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Electric Worlds / Mondes électriques

Creations, Circulations, Tensions, Transitions (19th–21st C.)


Edited By Alain Beltran, Léonard Laborie, Pierre Lanthier and Stéphanie Le Gallic

What interpretation(s) do today’s historians make of electrification? Electrification is a process which began almost a hundred and fifty years ago but which more than one billion men and women still do not have access to. This book displays the social diversity of the electric worlds and of the approaches to their history. It updates the historical knowledge and shows the renewal of the historiography in both its themes and its approaches. Four questions about the passage to the electrical age are raised: which innovations or combination of innovations made this passage a reality? According to which networks and appropriation? Evolving thanks to which tensions and alliances? And resulting in which transition and accumulation?

Quel(s) regard(s) les historiens d’aujourd’hui portent-ils sur l’électrification, processus engagé il y a près de cent cinquante ans mais auquel plus d’un milliard d’hommes et de femmes restent encore étrangers ? Le présent volume rend compte de la diversité des mondes sociaux électriques et des manières d’enquêter sur leur histoire. Il actualise les connaissances et témoigne du renouvellement de l’historiographie, dans ses objets et ses approches. Quatre points d’interrogation sur le basculement des sociétés dans l’âge électrique jalonnent le volume : moyennant quelles créations ou combinaisons créatrices ? En vertu de quelles circulations et appropriations ? Selon quelles tensions et alliances ? Et produisant quelles transitions et accumulations ?

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Bright Lights, Brilliant Wits. Caricature and Electric Light in Later Nineteenth-Century Paris

← 16 | 17 →

Bright Lights, Brilliant Wits

Caricature and Electric Light in Later Nineteenth-Century Paris



Paris as la Ville Lumière is indelibly linked to abundant gaslight, which proliferated starting in the 1840s and 1850s, and remained the city’s dominant form of outdoor éclairage throughout the Belle Époque and beyond. The French capital was however one of the first cities in the world to experiment with the newest forms of highly technologized streetlight: electric arc lighting. Between 1878 and 1882, undivided arc lamps (Jablochkoff candles) were put in service experimentally on prominent thoroughfares in some of the city’s more prosperous quartiers, including the environs of the new Opera House. The blazing lights drew interminable commentary. The culture-wide preoccupation with electric light reached fever pitch during the 1881 Exposition Internationale d’Électricité, held in the Palais de l’Industrie, the largest and most diverse display of electric lights in history, including four kinds of incandescent electric light, the eventual world standard.

The inventor of the most influential form of incandescent light, the American Thomas Edison, the so-called genius of Menlo Park, shortly became electric light’s metonym. His seemingly boundless energy and inexhaustible risibility coupled with the dazzling new lights of the era were godsends to the caricaturists and illustrators of Paris. This paper examines aspects of the pictorial response to Edison, the new éclairage, and its social effects by focusing upon the work of three major graphic satirists: Cham (Amédée Charles Henri de Noé, 1818-1879), Draner (Jules Jean Georges Renard, 1833-1926), and Albert Robida (1848-1926).

Keywords: Jablochkoff, gender, caricature, humor, éclairage


Introduction: New luminosities and comic art

The newfangled éclairage of the final decades of the nineteenth century altered the visual environment of central districts of the city of Paris, and ignited vivid social scenarios. This state of affairs was an enormous benefit to graphic artists, especially those working in a comical ← 17 | 18 → vein. Inspiration was ubiquitous; there seemed to be new lights blazing in different locations everyday sewing confusion and amusement. Who could keep up? What caricaturist could resist? The spectacular one-off exposition showcasing electric lights, l’Exposition Internationale d’Electricité, held in the Palais de l’Industrie in 1881, and the novel illuminations in the French capital, les bougies Jablochkoff, installed in prestigious parts of the city between 1878 and 1882, were significant sources of humorous imagery. The simultaneous consolidation of the polyvalent celebrity of electric light’s metonym, Thomas A. Edison, was also providential: the confusing effects of the new illumination and the risibility of the legends attaching to Edison sparked new lines of wit. Humor provoked by various visually dazzling environments, on one hand, and the Genius of Menlo Park, on the other, revivified two of the thematic mainstays of mid-century periodical-based Parisian caricature of earlier decades: the sizable opportunities for sexual mischief in Paris, and the cluelessness of Americans.

The concurrence of the era of nonstop innovation in electric light and the 1880 founding (as well as a revival) of La Caricature by Albert Robida (1848-1926) were a boon for Parisian visual culture. Robida’s journal is our point of entry into the thematics of electricity and electric light in the comic visual arts. The publication’s razor-sharp visuals shine a bright light upon some of the signature beliefs and preoccupations in circulation on the Parisian sociocultural scene in and around 1880 – at least in the eyes of the subscribers to Robida’s 8-page weekly. The corpus of caricatural responses to the new lighting scenarios in La Caricature and elsewhere mined in this essay tests some of the leading theories of the distinguishing achievements of the modern idiom of caricature. On one end of the theory axis, caricature is defined as an inherently democratic and potentially subversive genre; and thus a potent tool of counter-discourse and ridicule. At the opposite end, caricature is construed as an irretrievably conservative mode, whose purpose is taxonomization and the recycling of types. This interpretation navigates between the far poles of caricature theory, but gravitates towards the latter cluster of thought defining it as a mode that repeats and reinforces the traits of pre-established types.

Hilarious and ludicrous situations fostered by new lights as well as other electric contraptions may have motivated Robida’s publishing venture. The journal’s specialization under his direction was la caricature des moeurs, an intentionally less political program than that followed by the 1830s publication of the same name edited by Philipon. The front page of the June 19, 1880 issue, an amalgamation of picture and text by Robida himself, showcased the journal’s prowess in the realm of social caricature. “Nouvelle et Merveilleuse Invention d’Edison” (“New ← 18 | 19 → and Marvelous Invention by Edison”) (figure 1), a tour de force of the humorous imagination rooted in actuality, starred the angular and wildly charged-up Thomas Edison in his laboratory. June 1880 was well into the flowering of the American inventor’s transatlantic reputation as the Wizard of Menlo Park, a term used famously by Villiers de l’Isle Adam in his novel, L’Ève future, begun in 1878. The successful test of the Edison bulb in New Jersey in late 1879 secured Edison’s reputation as electric light’s flashiest prodigy, dispelling most of the doubts that had governed the thinking about him in the French électricien crowd.

