Lights Fantastic

Above: Place de Rome at Night, 1905 oil on canvas by Theodore Earl Butler

“Artists have been fascinated by light for centuries,” says Margarita Karasoulas, a curator at the Bruce Museum. So have scientists. Now the latest exhibits at the Bruce look at light and electricity from both perspectives, showcasing the museum’s focus on the relationship between art and science. Electric Paris explores the ways that nineteenth-century and turn-of-the-century artists responded to oil and gas lamps and newer electric lighting, while Electricity is a hands-on, interactive exhibit that brings the science and history of electricity to life. Viewed in tandem during a single visit to the museum, the effect is brilliant.

Au Café, 1888 oil on panel by Willard Metcalf
Au Café, 1888 oil on panel
by Willard Metcalf
Paris at Night, 1889 oil on panel by Charles Courtney Curran.
Paris at Night, 1889 oil on panel by Charles Courtney Curran.


Paintings from the Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection


Paris was dubbed the City of Light long before electricity was widely used because it was a center of ideas and illumination, but the title stuck because of the beauty of its street lights. As the novelty of electric light was spreading around the city, many Impressionists were as fascinated by night scenes as they were with changes in natural outdoor light viewed in their en plein air paintings.

The art selected for Electric Paris includes fifty works: paintings, drawings, prints and photographs by noted artists such as Edgar Degas, Mary Cassatt, Pierre Bonnard, Jean Beraud, Childe Hassam and John Singer Sargent, depicting famous public spaces from Luxembourg Gardens to the Eiffel Tower as well as gaslit boulevards and private homes.

The whole gallery space is painted dark gray and dimly lit, in keeping with the theme and emphasizing the art, which is organized into four sections. Nocturnes reveal nighttime imagery, such as the striking gaslight from lampposts reflected in the rain in Charles Courtney Curran’s Paris at Night. The Lamplit Interiors section looks at the dramatized effect of light and shadow in the home, while the Street Lights calls attention to the fixtures themselves. Finally, In and Out of the Spotlight addresses light in public gathering places such as cafes, theaters and dance halls.

The Plasma Tube is a big hit for kids of all ages.
The Plasma Tube is a big hit for kids of all ages.

On the other side of the museum, Electricity, an exhibition developed by the Franklin Institute, is sparking interest in the science behind the force. While learning about how electricity is generated, kids and adults can touch the Plasma Tube with its colorful lightning tendrils and play with the Jumping Ring, where the electrical charge causes a ring to fly up and over a metal pole. Many camps and summer school classes will visit throughout the summer. For information on upcoming lectures, films and musical performances that complement these exhibits, go to


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