At the turn of the 19th century, night had become no longer fearful, but fascinating. With the invention of the incandescent light bulb in the 1870s, dark streets and homes were suddenly illuminated by the collective humming of modern electricity. What we now take for granted was once an object of awe for an entire generation. This was especially true for artists of all mediums at the end of the 19th century, who, guided by the then radical example of James McNeill Whistler’s nocturnes, turned to these new dazzling lights for inspiration.
Currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the exhibition Night Vision: Photography after Dark explores the revolutionary effect electric lights had on the earliest photographers of the night. The light bulb and the first technology for photographing in low-light conditions came into the world only a decade apart. While lights first became available in the 70’s, nighttime photography first became possible in the 80’s. One of the earliest practitioners of this new photography was Edward Steichen, whose serene twilight and moonlight photos were greatly influenced by the atmospheric effects found in Whistler’s nocturnes. Like Whistler, Steichen was not capturing an object in his art, but rather a mood. Writing in 1901 of the woods at dusk, Steichen explains, “What beautiful hour of the day is that of the twilight when things disappear and seem to melt into each other, and this great feeling of peace overshadows all.” Steichen’s photograph Woods Twilight, 1899, which is included in the exhibition, perfectly embodies his sentiment in the remarkable way its soft contours blur the boundaries between tree and air, reality and impression.
There was something inherently ethereal about the night and the glowing orbs of the lights that artists were driven to capture. In Moonlight on the Hudson, 1884 (pictured above), Walter Launt Palmer captured that same feeling of evening peace felt by Steichen only 15 years later. Using pastel where Steichen used a camera, Palmer renders the woods draped in night with equal gentleness and serenity. In his journals from the time, Palmer writes of taking his canoe out on the Hudson River for solitary fishing trips, and this very canoe can be seen floating in the foreground of the piece. The brightness of the moonlight bursts through the clouds and splashes across the water, as if Palmer is capturing a descent from heaven, rather than a simple reflection. In the distance on the far bank play the brightly colored lights of a nearby town. They are welcoming and energetic, offering shelter from the night. All these elements combine to create so much more than an ode to night. It is an ode to the feeling of night, to the way it can wrap us in a lulling cloak.
Both Steichen’s photograph and Palmer’s painting can be viewed only a few blocks from each other at the Metropolitan Museum and Hawthorne Fine Art. We recommend taking a tour of the 19th century night to find that same “great feeling of peace” described by Steichen and to bask in the beauty of the evening.