Figure 1. Albert Robida, “Nouvelle et Merveilleuse Invention d’Édison: Le Fidélimètre,” La Caricature, 19 juin 1880


Courtesy of Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University Libraries. ← 19 | 20 →

In Robida’s front-page scenario, a fiercely determined Edison has invented a preternaturally clever contraption that harnessed the omnipotent force par excellence, electricity, in order to satisfy the perpetual husbandly need to track and control the romantic meanderings of unsupervised wives. The device, brilliantly named, was the Fidélimètre designed “à indiquer le degré de fidélité des dames” (“to indicate the degree of faithfulness of women”) by tracing the ups and downs of perpetually erratic young women, the temperamental twins, albeit married, of Verdi’s “la donna e mobile” (Rigoletto).1 A woman would sport the gadget as if it were a flattened pocket watch, pinned like a brooch or dangling from a fob. The dial registers her actions and intentions between two extremes, from PARFAITE (perfect) to DÉSASTRE (disaster).

The women tricksters modeling the device are both Americans, feral modern women par excellence. It should not come as a surprise that a joke defining Edison as the nec plus ultra of technological wizardry derides American mores at the same time. As the literary scholar Mike Goode maintains, “In many cases, the primary purpose of an image [in caricature] seems to have been to specify or recycle a particular character type or set of types.”2 Admiration for Edison’s gadgets had moreover to be undercut by the deadly serious and frequently fierce transatlantic economic and cultural struggle over the ownership of electricity. The gag is leavened by another trope of Parisian boulevard humor: American women are cheeky and insolent compared to les Françaises.

At right is the urbanite with a Chicago sticker on her steamer trunk; a train belching steam is close by. Under the heading, VOYAGES, she is dressed sharply to roam freely.

The young American travels a lot; while her husband sits at his counter or in political assemblies, she runs around the world in complete freedom. But the Fidélimètre is a witness and a guarantee. Every week, a photograph of the Fidélimètre is sent to the husband, and, if there is the least deviation, he sends, by telegraph or telephone, the order to return home (“rentrer at home”).3

The other young American, bounding into the surf in bathing costume with long hair loosely streaming, demonstrates the benefits of the device at ← 20 | 21 → the seashore under the heading, UTILITÉ – BAINS DE MER (Usefulness – Seaside Resorts).

Uncle Sam is cunning, everyone knows that. As soon as the Fidélimètre was available, all the spouses in the States were provided with them. Besides what object has a more incontestable usefulness? At the opening of the dangerous season at the seashores, which run so many risks for the husbands stuck in the city by their business affairs, the Fidélimètre was adopted with enthusiasm by all the spouses in the American fashion.4

The social and technological modernity of the contraption was thus all-inclusive. Nothing less could be expected from the capacious mind of Robida whose ability to imagine the future ingeniously was unparalleled.5 In the “Fidelity Meter,” the American inventor’s outsized talent is seen through the lens of Robida’s singular comic dexterity; Edison’s mechanical brainchild commingles the resources of an electric sensor, photography, telegraphy and the telephone. Robida nonetheless trivializes Edison’s futuristic inter-medial contraption. Indeed a clear sign of Robida’s comic dexterity is his ability to lionize and belittle Edison’s resourcefulness simultaneously, all the while keeping the laughs flowing. All that know-how, the jest starring two American females assures us, is marshaled merely to perform a housekeeping task: keeping irksome Américaines in line. Its hilarity and originality drink deeply from the wellspring of Parisian stereotypes – about American men (credulous cuckolds) and women (morally lax), and the upstart inventor himself (a wily genius solving a trivial problem). Female viewers who may admire the agency of the Americans in this program on the brink of outfoxing authoritarian spouses are not allowed the pleasure of positive identification and recognition because the mobile women are imagined to be under the control of an electric behavior tracker. ← 21 | 22 →

Laughing at lights in the street

The piercing glare of the arc lamp street lights (Jablochkoff candles) put in place in high profile sites in Paris between 1877 and 1879 (and continued at some locations through 1880, 1881, and early spring of 1882) was a rich source of inspiration for both Draner (Jules Jean Georges Renard; 1833-1926) and the indefatigable Cham (Amédée Charles Henri de Noé; b. 1818) during the last year of his life – he died on September 6, 1879. Cham exploited the comic potential of the blinding glare in many lithographs, most of them set in the spaces adjoining Charles Garnier’s new Opéra, opened in 1875. The Avenue de l’Opéra was inaugurated on September 19, 1877, and the very same evening, the façade of Garnier’s Opéra was illuminated by Jablochkoff carbon arc lights.6 Garnier was a passionate advocate of electric light, and was committed to its possibilities for lighting the interior of his lavish building.7 Indeed, on October 18, 1881 (during the run of the Electricity Exposition), according to Christopher Mead, “the entire public half of the Opéra, exterior as well as interior, was illuminated by systems invented by Jablochkoff, Edison, Swan, and others.”8 The avenue itself was lined with Jablochkoff candles in 1878.9

Cham’s attraction to the Opera building and its surroundings can be explained in two ways: the location was a high profile site of electric arc lighting, and le comte de Noé was a close personal friend of Charles Garnier. He mined the humor of streetlamp-caused eye trouble in the Place de l’Opéra repeatedly. “Une ombrelle le soir pour traverser la place de l’Opéra” (“An umbrella to cross the Place de l’Opéra in the evening”) (figure 2) enlists the support of the deracinated modern urban eye shield par excellence, the umbrella deployed at night when the weather is dry and the sun is down. Amongst the three struggling nighttime protagonists, the torsion in one man’s stance and the severe tilt of the woman’s body inscribe the intensity of the physical effort ← 22 | 23 → necessary to outfox the penetrating rays. The postures also amusingly emulate the typical postures of bodies beset by heavy rain or strong winds.

