Indulgence Exemplified: A Brief Peek at the Belle Epoque
An era where a regular stream of new inventions made life more pleasurable, and the sense that anything was possible was pervasive. Such was the atmosphere of the Belle Epoque, or “Beautiful Era,” a luxurious period that blanketed the European continent between the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Modern conveniences, combined with new trends to transform many cities, but most famously Paris, into scenes of unimaginable decadence. At the same time, art and design flourished, producing novel styles that are still captivating today. In this article, we travel back to this period of decadence to understand the driving factors that led to the Belle Epoque environment, major players in art and design, and the ultimate demise of this dynamic era.
Defining the Belle Epoque
The Belle Epoque began in the 1870s, amid a period of rapid change centered in France. The fall of France’s Second Empire fostered optimism over the country’s future. This political turn, combined with the rise of the Second Industrial Revolution, meant that cities like Paris were enjoying an economic boom.
New technologies were transforming the conveniences of modern life. For instance, passenger train networks began to weave across the European continent, boosting access to new international locales; the “safety” bicycle – so named as it was lower to the ground and thus was safer to dismount – allowed everyone to quickly navigate the city streets; and electric street lights appeared along the main Parisian boulevards, offering a warm glow of nighttime illumination. A palpable sense of joy permeated the French bourgeoisie, or upper middle class, both bolstered by the new perks of Parisian life and the optimism for what the future might hold.
Also advancing in this era were the decorative and fine arts. A renewed vigor for modern life meant that artists were encouraged to pursue new ideas in their work, in particular celebrating the spectacle of the modern city. New art forms and movements were also embraced, bringing with them a burgeoning aesthetic that spoke to the pleasures of the era.
But all this brilliance came crashing to a halt in 1914 with the onset of World War I. It was only in hindsight, in contrast to the horrors of wartime, that the name “Belle Epoque” was coined. This wistful nostalgia for a lost beautiful age adds to the compelling nature of this period, as it recalls the incredible energy and creativity that was muted by war. Fortunately, the legacy of many of the makers associated with the Belle Epoque survived in brilliant examples of fine and decorative art.
A Changing Urban (and Artistic) Landscape
Also renewing Paris’ esprit de corps was the urban center’s renovation, initiated by Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann. Between the 1850s and 1870s, Hausmann demolished much of the medieval core of Paris, replacing it with grands boulevards, sweeping apartment blocks – like those immortalized in Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris Street, Rainy Day (1877) – and well-groomed parks for people to stroll among their peers. These modifications to the Parisian landscape, combined with the development of large entertainment venues, like circuses, music halls, and cabaret clubs, ushered in a cultural moment where the practice of “seeing and being seen” reigned supreme.
This renewed attention on the modern experience meant that artists began to focus on such themes in their work. Emerging movements, like the Impressionists – who held their first exhibition in 1874 – used these scenes of Parisian life as their inspiration. From Claude Monet’s scenes of train station Gare Saint Lazare to Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s café culture captured in Bal au Moulin de la Galette and Mary Cassatt’s vignettes of fancy-dressed theater-goers in In the Loge, these artists worked to capture snippets of these modern entertainments. They were but one group of artists, though, pushing art in new directions.
Notable Movements and Makers of Belle Epoque Furniture and Decorative Arts
Belle Epoque furniture and jewelry embodied the eclectic nature of the movements of the day. While furniture makers like Francois Linke succeeded with pieces that expressed the richly embellished 18th-century Rococo styles that still dominated design in the earlier 19th century, other Belle Epoque designers channeled instead a new mode of design that upheld some of the grandeur and elegance while also infusing it with natural or streamlined sensibilities. Some of the most iconic movements from this period – and their makers – include:
The Art Nouveau aesthetic celebrated beautiful curves and natural forms, often with a combination of organic and semi-precious materials. From deep wood tones to gilt bronze accents, Art Nouveau furniture makers like Louis Majorelle echoed the forms of nature with striking delicateness that pulled the various forms of one’s home – from bedroom sets to desks – together.
While Art Deco designers like Eugène Printz and Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann also pulled motifs from nature, their approach centered more directly on a precise, geometric visual language. Clean lines and crips forms dominated Art Deco aesthetics from tables to cabinets and set the stage for much of the modernist design trends – from Bauhaus to DeStijl – of the 20th century.
