In 1878 Paris created a new identify for itself as the ‘City of Lights’ by filling the streets with Yablochkov candles. This unmasking of the previous terrors of the night through artificial illumination was the electrical spark that changed the course of humankind and art forever. It was not quite as simple as that, there were many contributing factors that ran parallel but the effect of street lighting on human behaviour, art and design during the Belle Epoch was undeniable in its magnitude. I will cover other areas in future posts.
Le Havre was the first port to switch its lighthouses to electric in 1868 and also the first town in France to decide to roll out electric lighting throughout rather than gas. However Paris was the leader and the main manufacturer.
The early electric moon globes were carbon arc lights invented by Russian born Pavel Yablochkov two years earlier. Comprising of long carbon rods, appropriately sandwiched between plaster of Paris, they ignited and burnt themselves into oblivion every few hours. They were however still favoured over the older and less bright gas street lamps as their direct current caused them to burn with a fierceness that almost competed with the sun itself.
The arc of light was also noisy, humming loudly like a dangerous, giant wasp. It also sparked and could cause fires and what’s more, it glowed with harmful UV light too. This dangerous light might have contributed to the cataracts Monet developed in later life. Well that and the many hours of exposure to outdoor sunlight capturing the natural world on canvas. The electric lights brought a new night brightness that unleashed a palette of colours, which the cataracts later were believed to have reduced and muddied. For now, artificial light was king and it was here to stay.
Before this the night was a place of true darkness and people would ritually shut their doors and shutters to lock away the fears that might emerge from the shadows. In Paris if you had a street window you were required to keep a light burning each night. Just providing a feint glow into the gloomy pitch of the street brought the real threat of your home burning to cinders while you slept. With these new supernatural artificial moon globes some narrow shaded streets seemed more flooded now with light at night, than during the day.
Shops and department stores started to install these Yablochkov candles and created window displays, calling curious eyes to witness the many luxury goods available to buy in the stores the following morning. That moment when the real light of day reigned once again. All of these new nocturnal pleasures were naturally captured through the eyes of the Impressionists and their real human interacting art.
New impressions were emerging all around and the blackness of the night was being suppressed by man, acting as god with his new artificial lights. The impressionist movement began to argue that the colour black, should not be included in their art at all. This was a natural reaction against the rigid and closed world of the art schools that still taught the renaissance technique of Chiaroscuro. Drawing on coloured paper with only black and white pastels to create contrasts. The Academies had also turned away from painting outdoor scenes of the natural world, instead favouring studio bound art of classical and mythological subjects where every detail was controlled and contrived. Now even the night was transformed into a world of emerging images.
This splendid, vast painting, more than any, summed up the notion of how lighting transformed the world in its entirety. The French title, ‘Butterfly of the Night’ (Moth) is all about the flickering dance of the winged creature seeking to mate before death. The female figure emerging from the depths of the darkness, to have her presence finally witnessed for the first time in the nightscape, is bold. The chaotic orbs, floating freely on her left represent the cyclical nature of the moon. They are then brought into linear order on the right of the woman by man, seeking to control the hand of god. Her deep-red, bow-topped hat is the moth itself, drawn towards the artificial lights rather than the softness of the moon, speaks of the dangers within the illuminated illusions of the street lights.
This celebration of wealthy pleasure-seekers enjoying themselves, like moths to the tempting flames, depicts the joy and laughter of the intoxicating wonders that were opening Paris up to a new, post-daylight life of hedonism and commerce.
This however was only true for the wealthy and those not caught in the toxicity of drugs and alcohol, which were freely available as part of this new night scene. For the poor, dispossessed and invisible working-class people, this breaking open of the night brought little joy. In truth, it just made their working days longer and harder.
Few slums were permitted this 19th-century outdoor illumination and where the moon globes were installed they were mainly plain, unadorned lampposts. These only served to benefit the wealthy gentlemen, that they might better see the faces of the prostitutes they were seeking, to sate their arrogant desires. The slums maintained their shadowy nooks below while the street above is simply lit for the gentleman’s comfort. Those places where one was safe to walk and those not safe, were being marked out quite clearly.
While many paintings are filled with the pleasures of the wealthy it is worth remembering that most artists were themselves upper middle class. Studying art cost money, as did purchasing the materials or hiring life models. While many artists claimed to understand the lives, needs and worries of their models, they were nothing more than glamourised prostitutes. Few were ever lifted out of their position at the bottom of the societal ladder.
This picture best highlights the fears that were born in so many as the nighttime opened up. Here we can see how a few simple brushstrokes can depict such fear and terror in the woman’s face.
This dark and sinister charcoal really seared it’s fears and worries into my head as the underbelly so few artist were truly willing to highlight with true earnestness. The mocking title does little to admonish the behaviour of the man.
With so much energy and information coming from the art I decided to pull a few cards and see what messages were being revealed. What exactly was the art of this exhibition trying to convey to us today?
Yes, you’ve guessed it beautiful people, it’s that time again to settle into the energies of the images, and this week.. to a pick a street lamp! What’s your first impression? Now look deeper into the frequencies behind the image to find the one that sings to your soul.
THIS READING WILL FOLLOW SHORTLY. I’M GIVING YOU TIME TO READ THE STORY BEHIND THE READINGS.
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