Figure 2. Cham, “Une ombrelle le soir pour traverser la place de l’Opéra,” Les Folies Parisiennes par Cham: Quinze Années Comiques 1864-1879, Paris: Calmann Lévy, 1883, 43.


Courtesy Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University Libraries.

“Aveuglement de la Place de l’Opéra” (“Blindness in the Place de l’Opéra”) (figure 3) references the coterie of professionals often imagined to benefit directly from the emplacement of the new lights, oculists. Here the witty caption aligns the wounding electric light with a deliberate move on the part of an organized league of unemployed eye specialists: “Éclairage électrique fondé par une société d’oculistes sans ouvrage” (“Electric light established by a society of unemployed oculists”). ← 23 | 24 →

Figure 3. Cham, “Aveuglement de la Place de l’Opéra,” Les Folies Parisiennes par Cham: Quinze Années Comiques 1864-1879, Paris: Calmann Lévy, 1883, 43.


Courtesy Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University Libraries.

The comic drawings by Cham raise questions about audience. In his witty scenarios of light-caused inconvenience, are the bourgeois pedestrians battling the environment the laughers or the laughed at? Is electric light under assault in these drawings, or are its opponents made to appear ridiculous? I would argue that the bourgeois lampooned in Cham’s work are not literally caricatured; not given exaggerated features, so that in the context of Cham’s gentle humor, they are encouraged and expected to laugh at themselves.

Period medical specialists understood the correlation between bright light and eye damage, a standby of both comic art and popular journalism, more complexly. Dr. N. Théodore Klein, Parisian ophthalmologist, posed the key question in 1873: “Must we admit, with all those who have written on this subject, that visual acuity diminishes when the light is too strong?” Then come the answers, at first indicating that exposure to intense light produced ocular damage. “Very intense lighting, like electric ← 24 | 25 → light, produces a painful excitation that few people can even bear.” But it quickly becomes clear that in Klein’s judgment the case against electric light was not the open and shut one delivered by caricature and the anti-electricity crowd. Klein again: “But we have always observed, following the first moment of dazzle, an augmentation of sharpness.”10

Figure 4. Cham, “Joie de M. Perrin,” Les Folies Parisiennes par Cham: Quinze Années Comiques 1864-1879, Paris: Calmann Lévy, 1883, 261.


Courtesy Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University Libraries. ← 25 | 26 →

“Joie de M. Perrin” (figure 4), another 1879 comic drawing by Cham, again engaged the glare, but in a different key. Rather than joking about the somatic price paid by Parisians in the immediate vicinity of prestigious musical culture, this print envisions the Opera district from above occupied by a solitary and singular Parisian, the Director of Le Théâtre Français. Cham jubilantly dissolves the avenue into a blazing river of electric light, a luminous ribbon that shoots down its full length. Like the ramrod straight tale of a comet, it cuts a broad swath across the 1er and 2e arrondissements connecting its two celebrated cultural institutions. The shimmering electric candelabras in the place before the façade of Garnier’s building appear to have generated the luminous stream completely obliterating the avenue in the process; erasing all its fixtures and features. What’s more, as a result, Le Théâtre Français is ablaze for free: “éclairé aux frais de l’Opéra;” lighting courtesy of the Opera. The only competing point of light on this extraordinary Paris evening is the crescent moon shining in the dark sky, electric light’s antagonist and the drawing’s marker and reminder of natural night. M. Perrin, the director of the Théâtre Français, dances for joy just outside the stream of light, exuberantly alone alongside the radiant avenue. His energetic dance combines delight, surprise and chagrin. Cham’s clever concoction enables M. Perrin to appear both discomfited by the miracle of light and intoxicated by it simultaneously. The observer would smile, I would argue, but not laugh. By fancifully dissolving an avenue in light, Cham shows himself to have been one of the rare French artists who reacted to the particularities of the white blaze of Jablochkoff street lights in the realm of aesthetic form.

Caricature in the spotlight at the electric Salon

Caricaturists, experts in ridicule, exaggeration and the re-inscription of the already known, were ingenious readers of the effects of the multivalent electric lamp: as nothing but a gimmick that dazzled, and as a cunning contraption that ushered socially and morally fraught scenarios into being imagined to illuminate social and personal “truths” normally concealed by darkness. Robida, the editor of La Caricature, assigned his seasoned colleague, Draner, to the 1880 electric Salon. His full-page multicolor sculpture gallery (figure 5) is an ingenious exegesis of the event. Surely the artists of La Caricature could not have guessed that it would be both the paper’s first foray into an electric Salon (the 29 May issue was only the journal’s twenty-second) and its last. The lighting experiment only lasted two years: it was terminated prior to the 1881 Salon. ← 26 | 27 →

Figure 5. Draner, “Le Salon Nocturne,” La Caricature, 29 mai 1880.


Courtesy Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University Libraries.

Draner’s caricatural nighttime visit is funny, but its hilarity is rooted more in facts than fiction. All but one of the numbered statues that crowd the page are “real” identifiable as sculptures that were on display. That said, aspects of the picture that are absurd are the intentional haphazardness and small size of the ensemble: Draner shows only fourteen of the seven hundred pieces of sculpture that appeared that year, all in the lamp-lit nave on the ground floor. The careful attempt I make in what follows to match up Draner’s white statues and their object numbers to those listed in the Salon Livret is thus both painstaking forensic art history, and a way ← 27 | 28 → of certifying the ludicrousness of Draner’s grouping despite the general fastidiousness of his references.11

The balls of glowing brightly colored red and yellow light stand in for the piercing white globes of arc light. Their fanciful colors may function as exaggerated registrations of the characteristic “scintillations” that distorted color. They are also amusing in their animation of the crowded tiers of white sculpture like buoyant toys bouncing about and floating amongst guests at a merry party shorn loose from their rods, poles and batteries. The coronas of linear rays that emanate from the spheres indicate the high wattage of their radiance. That the spherical globes also appear to function within some of the sculptures’ own narratives or to provide new-fangled attributes is part of Draner’s spirited game rooted in a playful attitude towards the untouchable, buzzing and glaring globes of the real Jablochkoff candles.

