Sunday, November 9, 2008

William Sharpe's "New York Nocturne"

William Chapman Sharpe is professor of English at Barnard College, Columbia University. He is the author of Unreal Cities and the coeditor of Visions of the Modern City.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, New York Nocturne: The City After Dark in Literature, Painting, and Photography, 1850-1950, and reported the following:
On page 99 of New York Nocturne readers will find themselves not in New York, but London, discovering how James McNeill Whistler forever changed the way we look at the city at night. Though Whistler never saw modern Manhattan bedecked with the diamonds of a million electric lights, we feel the impact of his artistry every time we marvel at the sparkling skyline or the misty glow of a streetlight on a wet evening. His Nocturnes draped a veil of elusive allure over the body of the grimy urban landscape, influencing the way photographers, painters, and poets would depict Manhattan from the 1890s through to the present moment. As my book shows over the course of 400 pages and some 150 images, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Joseph Stella, Edward Hopper, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams and many more all learned from Whistler. In turn they taught their audiences to feel wonder and delight at the spectacle of night falling in the artificially lit city. At a time when most people thought that the daytime city was ugly and the nighttime city was a hellish pit of crime and depravity, Whistler’s Nocturnes enabled viewers to see the city as a beautiful form clothed in darkness and bejewelled with light. For Whistler and those who followed, night in the city no longer represented moral danger, but rather an immensely exciting realm of personal and artistic exploration. I first got the idea of studying nocturnal New York from gazing at some Whistlers at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan, so page 99–though only a quarter of the way through the book–is at the heart of it.

Quote: "With their rivers and bridges, pleasure gardens and feux d’artifice, Whistler’s nocturnes occupy an eroticized border area between mastery and submission, such that the infernal chasms and cataclysms of the romantic sublime find their tamed yet tempting counterparts in enveloping mists and looming pylons. Night, as Whistler paints it, does not awe–it invites and embraces."
Read the introduction to New York Nocturne, and learn more about the book at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue