Book Review: Night Vision: Nocturnes in American Art 1860-1960

Night Vision: Nocturnes in American Art 1860-1960

'The night

Hath been to me a more familiar face
Than that of man; and in her starry shade
Of dim and solitary loveliness
I learned the language of another world.' (Byron)


For centuries, artists, writers and musicians have found the night a compelling subject - a time of terror, reflection and transformation. It is a time when our imaginations become less constrained by the 'sharp edges of the visible' (p157). 

Night Vision: Noctures in American Art 1860 -1960, the exhibition catalogue for a show held at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in 2015, explores the varied and changing artistic expressions of the experience of seeing at night in American art. It is the first major survey of night scenes in American art.

Night Vision

Through some one hundred paintings, drawings, prints, and photographs by major American artists from Winslow Homer to Frederick Remington, Georgia O’Keefe, and Andrew Wyeth, the book chronicles individual artists’ responses to the heightened sensations and the expanded opportunities for imagination which night affords. As the Renaissance poet John Lyly wrote, 'Night hath a thousand eyes' and this book features scenes representations of the many faces of the nocturnal experience:  a time for amusement, a place for secrecy and cherished privacy, and as a mystical and inscrutable period.  We find reflections of moonlight on ocean waves, colourful and noisy jazz clubs and lean, hungry beats staring at us from a barren moonlit landscape and men hauling lobster pots onto a boat in the dark of the night.

Albert Pinkham Ryder, “Macbeth and the Witches” (after mid-1890s), oil on canvas. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C
Albert Pinkham Ryder, “Macbeth and the Witches” (after mid-1890s), oil on canvas. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C
Ralph Albert Blakelock, “Moonlight” (ca.1880s), oil on canvas. Sheldon Museum of Art
Ralph Albert Blakelock, “Moonlight” (ca.1880s), oil on canvas. Sheldon Museum of Art

For visual artists, nighttime scenes present the technical challenge of how to represent shadow, light and form at a time when elements were shrouded in darkness and the palette is necessarily limited. 

Just as nighttime scenes posed challenges to artists they also presented opportunities to experiment stylistically and to toy with symbol and metaphor.  In the last decades of 19th century, a group of American artists used night studies to abandon the detailed, dramatic and colourful views of the American landscape favoured by the Hudson River School. These nocturnes were hazy and murky - views with no point of reference 'where shapes, scale and distances become difficult to evaluate' (p13).  Whereas earlier landscapes had been optimistic and looked to promising horizons, these representations of the natural world were quieter and less optimistic.  This less illustrative style gave artists a new arena for experimentation.

The electrification of cities is a key turning point in the story of the American Nocturne and brought new subjects for artists to explore.  Artists including Childe Hassam and Stieglitz focused how to represent the urban experience of night, in particular, the play of shadow and light under the new street lighting. In his 1897 Reflections-Night, New York, Stieglitz captures the glow of the electric street lamps on the façade of a colonnaded building and on the pavement in the foreground.

 

Alfred Stieglitz, Reflections - Night (New York), 1897
Alfred Stieglitz, Reflections - Night (New York), 1897
For others, it is the lamplit window that offered new possibilities. Berenice Abbott's glorious New York at Night (which adorns the cover of the book) depicts the jewelled canyons of New York  - 'the vertical city with its unimaginable diamonds' (p48).  Edward Hopper takes a more intimate approach offers tantalising views into illuminated rooms showing people who, in spite of the late hour, are starkly exposed by the unwavering electric light.
Edward Hopper Night Windows
Night Windows, Edward Hopper

And as street lighting made being outdoors in the evening safer for women, others sought inspiration in the growing nighttime pastimes and amusements like theatre, window shopping, firework displays and jazz clubs. 


Fire-works on the Night of the Fourth of July, 1868, wood engraving by Winslow Homer.
Fire-works on the Night of the Fourth of July, 1868, wood engraving by Winslow Homer.


This excellent book is tightly edited with concise, accessible and thought-provoking essays. In addition, the book is beautifully produced and features excellent reproductions that bring out the subtlety of tones within the original artworks. The book is rounded out by notes, a selected bibliography, a list of plates and an index of artists, making it a useful research resource. 

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