Draner’s definition of the light sources in play on the page is elaborate and detailed. There are only four old style (pre-industrial) lights in this nocturnal Salon, and only two of the sculpted bodies cast shadows, choices that enhance the delineation of light source-specific effects. No. 6219 is a completely fanciful, dark turbaned Oriental man who does not correspond to the exhibit displayed under that number; he is the only figure in Draner’s Salon with an old-fashioned light on his head, an oil lamp.12 The Orient is thus cheekily linked to out of date artificial light.13 The Oriental’s lamp glows bright yellow, and the imposing female bust (No. 6414) at center shows also gives off a yellow light; she has a candle flame on her head in the regal shape of a three pronged crown.14 The unnumbered bust of a smug bearded man (behind the wild No. 6630, “le démon de Rakoczy”) also dons a flame on his pate, two-lobed in his case, and the male bust at the far right (No. 6110) is singular in radiating its ← 28 | 29 → own globe-free rays of light, presumably those of genius, suitable for a professor.15 Joan of Arc, the great heroine of France, is reduced to an exit sign. Indeed this kitsch diminution of her stature – she’s nothing but a lamp! – powerfully suggests that arc light devalues sculpture. Draner’s program sides with a widespread opinion: nothing is more anti-art than electric light.

Another sort of character occupies the bottom register. The spindly robed figure casting a dark shadow (No. 6061) at left is Dante holding a candle. His caption classifies him as a tipsy nightwalker. “Poor Dante, he was not on his guard against the effects of cider.”16 At right the helmeted and muscular seated naked man (No. 6255) removing his boots and socks can be identified as Mercury. He sits atop a caption that explains his unshod feet: “11 o’clock sounds! Finally I’ll be able to put myself to bed.”17 Mischievous captioning thus puts both Dante and Mercury, the grandest personages on the entire page with the exception of Joan of Arc, in all too human conditions: intoxication and impatient drowsiness. They retain some modicum of dignity however by being spared the possession of an electric light. All the other figures have become lamps; not merely illuminated but converted into machinic commodities by Jablochkoff candles.

More complex and consequential is the caption below center, positioned as if spoken by the colorful yellow- and red-clad jester, our guide, who carries a portfolio across his body labeled La Caricature, and gestures towards the illumined congregation of art works.18 “There should have been decisive action, that way everyone would have been dazzled (blinded) and nobody could have complained about the administration’s lack of enlightenment.”19 ← 29 | 30 → This statement is a puzzle in many ways, but it unquestionably addresses the administration’s decision to illumine the Salon with electric arc light. It certainly plays on the familiar discursive rhyming and standoff between bedazzlement and enlightenment. Does it mean that the lights should have been left on all night? Or does it reference discussions underway during the month of May about the efficacy and politics of lighting the Salon with electricity? We are faced by another example of caricature’s defining but retroactively vexing contingencies that we are unlikely to be able to sort out conclusively at this remove.

The dazzling electric Salon of 1880 was not only the largest Salon in history (showing 7,289 works), but the last overseen by the Ministère de l’Instruction Publique et des Beaux-Arts. In effect, the state Salon was abandoned after 1880. As Patricia Mainardi explained: “The period from 1880 to 1885 saw the termination and collapse of the official French Salon system.”20 The quality of the arc lighting in two Salons notwithstanding, by 1881, the Paris Salon, as noted, had dropped the technology altogether, presumably for both political and practical reasons. In addition to the new administrative structure, recall that this kind of light was extremely demanding and complicated to maintain; its rods had to be constantly replaced at short intervals.21 Other factors must have come into play insofar as evening lighting arose as a Republican policy. Mainardi reports that it was only with the Republican accession to power in 1879 that Edmond Turquet decided “to have the Salon electrically lit so that workers could attend in the evening.” And indeed numbers rose: 155,000 more attendees than the previous year.22 Politics were explicit in the debate over the lighting in the Chamber of Deputies. The Right was against the electric illumination and opposed, quoting Mainardi again, to “any other innovation that threatened the ‘aristocratic’ tone of the exhibition, and a deputy on the Left reminded them that ‘everybody comes to the Salon at night!’”23 This “everybody” was of course only the right people.

In Draner’s Le Salon Nocturne, two scenes in silhouette inflect the representation of bleached pieces of volumetric sculpture on the main part of the page. The two vignettes in silhouette, flanking the title, ← 30 | 31 → illustrate an ascendant theme in caricature of the era of illumination discourse: bedazzlement by electric light causes and justifies male sexual mischief. This is an instance of caricature’s finely tuned ability to use types that originated elsewhere (the naughty men and women of earlier 19th century boulevard journalism culture) in order to taxonomize Parisian society of circa 1880. The silhouette as the index and residue of glaring illumination serves Draner’s purpose well. The picture at left stages a happenstance encounter between two starkly silhouetted and jauntily contoured adults facing one another in profile, one of whom, the man, makes a mistake at the other’s, the woman’s, expense. “A thousand excuses, Madame, I thought I was feeling round lumps and I took you for a marble.”24 The man’s starkly outstretched groping arms stop within inches of the recoiling woman’s bosom. He claims not to be a sexual marauder. No, he was merely (innocently) enjoying the haptic pleasures of an encounter with stone sculpture as well as he could in the confusing light. The upper right cartoon falls into the same class of sexualized joke: “The way to enlighten yourself on the cunning of a model.”25 The two jokes in silhouette are mirror images: bedazzlement causes a respectably dressed man to feel up an equally decently attired flesh and blood woman claiming he believed her to be a rounded stone, and the availability of a curvaceous stone woman in the dark justifies an impertinently close inspection of her forms with the assistance of a portable lantern light. In the latter, liberties are taken with a stone body, but they are acts of inspectional excess all the same. Jablochkoff confusion befuddles an innocent connoisseur while it gives courage to the cheekiest inspector of a sculpture in the form of a female body. Arc light as alibi comes to the rescue.