Arts & Crafts
Equally compelling during this Belle Epoque era were the artists and designers associated with the Arts & Crafts Movement. These talented individuals, including designers like Gustav Stickley and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, wanted to reinvest the pieces they created with the presence of the artist’s hand. They returned to traditional making practices and emphasized in many of their creations the hand-hewn qualities of their designs. At the same time, they celebrated a similar geometric precision as did their Art Deco colleagues, resulting in furniture and decorative artworks that dazzled the eye with their high level of finish.
Notable Belle Epoque Subjects and their Painters
In addition to the rise of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists in the closing years of the 19th century, additional artists embraced the spirit of the Belle Epoque age and channeled its enthusiasm into their works. Some of the most notable themes from this period include:
Many artists, like John Singer Sargent and Jean Beraud, found painterly satisfaction in the spontaneity of street scenes. Working with a quick, loosened brushstroke similar to his Impressionist contemporaries, both Sargent and Beraud also relied upon a bright palette that conveyed the city with an air of optimism. Even more expressive were the works of American artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler, who made his artistic career in Europe. His city views, like his pastel White and Pink (The Palace), foreshadow how Whistler’s passion for the instantaneous and for his experimentation with color and tone would eventually encourage him to explore abstraction.
In addition to cityscapes, John Singer Sargent also devoted a significant portion of his career to painting portraits. Sargent became an acclaimed portraitist because he understood how to conjure his sitters in both a natural and flattering way. Contours might have been idealized, but Sargent tempered that perfection with natural postures that conveyed the humanity of that patron. Sargent was renowned for this activated aspect of his work, from the flamboyant dance frozen in time in his Spanish Dancer (1880-1881) to more conservative portraits like that of Mrs. William Crowninshield Endicott Jr. (1903).
Similar in energy were the portraits of Italian artist Giovanni Boldini, whose delicate yet animated brushwork made his sitters seemingly come to life on canvas against strikingly atmospheric backdrops. His iconic Portrait of Giovinetta Errazuriz (1892) captures the youthful ennui of a young girl, while his later Portrait of Marthe Régnier (1905) reveals his remarkable ability to convey the wispy fabrics so fashionable for the era’s evening gowns.
No conversation of the Belle Epoque period could be complete without a nod to one of the newest fields: poster art. Soaring into popularity in the closing decades of the 19th century as commercialization extended its reach, an entire generation of artists channeled the popular trends and styles into striking posters that, though designed for mass dissemination, today rank among fine art for the prices they achieve at auction.
Despite the field’s novelty, the diversity of styles and approaches in the field of poster art is impressive. Many might immediately think of the Post-Impressionist poster art of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and his acclaimed Moulin Rouge/La Goulue (1891), but rivaling him in terms of style was Jules Cheret, considered one of the masters of the genre. Cheret excelled in creating posters that exuded colors so vibrant it was as if each scene was independently illuminated. For example, his celebrated poster for the cabaret La Folies Bergère (1897) comes together as a kaleidoscope of colors that enliven and further animate the actress Loïe Fuller’s dress as she twirls in the center. These types of compositions became almost synonymous with the era, putting Cheret on the map as a pioneer both of Belle Epoque innovation and poster design.
At the same time, Czech artist Alphonse Mucha garnered incredible success with his Art Nouveau-inspired poster art. From advertisements selling cigarettes to promotional bills for traveling theatrical performances by major actors like Sarah Bernhardt, like that seen in Gismonda (1894), Mucha’s poster art shared a rich palette and impeccable linework. His subtle washes of color in combination with those bold contours often gave Mucha’s work a stained glass sense, an aspect that only heightened the delicate intricacy of his compositions.
The Belle Epoque was indeed beautiful, but not just for the new conveniences and perspectives on the future it instilled in the hearts and minds of Europeans. It was also a transformational period of immense artistic innovation. Artists fed off of the energy of their era to pursue new and creative avenues for expression, many of which continue to influence art and design today. Many of the artists, makers, and designers showcased here sell for incredible prices when their works come to auction, a testament to the fact that these ideas that blossomed in the Belle Epoque continue to bear fruit today.