The allure and challenges of rendering the night in paintings, prints, and photographs are spotlighted in an innovative survey of the American nocturne.
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“Night Vision: Nocturnes in American Art, 1860–1960,” an extensive exhibition at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick, Me. (June 27–October 18), is the first major survey of American night scenes. Curated by Joachim Homann, the show begins with moonlight and gas lighting, documents the electrification of city life and the impact of migration and photography, and ends in the 1950s, with abstraction and the beginning of the Space Age. At every stage, social and technical changes created new forms of nocturnal perception, and as the exhibition shows, those perceptions made night scenes central to American modernism.
The bookends of the exhibition are works by Winslow Homer and Andrew Wyeth. Both depict a boat at night, and both explore the workings of light and water, but their moods are totally different. Homer’s Fountains at Night was a response to the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, where Homer had exhibited his seascapes. The “White City” was the first large-scale public space to be electrified at night. Homer was impressed not just by the Fair’s architectural grandeur and mock-Venetian waterways complete with gondolas but also by the lonely splendor of its waters at night. In this painting, gondoliers propel two passengers on a private tour of the Grand Basin, the giant central pool. As they pass the floodlit Columbian Fountain, with its statues of rearing, fish-tailed horses and a Classical rider, we see an early reflection of electric lighting upon water. The churning waters are incandescent white, the gondoliers strain at their oars. The night is becoming modern, the United States rising on waves of power.
Wyeth’s Night Hauling, an early tempera work from 1944, is haunted and anxious. A solitary fisherman has rowed out to sea and is drawing up lobster traps to steal other men’s catches. There are no stars and no moon; the sky is a black ground. The only illuminations are the flecked lights of the shore, a weak lantern in the boat, and the phosphorescent algae in the water. As the thief lifts a trap, he turns to check that he is unseen. A torrent of translucent water pours back into a glowing maelstrom of the sea. The light source is inverted—the algae in the water glisten like starlight. The night becomes a private, interior experience. There is something Promethean about this theft: is he after the lobsters, or a divine fire? Wyeth’s father was the popular illustrator N.C. Wyeth. In Night Hauling, the theft of food suggests the theft of knowledge.
Night thoughts can be dark thoughts. Art is a lonely profession, and the modern artist is often marginal to society. But as secrecy and solitude reverse the polarities of everyday life and social convention, they liberate individual expression. Several of the key pieces in “Night Vision” are by women artists—Georgia O’Keeffe, Marguerite Zorach, Lee Krasner, and Berenice Abbott. The African American painter Beauford Delaney turns the cityscape into a bare dreamscape in Untitled (1944); devoid of people, the forms of the buildings are the skeleton of civilization. In Delaney’s Jazz Club (1950), we see liberated energy, the temporary kinship of nightlife, and universality in shared human experience.
Not all the humans in the modern city know that they are sharing in the experience. The voyeurs of the Ashcan School make a virtue of their dislocation into the shadows. John Sloan’s “night vigils” describe the stolen intimacies of the dreaming voyeur. In The Cot (1907), a woman disrobes next to a messy bed, its sheets a creamy grey and white. Those same tones recur on the dresses of women entering a theater in The Haymarket, Sixth Avenue (1907). The artist is a stranger, passing unseen and experiencing his own strangeness. Lyonel Feininger returned to New York in 1937, having been away for 50 years. The city had changed, but a few surviving elements reminded him of his childhood. In City Moon (1945), Feininger rediscovers his origins as he discovers the new topography of the city.
Electricity changed the night and how it was perceived. But the first nocturnes predate electrification. The original School of Night was a group of atheistic scholars and scientists in Elizabethan London; they included Christopher Marlowe, Walter Raleigh, and Thomas Harriot. Artists, notably Caravaggio and Rembrandt, depicted night scenes, too, but the interior moods of the modern nocturne are a Romantic legacy, with roots in the brooding Gothic. Chopin created his first “nocturne” in 1827. Whistler, who emphasized the affinities between music and painting by calling pieces “arrangements” and “harmonies,” created his first nocturne in 1866.
The artist’s nocturne was born in the age of gas lighting, the smeary, blurred light sources of Whistler. But it grew in the age of electrification, when the night was carved by hard whites and yellows. Yet Whistler’s shadow falls on these later nocturnes, sometimes as an inspiration, sometimes as a challenge. In the early 20th century, Whistler’s aestheticism seemed antithetical to art that was socially or politically engaged: Raphael Soyer’s Bowery Nocturne (1933) drags the nocturne into Depression politics. On the other hand, in 1944, when Alfred H. Barr organized a joint retrospective of Feininger and his friend Marsden Hartley at MoMA, he praised Feininger as a “modern-day Whistler.” Feininger and Whistler had both lived abroad, and they shared an affinity for the nocturne.
That 1944 show, staged in the year of Wyeth’s Night Hauling, also evoked another founder of American modernism, Albert Pinkham Ryder, the other titan of the 19th-century nocturne. For Marsden Hartley, Ryder had made possible a uniquely American nocturne. “Night Vision” traces this lineage forward into the 1950s and abstraction. Louise Nevelson’s boxlike Untitled is all black shadows. But Nevelson also collected the figurative work of Louis Michel Eilshemius, whose work is in the Colby show and who was a peer of Ryder and Ralph Albert Blakelock. The nocturnal theme runs across styles and schools, and 19th-century sensibilities are woven into 20th-century expressions.