The International Exposition of Electricity (1881)

Because of the ways that the exposition in the Palace of Industry combined scientific and industrial progress with spectacular display, it was baptized “the Revolution of 1881” by its most proficient historians, Alain Beltran and Patrice A. Carré.26 As written and pictorial responses to the event confirm, the two historians did not exaggerate when they wrote, “close to 900,000 visitors crowded the Palace of Industry to discover technologies that would very shortly engender and characterize ← 31 | 32 → a new material civilization27 (emphasis added). Beltran and Carré further argue: “With electric light and its slow diffusion there was a modification of a whole system of psychological attitudes.”28 In 1883, Louis Figuier, the most important popular science writer of the late nineteenth century, averred that the exposition was lived by its contemporaries as “one of the most important scientific events of the nineteenth century.”29 The exposition was thus judged consequential by contemporaries and historians alike in at least three spheres: the material, the psychological, and the scientific as well as the realm of the spectacle.

Electric light caused the most excitement at the exhibition. Beltran and Carré state clearly: “The telephone is among the electric innovations presented to the public one of those that seems to fascinate. But the major innovation, the one that attracted the attention of everyone (female and male alike) was without any doubt electric light.”30 American historian Ernest Freeberg has stressed the importance of light at the event, but also its conditionality, or rather that the exposition was primarily viewed as a testing ground for incandescent light, but that the outcome (“the winner”) of the contest was not foreseeable in advance.31

The 1881 Electricity Fair was a radiant event which provided the occasion for naming the City of Light La Capitale Électrique, if only a transitory component of the famously kaleidoscopic visual environment of Paris. Though fleeting, its contribution to the city’s visualities was crucial: the exposition fielded a dazzling rivalry of electric lights; a twinkling assortment of diverse systems, shapes, intensities and colors of lamps. K. G. Beauchamp reports that the exposition marked the “first major use of electrical illumination” in history, and that its use of 220 arc lamps and 2,220 incandescent lamps constituted an unprecedented ← 32 | 33 → visual spectacle.32 William Henry Preece reported that “on the night of August 29th, there were in operation 277 arc lamps, 116 candles, 44 arc incandescent lamps, 1,500 incandescent lamps or a total of 1,837 electric lights in all… I have little doubt that the number reached 2,500 in the beginning of November.”33 Gaston Tissandier, found of the journal La Nature, put it straightforwardly: “What more can we say? That the Exposition by night is resplendent with fire to a degree that no one has witnessed such brilliance up to that day…The beauty of the illumination produced by those powerful machines had never been perceived before.”34

Henri de Parville, the science journalist, measured the total luminosity of the electric light in the palace by way of comparison with gaslight in order to evoke its intensity:35 “In the Palace, the electricity made it possible to produce, with 1,800 horse power, the equivalent of 55,000 gaslights or 6,000 more gaslights than ever existed in all the streets and promenades of Paris… We are at the dawn of a new epoch.” Preece remarked on the shortcomings of the display layout: “the terrific mélange of lights that flooded the interior of the Palais de l’Industrie with great brilliancy [was] an impracticable and impossible means of comparing and judging the relative merits of different systems.”36 Or rather the lights commingled and could not be evaluated let only seen separately. The radiance of the display foreclosed on fine-grained assessments, except by some of the électricien insiders. There was thus both amazement and frustration at the sight of many lights from many lamps blended together.

Though based in the French capital, the fair was neither especially French nor Parisian. It was instead international inasmuch as it was associated with and had the imprimatur of an International Congress of Electricians, ← 33 | 34 → making it “the first comprehensive international gathering of electrical technologists” ever.37 That Paris was the venue was however a French coup. France was also abundantly represented: of the 1,768 exhibitors, 55% were French. The other major contributors, in descending order, were Belgium, the German Empire, the United Kingdom and the United States.38 It was the American exhibits that drew the most attention, especially Edison’s display.

The exposition took place in 1881 for three primary reasons: the rate of innovation in the “field” of electricity had rapidly accelerated (especially since 1875), a milieu of interest (comprising experts and amateurs) developed, and public officials in France (most importantly Adolphe Cochery, the Minister of “Postes et Télégraphes”) decided to act in response to the interest generated by the new conquests of science in this area.39 The rise of a lobby of électriciens and a proliferating specialized press played important roles as well in the lead up to the organization of the meeting. It was made possible by cooperation between government and private initiative.40 François Caron and Fabienne Cardot stress the auspiciousness of the conditions in place. The 1881 exposition was the “resounding but also symbolic manifestation of the formation of a composite milieu of ‘électriciens’ ready to mobilize its energy to carry the new technology to the highest levels of industrial and domestic applications, to conquer the world in a word.”41

The headline news bruited ubiquitously following the conclusion of the fair (Edison, Edison, Edison) quickly erased the memory of the importance of French professional and political leadership and the difference between the myriad wares on display. It was Edison’s carbon filament bulb (to whose invention the English inventor Joseph Swan had an equal claim) and his integrated system that emerged triumphant.42 ← 34 | 35 → Recall that there were four different kinds of incandescent lighting on show: Edison, Swann, Maxim and Lane-Fox. The fact that Edison did not show just lamps, but also exhibited an integrated 20-ton generating machine (called “Jumbo”) gave his scheme a great advantage.43 The specific quality of Edison’s light was also admired in many quarters.

Regardless of the specific display or lamp targeted for comment, it was clear, in Beltran’s and Carré’s words, that “for the majority of Exposition visitors, electric light represented the promise of a rupture with an old method of lighting.”44 They have stressed the change at the perceptual level: “The advent of electric lighting signifies – for numerous witnesses – a profound change in the modes of perception. Electricity effectively modifies ways of seeing, ways of looking. Very quickly it was understood that henceforth looking at things will not be the same. A new regime thus, one that touches first of all the organ of sight.”45

The unprecedented concentration of electric lights at the 1881 Exposition and the discussion they generated inspired La Caricature to fashion a new crop of humorous scenarios that conjoined intense illumination and sexual mischief. The master trope, first taken for a drive in 1880 in response to the electric Salon, was rehearsed and perfected: bright electric light and other electric contraptions justified sexual adventure on the part of bedazzled Parisian men and fostered duplicity and vulgarity on the part of Parisian women. According to Christoph Asendorf, “A part of the fascination with electricity might have arisen out of the closely related analogy to erotic attraction (or repulsion), so nicely characterized as tension between the sexes.”46 Indeed caricaturists’ responses to the lights and related gadgets seen at the 1881 Exposition intertwined electricity and sex over and over again. ← 35 | 36 →

Figure 6. Draner, “A l’Exposition d’Électricité,” La Caricature, 22 octobre 1881.


