Celebrating with Light: Illuminations and Transparencies

When the inhabitants of New Orleans hold a banquet in Napoleon’s honour in Napoleon in America, the site of the festivities is decorated with coloured lamps and transparencies. Illuminations, in the form of fireworks, bonfires and lanterns, had been part of public celebrations in France since at least the reign of Louis XIV. Citizens contributed to illuminations by placing candles in street-facing windows, often at the order of municipal authorities. In the late 18th century, transparencies began to enhance illuminations. Transparencies were scenes or inscriptions painted on a translucent substance, typically paper or lightweight cloth, such as silk, linen, calico or muslin. “[B]y means of artificial and brilliant lights placed behind them, they have a very gay and sprightly effect.” (1)

Exhibition of a Democratic Transparency, with its Effect upon Patriotic Feelings. Caricature of transparencies by James Gillray, 1799. Source: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Exhibition of a Democratic Transparency, with its Effect upon Patriotic Feelings. Caricature by James Gillray, 1799. Source: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

DIY transparencies

London bookseller Rudolph Ackermann published 109 transparent etchings between 1796 and 1802, along with a book entitled Instructions for Painting Transparencies (1799). British engraver and publisher Edward Orme encouraged the fad for transparencies in both England and France with his bilingual manual, An Essay on Transparent Prints and on Transparencies in General (1807). Orme provided detailed instructions on how to turn an etching or engraving into a transparency. This involved painting large areas of color on the back of the print (corresponding with the outlines of the illustration), and then adding varnish to specific areas to give the paper a see-through effect when held up to light. Scraping or cutting away small sections of the surface was another way to enhance the transparency.

The effect of this kind of drawing (though by no means a modern invention) is very pleasing, if managed with judgement, particularly in [pictures featuring] fire, and moonlights; where brilliancy of light, and strength of shade, are so very desirable.

The very great expense attending the purchase of stained-glass, and the risk of keeping it secure from accident, almost precludes the use of it ornamenting rooms; but transparencies form a substitute nearly equal, and at a very small expense. (2)

The do-it-yourself method became popular in home decoration. Practical applications included lamp and candle shades, fire screens, fans and window blinds. Transparencies became an extension of the sketching and painting that genteel women were encouraged to undertake. Jane Austen, in Mansfield Park, refers to transparencies among the Bertram sisters’ handicrafts.

[The East room’s] greatest elegancies and ornaments were a faded footstool of Julia’s work, too ill-done for the drawing-room, three transparencies, made in a rage for transparencies, for the three lower panes of one window, where Tintern Abbey held its station between a cave in Italy and a moonlit lake in Cumberland.… (3)

Large transparencies were exhibited at night, with a number of lamps behind them.

Transparencies were one of the most important forms of popular art to emerge in the late eighteenth century; until at least the mid-nineteenth century, they were ubiquitous at pleasure gardens, balls, assemblies, hustings, dinners, astronomical lectures, theatres, fairs and – most prominently – at civic celebrations of all kinds. The most elaborate large-scale transparencies for public exhibition were usually produced by professional scene-painters, drawing masters or even esteemed Royal Academicians, yet their prevalence stemmed from the fashionable status attached to the production of small paper and ornamental versions by amateurs. Transparencies proliferated because they could be executed in a multiplicity of formats, sizes and materials appropriate to whatever artistic or practical skill was possessed by their creator; these were then exhibited in a corresponding variety of public, civic and domestic spaces. (4)

Illuminations and transparencies at Napoleon’s wedding

For an example of transparencies on a grand scale, here’s a partial description of how Paris was illuminated for the marriage of Napoleon and his second wife Marie Louise in 1810.

On Monday evening [April 2], the city of Paris presented such a spectacle that one might have thought himself in an enchanted place. I have never seen such brilliant illuminations. It was a succession of all magical decorations. Houses, hotels, palaces, churches, all were dazzling, even to the church towers, which seemed like stars or comets hung in air. The residences of the great dignitaries of the Empire, the ministers, the ambassadors of Austria and Russia, and that of the Duc d’Abrantes, vied with each other in splendor and good taste. Place Louis XV presented an admirable spectacle. From the middle of this Place, surrounded by orange trees of flame, the eyes rolled alternately to the magnificent decoration of the Champs-Elysées, the Garde-Meuble, the temple of Glory, the Tuileries, and the Corps Législatif. The latter palace represented the temple of Hymen. The transparency of the pediment represented Peace uniting the august spouses. On either side of them were genii carrying bucklers on which were displayed the armorial bearings of the two empires; behind this group came magistrates, warriors, and the people, presenting them with crowns. At the two extremities of the transparency were the Seine and the Danube, surrounded with children, – an image of fecundity. The twelve columns of the peristyle, and the flight of the steps leading to it, were illuminated. (5)

American transparencies

The enthusiasm for transparencies crossed the Atlantic. Here’s a description of some of the transparencies on display to celebrate Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s victory at the Battle of Lake Erie (September 10, 1813) during the War of 1812.

