a Cassatt sitting room, Illuminated Paris takes us from the technical history of artificial lighting in Paris to the moral topography of its representations."

Nancy Locke, The Pennsylvania State University | H-France Forum

“In this ground-breaking book, Clayson persuasively reads a series of paintings and prints at the intersection of new lighting technologies, urban life and modernist sensibilities.  Along the way she explores a wide range of reactions to the electrification of Paris and to the qualities of illumination provided by various fixtures.  Beautifully written, the book makes a compelling case for regarding the nocturne as one of the premier subjects for late nineteenth century artistic innovation.”

Martha Ward, University of Chicago

“A wide-ranging, original, and elegant demonstration of the proposition that in the City of Light experience was not found but made—made, in this case, across a complex intertwining of agents, technologies, and infrastructural developments that fundamentally shaped the art and visual culture of the metropolis. Indeed, we must credit Clayson with an intellectual feat that for the history of art seems at once unexpected but utterly necessary—namely, to have precisely de-naturalized light, with powerful consequences for our understanding of late-nineteenth century art not only in Paris but across the globe.”

Marc Gotlieb, Williams College

“A novel kind of glow emanated from late 19th-century depictions. New gas and electric lighting not only brightened cityscapes and interiors alike, but, after centuries of muddy, tenebrist drama, now clearly illuminated the entire realm of representation. What the enlightenment had promised largely metaphorically--a world without shadows and darkness--new technologies of lighting had, by the year 1900, actually realized. In her newest book, Illuminated Paris, Hollis Clayson draws our attention to the manifold consequences of an industrially illuminated world, putting pressure on modern representation. Stunningly argued, beautifully written, and sumptuously illustrated, Illuminated Paris introduces us to the full array of lovers and haters of bright light in the period, and the art they created: from avant-garde paintings by the likes of Caillebotte and Munch, photographs by Marville, caricatures by Cham and Robida, intaglio prints by Cassatt and Degas, to American paintings of nocturnal Paris. After reading this study, you will never not call Paris the ‘City of Light,’ and you will finally fully understand the trope.”

André Dombrowski, University of Pennsylvania

"Clayson connects the social, political, technological, and economic history of the city with the history of art and visual culture in masterful ways. She shows how the advent of industrialized light shaped new practices in the art world in Europe and North America, and she clearly demonstrates how nocturnal culture became definitive of metropolitan modernity... This book is rare in that it not only makes an important contribution to the fields of urban and art history, but also to the fields of the history of science and technology."

Journal of Modern History

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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