Courtesy Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University Libraries.

The first response to the exposition by La Caricature was front-page coverage by Draner, “À l’Exposition d’Électricité,” published on October 22, 1881, well into the second full month of the exhibition (figure 6). The vertical page format is used to advantage to showcase a lighthouse that echoes the imposing light tower dominating the ground floor of the Palais de l’Industrie, a copy of the lighthouses that guarded the coasts of France. Draner disposes seven vignettes around the tower making good use of the illusion of tinted light beamed through glass storm panes (or rather the illusion of light altered by tinted panes) comprising the lantern room enclosing the lens. Draner only draws three glass panes but colored light also pours through unseen panes on the back. The “actual” lighthouse did not beam colored light, but the variation of tint devised by Draner provided a convincing means to demonstrate, I would argue, an awareness of the diverse colors and intensities of the various lights in the exhibition hall. ← 36 | 37 → Draner makes effective use of the color of light to spark his narratives; the color of light transforms the political, medical and sexual status of the visitors upon whom it falls.

Draner’s top two scenes at left and right, green and red – the panels are triangular and truncated to emulate the shape of light rays – joke about outlandish readings of the significance of the changed tint of visitors’ otherwise uniformly white faces. At left, Ernest is green, and the panicked woman concludes, crying for help, that he may have cholera. At right, a politically reactionary fellow has finally become red, just as his scruffy bearded companion predicted. “I told you that despite your reactionary opinions you would become red (a red) one day!”47

Sexual innuendo drives the second scene at left, “La Femme Électrique” (The Electric Woman), bathed in red. Its thematics deliver the program of humor fully onto Asendorf’s territory. Thanks to an imagined dose of electricity, the young woman shows flirtatious interest in the man alongside and attracts his active attention. Indeed the new force enables the older top-hatted man to secure the interest of a curvaceous Parisienne. We are eavesdropping as a result upon “intimate promenade-discussions concerning the attraction of bodies and the jolts of fluids.”

Only one square in the series speaks to the conjunction of the utilitarian and spectacular benefits of bright illumination. In the yellow square (lower left), Mlle Titi of the fictional “Folies-Boulevardières” makes strategic use of a ray of light to show off her legs, or rather “she profits from a beam of light to evaluate its dramatic effects in the next Revue.” A familiar theme from Second Empire and earlier Third Republic boulevard humor is harnessed to the new lights: an attractive young show girl, as usual, does anything to expose her body to public view, a reflex that has been enhanced by the brighter illumination. But she knowingly yokes the enhanced visibility of her shapely legs to the prospect of augmenting the theatrical allure of a commercial attraction. Light is put at the service of commerce not to mention female self-commodification.

Draner’s central panel below, which appears to emerge uncannily through the wall of the otherwise opaque stone cylinder of the lighthouse, presents an electric light scholar’s alter ego: a sightless beggar blinded by the lights. His sign reads: “Blind Man. Take pity upon the poor scholar who studied all the diverse electric lamps.”48 Draner’s caption: “Hats ← 37 | 38 → off to misplaced courage!”49 The yellow and blue panels at right feature another stock character of Parisian boulevard humor, already encountered in Edison’s mechanized domain, “la donna è mobile.” The yellow panel plays on the confusions that obtain when engaging the telephone, a favorite device at the Exposition. Of course the wife in the narrative is adulterous. “Le maladroit!” she labels her lover. “The blunderer! He didn’t notice that my husband took my place (on the phone), and continued to talk about his love!!!”50 It updates the old story of a cuckold learning the truth about his wife that could have come straight from a Rococo painting in which disclosure was carried out by a purloined letter. Here the yellow color makes a blunder legible, but it carries no particular coding or valence. Yellow-tinged light after all, pre-electricity, was standard.

The blue panel also stars a feckless woman, and thematizes bedazzlement caused by the fair’s lights. Draner cleverly brings “seeing clearly” into contact with “painful seeing.” “Good God! My wife with her cousin! Ah, it’s plain (or clear) to me now.”51 Bluish light illuminated her treachery. “With the lampe soleil! it would be painful.”52 In this instance light exposes the hitherto unknown spousal treachery, but an even brighter and more infernal light would have meant ocular misery as well.

In the comic worlds of Robida and Draner (less so in the orbit of Cham), gender distinctions are cunningly and hilariously exaggerated at every turn. As a result the myriad beautiful Parisiennes in the caricatures that narrate electricity-based events are always duped or inconvenienced in the end, no matter how clever the women may be. Mike Goode helps us to grasp the fundamentally conservative nature of such imagery: “The kinds of stereotype-based comedy in which the caricature form engages may hardly be conducive to imagining communities that tolerate difference.”53 Building on Goode’s perspective, we conclude by observing that some of the greatest comic visual artists of the era – who worked in the closely related genres of caricature and graphic satire – constructed their humor on the ideological scaffolding of inherited gender stereotypes. In the corpus of images we have examined here, the artists recruited electricity and its lights to secure Belle Époque patriarchy.

1 The “discussion” of the Fidélimètre continues on pages 2 through 6 of the same issue.

2 Mike Goode, “The Public and the Limits of Persuasion in the Age of Caricature,” in The Efflorescence of Caricature, 1759-1838, ed. Todd Porterfield (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011), 120.

3 “La jeune américaine voyage beaucoup; pendant que son mari siège à son comptoir ou dans les assemblées politiques, elle court le monde en toute liberté. Mais le Fidélimètre est un témoin et une garantie. Toutes les semaines, une photographie du Fidélimètre est envoyée au mari, et, à la moindre déviation, celui-ci envoie, par télégraphe ou téléphone, l’ordre de rentrer at home.”