The unnatural, abstracted light of electrification also spurred artists to turn away, in search of the softer tones and indeterminate states of the authentic night. In Scare in a Pack Train (1908) and Moonlight, Wolf (circa 1909), Frederic Remington looks outside the city and toward the frontiers of society and vision. In the Orientalist narrative Nicodemus Visiting Jesus (1899), Henry Ossawa Tanner seeks the Biblical night of the Holy City. In 1897, four years after Winslow Homer explores an electrified night at Chicago, John Leslie Breck paints Santa Maria della Salute by Moonlight. Balsassare Longhena’s masterpiece floats in the Venetian blue like a ghost ship, timeless and lonely.
In 1843, when gas lamps were lit in the Piazza San Marco, Ruskin complained that Venice now resembled industrial Birmingham; he did not witness the electrification of Venice’s street lighting. Today, those gas lamps seem themselves to be “historical,” essential to the atmosphere of Whistler’s Venetian nocturnes or Henry James’ novels. Famously, Ruskin disapproved of Whistler; ironically, his disapproval stimulated Whistler’s creation of the modern nocturne. In 1879, bankrupted by his Pyrrhic victory over Ruskin in the law courts (a libel suit provoked by a harsh review), Whistler accepted a commission to draw 12 etchings in Venice. Traditionally, a night scene uses a limited light source and experiments with its effects; the sublime catastrophe of Albert Bierstadt’s The Burning Ship (1869) is lit by what the Old Masters called “moonlight.” But Whistler embraced the nocturnal and explored the dark.
Whistler’s modern shift was a Romantic move: Romanticism prizes individual perceptions and dark interiority over shared illumination and the light of reason. In an essay in “Night Vision”’s excellent catalogue, Daniel Bosch addresses Eliot and Baudelaire and the relationship of Symbolist poetry to the nocturne. Yet the exhibition focuses more on the technical challenges of art than on intellectual inspirations and Prufrockian precedents. The night demands technical creativity. The Romantic experience of Nature includes visual experience, and this can only be translated onto canvas and paper through a unique vocabulary.
“We’re creating a dialogue between different interpretations of the night,” explains Joachim Homann, the show’s curator. In “Night Vision,” that dialogue between Romantic individuality and technical innovation is embodied in the work of Georgia O’Keeffe. Her Black Abstraction (1927) is a rendering of a near-death experience she had while under anesthetic on a hospital trolley. “She felt that the world was receding from her,” Homann says, “which is perhaps the ultimate Romantic experience.” A year later, in 1928, O’Keeffe painted New York Night. “She was living with Alfred Stieglitz in an apartment in the Shelton Hotel, and when she looked up Lexington Avenue, she could see all the city lights around her.” Together, these two works, painted at almost the same time, express the nocturnal dialogue between individual perception and technical experiment.
Photography captures light in a different way and in a different quantity. The camera’s vision created a new kind of nocturne. The most remarkable photographs in “Night Vision” are rarely exhibited as art. Seneca Ray Stoddard’s The Antlers, Open Camp, Raquette Lake (circa 1889) is one of the first campfire photographs, as well as one of the first photographs to be taken with a flashlight. A group of hunters sits by a fire in an Adirondacks wood. This is an ancient scene—the hunters and the dogs, the deer strung up by firelight. Spontaneous and crude, it contrasts superbly with the Pictorialist effects and electrified city in the images of Stieglitz and Edward Steichen.
Stieglitz applied Whistler’s aesthetic, the capture of night in the city, to photography. Like his friend Steichen, Stieglitz creates a beautiful confusion of painterly and photographic effects. Steichen worked in both photography and paint, and “Night Visions” juxtaposes his works in both media. In the oil painting Shrouded Figure in Moonlight (1905), Steichen explores the most traditional of nocturnal lights. In The Flatiron (1904), the ocean liner-like form of a quintessential urban figure is misted in fog. Instead of finding its reflection in a pond, like the trees in the photograph Moonlight: The Pond (1906), the Flatiron Building is reflected in a thin puddle of rainwater. A cabbie and his horses float across the surface of the water, kin to the waiting hackney carriages in Stieglitz’s rainy Reflections–Night (1897) and modern heirs to the Classical wrangler and symbolic equines of Homer’s Fountains at Night.
This dialogue between photography and painting continues in the encounter between O’Keeffe’s New York Night and Abbott’s Night View, a bird’s-eye photograph of Midtown Manhattan in the ’30s. Cleverly, Night Vision ends without closing the conversation; deliberately disrupting the artificial divisions of genre and generation, the show pursues its theme into the present. In 1943, Steichen selected Ansel Adams’ epic Moonrise: Hernandez, New Mexico for publication in U.S. Camera magazine. Adams’ photograph concludes the exhibition, but an adjoining gallery presents a recent film by Michel Auder.
“Auder positioned a video camera in an apartment building in New York and captured what was happening in the apartments around him,” Homann says. “It’s a really poetic, richly textured view of the urban night.” Auder exhibited his film, Untitled (I Was Looking Back to See if You Were Looking Back At Me to See Me Looking Back At You), at the Whitney Museum’s 2014 Biennial. In its voyeurism, Auder’s film echoes the work of John Sloan, Edward Hopper, and their contemporaries. It also recapitulates the themes of this intricate and articulate exhibition—modernity and the changing experience of darkness, the role of art as a medium of personal expression, and the technical challenges of expression. These are present themes, and with night vision becoming an increasingly rare commodity, they are also part of the future of the night.
“We hear about preserving the night sky over the National Parks, or about switching off electronic devices at night to create a rhythm to our lives,” Homann observes. “So we know that people are increasingly conscious of the value of the night. A time of darkness is a time of reflection. It needs to be protected, and to be cherished in its own right. This exhibition shows the roots of that conversation, and it joins it too. It’s a richer conversation than people might expect.”
By Dominic Green