by Hélène Valance. Yale University Press, July 2018. 256 p. ill. ISBN 9780300223996 (h/c), $45.00.
Reviewed November 2018
As a departure from the vast landscapes of the Hudson River School, some American artists looked for new and contemporary subjects to depict. Among these was the artist James McNeill Whistler and what he coined “nocturne” paintings. In Nocturne: Night in American Art, Hélène Valance (assistant professor, Université de Franche-Comté) focuses on the fascination of American artists in capturing nightscapes within the context of scientific and technological advances, escalating racial and social tensions, and the changing identity and social relations of the country at a transformative period in American history. During this pivotal transition at the turn of the 20th century, American artists such as Whistler, Edward S. Curtis, Frederic Remington, and Henry Ossawa Tanner focused on capturing the melancholy of night in their work.
Valance separates Nocturne into three major influences that she contends guided American nocturne artists. Part I focuses on the scientific and technological impact on artists as they looked to nightscapes as inspiration. Here Valance argues that the development of technology such as photography and x-rays guided artists to look at the “invisible” and look inward. Part II focuses on race and social issues and the response artists had to the conquering of the west, foreign policy in Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines, and Jim Crow America. Finally, Part III focuses on urban identity and social relations as major cities expanded throughout the United States and began to dominate the landscape.
The book is durable, well-produced, and printed on quality paper. It contains 116 quality color images along with thirty-five black and white illustrations that support Valance’s thesis. Valance has taken extraordinary lengths to produce a book that is well-sourced and includes extensive notes, bibliography, and index.
With Nocturne, Valance adds a new chapter to the scholarship on artists fascinated by American nightscapes and places them within the context of history. The text is well-written and does not read like a traditional art history book or monograph. While the author argues that scientific and technological advances led to a response by artists to paint nocturnal scenes, much of the detailed information focusing on this science and technology distracts from the artworks. Nocturne has a narrow focus and would be best suited for researchers, curatorial staff, and academic libraries with some appeal to public libraries serving academics.