4 “L’oncle Sam est un malin, chacun sait ça. Dès la première apparition du Fidélimètre, toutes les épouses de l’Union en ont été pourvues. Quel objet d’ailleurs est d’une utilité plus incontestable? À l’ouverture de la dangereuse saison des bains de mer, qui font courir tant de risques aux maris retenus à la ville par les affaires, le Fidélimètre a été adopté avec enthousiasme par toutes les épouses de la fashion américaine.”

5 Roger Jouan et al., Voyages très extraordinaires dans le Paris d’Albert Robida (Paris: Paris bibliothèques éditions, 2005). Robida imagined an electric future in book form: Albert Robida, Le vingtième siècle: La vie électrique (Paris: La Librairie Illustrée, 1890; facsimile, Lexington, Ky.: Adamant Media Corporation, Elibron Classics, 2006). See also Sandrine Doré, “Entre caricature et anticipation, la Parisienne définie par Albert Robida (1848-1926),” in L’art de la caricature, ed. Ségolène Le Men (Paris: Presses Universitaires de Paris Ouest, 2011), 211-232; and Caroline Grubbs, “Cultures of Time in Fin-de-siècle France: The Popular Literature and Graphic Art of Albert Robida (1848-1926)” (Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 2014).

6 Christopher Curtis Mead, Charles Garnier’s Paris Opéra: Architectural Empathy and the Renaissance of French Classicism (Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 1991), 196.

7 Charles Garnier, “L’Éclairage Électrique à l’Opéra,” La Lumière électrique: Journal universel d’électricité 1/8 (15 octobre 1879): 150ff.

8 Mead, Garnier’s Paris Opéra, 196. Mead reports that on November 25 the ministre des Beaux-Arts agreed that Garnier could install electric lighting in the Opéra on a permanent basis.

9 The Jablochkoff experiment on the Ave. de l’Opéra was terminated on April 1, 1882 putting an end to the first attempt to put electric light in Paris on a permanent footing. Alain Beltran, La Ville-Lumière et la Fée Électricité. Service public et entreprises privées: l’énergie électrique dans la région parisienne (Paris: Editions Rive Droite, 2002), 71.

10 Nephtali-Théodore Klein, De l’influence de l’éclairage sur l’acuité visuelle (Paris: G. Masson, Libraire de l’Académie de Médecine, 1873), 59. “Faut-il admettre, avec tous ceux qui ont écrit sur ce sujet, que l’acuité visuelle diminue lorsque la lumière est trop forte?” “[U]n éclairage très-fort, comme celui de la lumière électrique, produit une excitation douloureuse que peu de personnes sont à même de supporter.” “Mais nous avons toujours vu, à la suite du premier moment d’éblouissement, une augmentation de l’acuité.”

11 Based on research completed by Joseph Hammond, my Research Assistant at the National Gallery of Art (2013-14).

12 No. 6219 was Portrait de M.H. Carnot, sénateur, ancien ministre de l’Instruction publique; buste, plâtre teinté. Explication des ouvrages de peinture, sculpture, architecture, gravure, dessins, modèles, etc. (Paris: 1880), 577. (Called hereafter livret.) Is this an inside joke about the transformation of a former French minister into an Oriental man? Caricature lives and dies by its contingencies, often lost to the later researcher.

13 To his left, the pipe smoking bust of a man in casquette, No. 6691, corresponds well with the No. 6691 on display, Travailleur, buste, plâtre, by Georges-Gabriel Tattegrain. Livret, 625. There is no way of identifying the nude winged female with upraised left arm just behind him; ditto for the nude young woman with upraised arms, the swerving herm behind her, and the fleeing shadowy nude behind 6374. Nor can a precise identification be made for the Joan of Arc qua exit sign (SORTIE) just below the D in Draner.

14 Portrait décoratif (marble bust) by Ernest-Eugène Hiolle, No. 6414. Livret, 596.

15 Le Professeur Brunnet, buste, plâtre, No. 6110, by Joseph-Charles de Blezer. Livret, 566. No. 6630 was sculpted by Désiré Ringel and bore an extravagant title: La marche de Rakoczy; le démon de Rakoczy accourt à Paris inspirer les tziganes; statue, plâtre. An excerpt accompanied the livret entry from a poem by N. Lenau, which narrated an intense musical performance by a fiery man. Livret, 619. The medieval or Elizabethan figure on the plinth in tights with a sword corresponds approximately to (and perhaps takes off from) the sculpture displayed under the number 6374 (not 6574): Henri V, roi d’Angleterre; statue, plâtre, by Lord Ronald Gower (né à Londres). Livret, 592.

16 “Ce pauvre Dante, il ne s’est pas méfié des effets du cidre.” The drawn figure corresponds to a bronze on exhibit, Dante Alighieri (6061) by Jean-Paul Aubé. Livret, 561.

17 “Onze heures sonnent! Enfin je vais donc pouvoir aller me coucher.” Mercure; statue, marbre, by Jean-André Delorme, No. 6255. Livret, 581. Perhaps the evening hours indeed extended to 11 PM.

18 The fold-out print in issues of La Caricature of the 1830s also included a similarly-dressed jester-like guide labeled “La Caricature.”

19 “Il fallait y aller carrément, comme cela, tout le monde eut été ébloui et l’on n’aurait pas pu reprocher à l’administration son absence de lumières.” My gratitude for help translating this tricky text goes to Michel Hochmann, Sarah Maza and Susan Wager.

20 Patricia Mainardi, The End of the Salon: Art and the State in the Early Third Republic (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 129.

21 For a detailed discussion of the system that generated the light in the 1880 Salon (including images of the generators), see Frank Géraldy, “Les éclairages électriques à Paris. Système Jablochkoff: exposition de peinture,” La Lumière électrique, Journal Universel d’électricité 2/12 (15 juin 1880): 227-9.

22 Mainardi, The End of the Salon, 72. It is not clear from Mainardi’s statement if the increase came in 1879 or 1880.

23 Mainardi, The End of the Salon, 72.

24 “Mille excuses, madame, je me croyais aux rondes bosses et je vous prenais pour un marbre.”

25 “Le moyen de s’éclairer sur les finesses du modèle.”

26 Alain Beltran and Patrice A. Carré, “La ‘Révolution’ de 1881,” La Fée et la Servante: la société française face à l’électricité, XIXe-XXe siècle (Paris: Belin, 1991).

