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Tripping the Light Fantastic

Turning on a light is something that many of us will do several times a day without a second thought. Yet when electric light was first available, people found this to be the giddying start of a new era; their experience of electric light was something of great wonder.

At the turn of the last century, several large cities started a rollout programme of replacing gas lamps with new electrical lighting to illuminate the streets (Hodera, 2016; Ribaudo, 2014). In this period of frenetic energy, where technology, science, art and life in general was in flux, the boundaries between these disciplines were less obvious than ever before. In this milieu, various artistic groupings formed: in Italy, the Futurists, and in France, the far smaller collective known as the Orphists, had members contemplating how to depict light and colour.

Sonia Delaunay (1885–1979), an Orphist artist, along with her husband Robert (1885–1941), responded to Colour Theory and Cubism in a very distinctive way. They abstracted the world around them into colour spectrum circles that find their origin in the work of the French scientist Chauvel, from the previous century (Cork, n.d.).

Sonia Delaunay, Electrical Prisms, 1914, Oil on Canvas, 250 x 250 cm (MNAM Centre Pompidou)

Electric Prisms (Prismes Electriques) is one of several versions of the same theme, with each one representing Sonia's experience of electric light whilst strolling through Paris one evening with her husband, Robert (Greenberg, 2021). Painted in 1914, Sonia attempts to capture the way light emanates from the bright pure white centre and radiates out towards the air surrounding it. The central rings of colour appear to have an order which becomes distorted and more fluid as these rings encounter each other and evolve outwards. The way she has captured these almost pulsing rays, as they are distorted and changed by the world around them (natural and manmade), creates a sense of wonder and also the sense of disorientation that might have been felt during a period of such high technological turnover.

In Milan, another larger group had formed who would change the face of Italian art. The Futurists movement was the brainchild of Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. In 1909, he published his artistic manifesto on Le Figaro’s front page, stating that his main intention was to forge a new identity for Italy that was not based in museums or ancient history but in the new, modern age of technology (Tate). Among the artists in this group, Umberto Boccioni and Giacomo Balla are some of the most widely praised and recognised names.

Umberto Boccioni, Riot in the Gallery, 1910, Oil on Canvas,74 x 64 cm (Pinacoteca di Brera)

Painted in Milan, a few months after signing the Futurists’ manifesto, Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916) painted this scene of chaotic rioting bodies lit by bright electric lights (Pinacoteca di Brera, n.d.). The light emanating from the large bulbs seems to be fragmented, distorting the figures slightly and removing any definite outlines of their bodies as they morph and merge into one another, or into the flecks of light themselves. The light has an almost hazy impressionistic quality to it; thus, adding to the sense of confusion that is common to a riot scene. In the same way that Delauney contrasted several colours to create the effect of radiating light, Boccioni uses a similar technique but with much smaller areas of colour that are continuously repeated. In both works there is a sense of pulse; here, it is beating hard, fast and erratically in the general confusion.

Giacomo Balla, Street Light, c. 1910-11 (dated 1909), Oil on Canvas, 174.7 x 114.7 cm (MoMA © 2022 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SIAE, Rome)

Finally, in this exploration of the early 20th century’s fascination with light, we turn to Balla’s Street Light. In this work, one can almost hear the thrum of the electricity passing through the filament and feel the light as it pushes the limits of the canvas edge. The ‘v’ shaped individual rays of light look both beautiful but also menacing, as though the defined limit of their power - that sudden boundary of green pigment - contains their true potential force. The rays, although ordered and uniform, echo a flock of agitated birds and here, even more so than the previous works, is the pulsating, rippling, living electricity that was revolutionising the world. Technology is the undoubted protagonist of this work, overshadowing the old world order denoted by the somewhat childish depiction of the moon, which is faintly visible in the top right corner (Bethke, 2017). This work implies that nothing nature can provide is as powerful as that which man can create. It is a very clear manifestation of the Futurists' beliefs. One final touch is the signature of Balla in the area of light; he is at the forefront of the technological age, ready to embrace the new possibilities ahead of him.

Light, technology, electricity, science, colour - these are our protagonists, not people nor landscapes, but the abstracted notions of progress and modernity. In the Balla and Deluaney works, they appear to venerate light whilst Boccioni characterises it with notions of utility and atmospheric creation. However, in all three there is intrigue in the way light can be manipulated and split into different colours, showing its rhythms and effects on the perception of the public spaces in which it is found.


Bethke, J. (2017, March 9). Giacomo Balla, Street Light – Smarthistory. Smarthistory. Retrieved April 27, 2022, from

Greenberg, N. (2021, April 20). Sonia Delaunay, Electric Prisms. Impart Art Edugallery. Retrieved April 27, 2022, from

Hodara, S. (2016, June 4). The City of Lights, When It Was First Lighted. The New York Times. Retrieved April 29, 2022, from

Orphism (Simultanism): History, Characteristics. (n.d.). Visual Arts Cork. Retrieved April 27, 2022, from

Pinacoteca di Brera. (n.d.). Riot in the Gallery - Umberto Boccioni. Retrieved April 28, 2022, from

Ribaudo, R. (2016, April 27). Milano 1880: il primo Natale illuminato! Milano al quadrato. Retrieved April 29, 2022, from

Tate. (n.d.). Futurism. Retrieved April 27, 2022, from

Image Sources

MNAM Centre Pompidou. Electric Prisms (1913). [Oil on Canvas]. https://Smarthistory.Org/Simultanism-Sonia-Delaunay/

Street Light. (c. 1910-11 (dated 1909)). [Oil on Canvas]. Https://Smarthistory.Org/Balla-Light/.


Author Photo

Charlotte Hone

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