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How “La Belle Époque” modernized 19th century Paris

Mary Cassatt, “Woman with a Pearl Necklace in a Lodge,” 1879 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons Public domain)

When one thinks of Paris, its illustrious monuments probably come to mind. While some of these monuments date back to the Middle Ages, many of them were built during The good times.

Appearing at the end of the 19th century, this “golden age” saw the construction of icons ranging from the iconic Eiffel Tower to the city’s winding metro entrances. Architecture, however, was not the only art form transformed by the golden touch of La Belle Époque; French art and literature also made great strides during this period, resulting in a cultural phenomenon like no other.

What is The good times?

Belle Epoque Architecture

Photo bank by Everett Historical / Shutterstock

Literally translated as “the good timesThe Belle Époque de Paris lasted from 1871 to 1914. During this time, several aspects of Parisian culture underwent important developments. In the fine arts, Impressionist, Cubist and Fauvist pioneers revolutionized painting, and graphic designers elevated printmaking to an art form. Architects executed plans for a new Paris, while writers made their mark with a more modern approach to storytelling.

What sparked such a universal golden age? To find out, we must contextualize this cultural event in history.

Historical context

Belle Epoque history

English: The rue de Rivoli after the fights and fires of the Paris Commune, Paris 4e arr. In the background, the town hall of Paris, 1871 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons Public domain)

In the summer of 1871, the City of Light gained a foothold after the fall of Municipality of Paris. The Paris Commune was a revolutionary government that emerged following the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War and, consequently, the collapse of the Second Empire of Napoleon III. Supported by the National Guard, this radical left commune seized power on March 18 and reigned over Paris until May 28, when the city was reconquered by the French army, but not without a fight.

During the violent confrontation, buildings across Paris, including Haussmann apartments on bustling Rue de Rivoli, City Hall, the town hall of Paris and, more symbolically, the Tuileries Palace, were set on fire. As a result, the new government was faced with the task of rebuilding Paris. While some buildings have been restored to their original condition, others have either been rebuilt in a new style or replaced entirely. In any case, these projects inaugurate a new Parisian period: The good times.

Cultural contributions

Iconic architecture

Belle Epoque Architecture

Interior of the Palais Garnier, postcard from 1909. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons Public domain)

The architectural developments of Paris during the Belle Époque cannot be underestimated. In addition to Eiffel Tower—A “large pylon” intended to serve as an entrance to the World Exhibition, or Exposition Universelle, in 1889 — the period saw the construction of Beaux-Arts buildings such as the Orsay station (the current Musée d’Orsay), the Small palace, the Big palace, and the Palace garnish, the first opera house in Paris. The dazzling domes of Department Stores, or department stores, have changed the horizon; Art Nouveau entrances transformed the basement; and the Romano-Byzantine Sacred Heart breathed new life into the heart of Paris.

Avant-garde art

Belle Epoque Posters

Jules Chéret, “Bal du Moulin Rouge”, 1889 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons Public domain)

In end of century (“End of the century”) Paris, art is undergoing an avant-garde overhaul. Until the 1870s, most French painters clung to the traditional tastes of Acadamy of Arts. This prestigious Parisian organization held annual fairs that presented a carefully selected art collection. As a general rule, the jury favored works presenting conventional subjects, from historical portraits to religious allegories. Reacting against these stifling standards, a group of artists, including Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas and Camille Pissarro, began to work in a style characterized by an unrealistic brushwork and ordinary subjects. They organized independent exhibitions and eventually became known as the impressionists.

The Impressionists paved the way for other modernist movements, including the Color Maniacs Fauvismabstract spirit Cubism, and eclectic Post-impressionism. But, in addition to painting, La Belle Époque experienced major advances in graphics, when Jules Chéret, the “father of the modern poster”, introduced the color lithograph. With this new technology, artists like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Alphonse Mucha boldly immortalized the cafes, cabarets and clubs that colored Paris at the turn of the century.

Notable writers

Writers of the Belle Époque

Portrait of Victor Hugo (circa 1871) (Photo: Wikimedia Commons Public domain)

During the Belle Époque, Paris has become a hub for writers. Among his most influential figures was the pioneer of the new Guy de Maupassant and naturalist novelist, playwright and journalist Emile Zola. Same romantic writer Victor Hugo– who grew up in Paris but lived in exile from 1851 – returned to the French capital in 1871 at the age of 68.

While he had written his most famous works in Paris years earlier (The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Wretched in 1831 and 1862, respectively), his long-standing work and love for Paris undoubtedly inspired writers to flee to the capital during the Belle Époque.

The end of an era

Belle Epoque Architecture

Photo bank by Premier Photo / Shutterstock

Just as the military conflict sparked the golden age of Paris, it also extinguished it. The start of First World War brings an abrupt end to the period of prosperity, as recent cultural developments in Paris are overshadowed by mobilization efforts. In fact, it was during the war that La Belle Époque retroactively received its romantic name.

Although the era is long gone, his presence is still visible and felt throughout the City of Light, illustrating the extent of his influence and the enduring legacy of Paris. “Whoever contemplates the depths of Paris is seized with vertigo,” writes Victor Hugo. “Nothing is more fantastic. Nothing could be more tragic. Nothing is more sublime.

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