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Night Light

New York NocturneWell into the twenty-first century, it is hard to imagine New York City as a dark place. Electric lights against the night sky have come to define New York as the ultimate modern city, with its locus as the Great White Way, Broadway, with thousands of lights shimmering in its skyscrapers and on the neon billboards crowding Times Square.

Artificial lighting changed city life—even the notion of nightlife is a fairly recent invention—and it changed various art forms, argues William Sharpe, professor of English at Barnard and author of New York Nocturne: The City After Dark in Literature, Painting, and Photography, 1850-1950.

Prof. Sharpe spent a few moments with Barnard Magazine to discuss how lighting changed the artistic world.

What defines the nocturne?

The word “nocturne” has evolved. (James McNeill) Whistler was the first to use nocturne to refer to painting and he took it from music, namely (Frédéric) Chopin. Nocturne gives you the feeling of relaxing at night. Whistler wanted to create a painting that was as emotionally sensitive, and as nuanced as music.

As soon as the urban landscape became more brightly lit with electrical lights, artists became more interested in the relationship of light with nighttime activity. You get members of the Ashcan school of painting like John Sloan and Everett Shinn who are interested less in the idea of “nocturne” as a dreamy phase of mental activity and more in the vibrant side of night life.

How were photography and literature changed?

Photography was the most directly impacted by the need to capture artificial light. Film speeds weren’t fast enough and cameras weren’t ready to deal with nighttime situations until the late 1890s. Many people were tricked by the nocturnal pictures from the 1850s and ’60s, because they were faked moonlight shots, done with a filter.

The impact on literature has more to do with psychology and subject matter. The writers were very interested in the kinds of things people do at night, and their accompanying emotional states.

Some of those things are fairly risqué.

That’s right. On the one hand, light reveals dark deeds, but on the other hand, light can lead people to dark deeds.

Trying to deal with nighttime led writers, artists, and photographers to depict things they would not have dared to do before. It released them from some of the taboos on depicting risqué behaviors. So after [electrical] lighting, you have a greater emphasis in art on prostitution, homelessness, poverty, and certain types of violence. Our interest in the sensational and the lurid was fed by images of the city at night.

-Ilana Polyak