27 “[P]rès de 900,000 visiteurs se sont pressés au Palais de l’Industrie pour découvrir des techniques qui n’allaient pas tarder à engendrer et à caractériser une nouvelle civilization matérielle.” Beltran and Carré, “La ‘Révolution’ de 1881,” 64.

28 “Avec l’éclairage électrique et sa lente diffusion c’est tout un système d’attitudes psychologiques qui se modifie.” Alain Beltran and Patrice A. Carré, “Histoire de voir: éclairage électrique et vie privée au tournant du siècle,” Lumières, je pense à vous (Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, Centre de Création Industrielle, 1985), 39.

29 “[U]n des événements scientifiques les plus importants du dix-neuvième siècle.” Quoted in Histoire générale de l’électricité en France, Vol. I, Espoirs et Conquêtes, 1881-1918, eds. François Caron and Fabienne Cardot (Paris: Fayard, 1991), 17.

30 “Le téléphone est parmi les innovations électriques présentées au public l’une de celles qui semble le fasciner. Mais l’innovation majeure, celle qui retient l’attention de toutes et de tous, est sans nul doute l’éclairage électrique.” Beltran and Carré, “La ‘Révolution’ de 1881,” 67.

31 Ernest Freeberg, The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America (New York: The Penguin Press, 2013), 40-41.

32 K. G. Beauchamp, Exhibiting Electricity (London: The Institution of Electrical Engineers, 1997), 137.

33 William Henry Preece, “Electric Lighting at the Paris Exhibition,” Journal of the Society of Arts, quoted in Comte Th. du Moncel and Wm. Henry Preece, Incandescent Electric Lights, with particular reference to the Edison Lamps at the Paris Exhibition (New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1882), 127.

34 “Que pourrons-nous dire encore? Que le soir l’Exposition resplendit de feux que jamais aucun homme n’a pu voir briller jusqu’à ce jour… Jamais on n’aura été appelé à admirer un si bel éclairage que produisent de puissantes machines.” Gaston Tissandier, “L’Exposition d’électricité,” L’Illustration (20 août 1881), in Patrice Carré, “Documents: l’Exposition internationale d’électricité de 1881 à travers quelques textes,” Bulletin d’histoire de l’électricité 2 (1983): 69-70.

35 “Au Palais, l’électricité avait permis de produire, avec 1,800 chevaux, une lumière équivalente à plus de 55,000 becs de gaz, soit environ 6,000 becs de gaz de plus qu’il n’en existe dans toutes les rues et les promenades de Paris. … Nous sommes à l’aurore d’une époque nouvelle.” Henri de Parville, L’Électricité et ses applications: Exposition de Paris (Paris: G. Masson, 1882), 530.

36 Preece, “Electric Lighting,” 125.

37 Beauchamp, Exhibiting Electricity, 160. Electricity had played a growing role in the immediately prior sequence of Universal Expositions; especially in 1867 (Paris), 1873 (Vienna), and 1878 (Paris).

38 Beltran and Carré, “La ‘Révolution’ de 1881,” 65.

39 Ibid., 58.

40 Ibid., 63.

41 “[M]anifestation aussi éclatante que symbolique de la formation d’un milieu d’électriciens composite, mais prêt à mobiliser son énergie pour porter la nouvelle technologie aux premiers rangs des usages industriels et domestiques, à conquérir le monde en un mot.” Caron and Cardot, Histoire générale de l’électricité, 9.

42 An important factor, well studied by Robert Fox, is that while Edison himself did not set foot in Paris until 1889 (when he was treated as a celebrity and awarded the Légion d’honneur), he had an elaborate network of agents stationed in Paris before the exposition currying favor with the électricien crowd winning (buying) many converts to the Edison cause in the process. Robert Fox, “Edison et la presse française lors de l’Exposition internationale d’électricité de 1881,” Un siècle d’électricité dans le monde (Paris: PUF, 1987), 223-235.

43 “From the beginning, Edison thought of his electric light as not simply a lamp, but a system. … While many of the inventions of the nineteenth century – from railroads to telephones – required system-building, none of them came to exemplify the systemic nature of modern technology more than electric light and power. Bernard S. Finn, Edison: Lighting a Revolution: The Beginning of Electric Power (Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution National Museum of History and Technology, 1992), 12.

44 Beltran and Carré, “Histoire de voir,” 30. Paris was extremely slow in adopting electric light both outdoors and in. It was not until 1914 that La Compagnie Parisienne de Distribution d’Électricité was created. As late as 1936, Parisians consumed half as much electricity as New Yorkers did. See Beltran and Carré, “Histoire de voir,” 32 ff.

45 “L’apparition des éclairages électriques signifie – pour de nombreux témoins – un changement profond dans les modes de perception. L’électricité modifie, en effet, les façons de voir, les façons de regarder. Très vite on se rend compte que dorénavant le regard porté sur les choses ne pourra plus être le même. Nouveau régime donc, qui touche tout d’abord l’organe de la vue.” Ibid., 34.

46 Christoph Asendorf, Batteries of Life: On the History of Things and their Perception in Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 155.

47 “Je vous l’avais bien dit que, malgré vos opinions réactionnaires, vous deviendrez rouge un jour!”

48 “AVEUGLE. Ayez pitié d’un pauvre savant qui a étudié les diverses lampes électriques.” This character debuted in one of Draner’s reponses to the electric Salon of 1880. A gallery guard in that case wore the sign “AVEUGLE.” The caption reads “Ayez pitié des pauvres gardiens du Salon, victimes des expositions à la lumière électrique.” Draner, La Caricature (29 mai 1880): 2 (Figure 21).

49 “Honneur au courage malheureux!” Thanks to Louise Bourdua for translation guidance.

50 “Le maladroit! Il n’a pas vu mon mari prendre ma place, et il continue à parler de son amour!!!”

51 “Grand Dieu! Ma femme avec son cousin? … Ah! j’y vois clair maintenant…”

52 “Avec la lampe soleil! Ce serait malheureux.”

53 Goode, “The Public and the Limits of Persuasion,” 133.