Last night, in conformity to the recommendation of the Intendant and Wardens, this city [Charleston, SC] was most splendidly illuminated, in honor of the late glorious victory obtained over the enemy’s fleet on Lake Erie by the gallant Commodore Perry. On this occasion some very elegant and appropriate transparencies were exhibited, with suitable devices and patriotic mottos. Among the most conspicuous were those exhibited at the houses of Major Geddes, J.B. White, Esq. and John Everingham, Esq. Major Geddes’ was a large transparency, executed with great taste and happiness of design, describing the action of Erie, just at the critical and important moment that Commodore Perry was passing in his boat from his own crippled vessel, the Lawrence, which had borne the fire of the whole British force for two hours… On the upper part of the picture was inscribed ‘The Almighty has granted another glorious victory’; on the left over the prostrate symbols of royalty was the motto, ‘LIBERTY TRIUMPHANT.’

Mr. White’s were five in number…. The centre transparency…describes the deeply interesting period when Perry, the intrepid hero of the lake, swept through the line of the enemy, spreading destruction among their shipping…just above this soared the American Eagle, grasping a trident, which he poises over the scene, to be disposed of according as the event of the conflict may determine, which he seemed to be watching over with parental fondness. The all-seeing eye of fate overlooked the whole, scattering the rays of truth in all directions. At the base, the appropriate words of Perry’s communication: ‘It hath PLEASED THE ALMIGHTY.’ In the west window – The genius of America, in bold and brilliant colors, trampling a lion under her feet. Motto, ‘crush the monster.’ In the east window – A female figure, representing industry, and plenty, scattering her fruits. Motto, ‘plenty shall abound.’ In the windows of the upper story were two cherubs, wrapt in light clouds, supporting escutcheons, with the names of Lawrence, Ludlow, Burrows, and Sigourney. Motto, ‘There’s a sweet little Cherub that sits up aloft, To take care of the life of poor Jack.’

Mr. Everingham’s transparency (which we understand was executed by Mr. Wightman jun.) was highly appropriate: we will attempt to describe it. On the right, a marble monument erected on a rock, on the base, ‘departed heroes,’ – on the top, an urn, from which was suspended by a wreath of laurels, the names of Lawrence, Ludlow and Burrows – over the monument, an eagle, in her talons the shield of hope with an anchor – also, a trumpet; and in her bill the motto, ‘Free trade and sailor’s rights.’ On the left, a naval column, rising from the ocean, with the names of ‘Rodgers, Decatur, Hall, Bainbridge, Jones, Chauncey and Porter, [etc.].’

The effect of these several pieces was very great and attracted a vast concourse of people to the respective places; so much so, that a passage through the crowd was effected with difficulty. (6)

If you’d like to try making your own transparent paper lanterns, writer Anna M. Thane provides excellent instructions on her Regency Explorer blog.

You might also enjoy:

Panoramas: 19th century virtual reality

How to Throw a Party in Regency London

The Marriage of Napoleon and Marie Louise

Celebrating July 4th in early 19th century New Orleans

Boney the Bogeyman: How Napoleon scared children

Sweetbreads, Sweetmeats and Bonaparte’s Ribs

How the 20 Questions game came to America

Fanny Fern on marriage in the 19th century

Some 19th century money saving tips

  1. Charles Taylor, The Artist’s Repository and Drawing Magazine, exhibiting the Principles of the Polite Arts in their various Branches, Vol. IV (London, 1790), p. 137.
  2. Colin Mackenzie, One Thousand Experiments in Chemistry (London, 1822), p. 476.
  3. Jane Austen, Mansfield Park: A Novel, Vol. 1, 2nd edition (London, 1816), p. 318.
  4. John Plunkett, “Light work: Feminine Leisure and the Making of Transparencies,” Kyriaki Hadjiafxendi and Patricia Zakreski, eds., Crafting the Woman Professional in the Long Nineteenth Century: Artistry and Industry in Britain (New York, 2016), pp. 43-44.
  5. Louis Constant Wairy, Memoirs of Constant, First Valet de Chambre of the Emperor, on the Private Life of Napoleon, His Family and His Court, translated by Elizabeth Gilbert Martin, Vol. 3 (New York, 1895), pp. 150-151.
  6. “The late Illuminations,” Niles Weekly Register, Vol. 5 (Baltimore, Oct. 30, 1813), p. 145.

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[The East room’s] greatest elegancies and ornaments were . . . three transparencies, made in a rage for transparencies, for the three lower panes of one window, where Tintern Abbey held its station between a cave in Italy and a moonlit lake in Cumberland.

Jane Austen