The Belle Époque or La Belle Époque (French for "Beautiful Era”) was a period in French and Belgian history that is conventionally dated as starting in 1871 and ending when World War I began in 1914. Occurring during the era of the Third French Republic (beginning 1870), it was a period characterized by optimism, peace at home and in Europe, new technology and scientific discoveries. The peace and prosperity in Paris allowed the arts to flourish, and many masterpieces of literature, music, theater, and visual art gained recognition. The Belle Époque was named, in retrospect, when it began to be considered a "golden age" in contrast to the horrors of World War I.
In the newly rich United States, emerging from the Panic of 1873, the comparable epoch was dubbed the Gilded Age. In the United Kingdom, the Belle Époque overlapped with the late Victorian era and the Edwardian era. In Germany, the Belle Époque coincided with the reigns of Kaiser Wilhelm I & II and in Russia with the reigns of Alexander III and Nicholas II.
Popular culture and fashions
The French public's nostalgia for the Belle Époque period was based largely on the peace and prosperity connected with it in retrospect. Two devastating world wars and their aftermath made the Belle Époque appear to be a time of joie de vivre (joy of living) in contrast to 20th century hardships. In contrast to the early 20th century, the Belle Époque was a time of relative peace and prosperity. It was also a period of stability that France enjoyed after the tumult of the early years of the French Third Republic, beginning with France's defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, the Paris Commune, and the fall of General Georges Ernest Boulanger. The defeat of Boulanger, and the celebrations tied to the 1889 World's Fair in Paris, launched an era of optimism and affluence. French imperialism was in its prime. It was a cultural center of global influence, and its educational, scientific and medical institutions were at the leading edge of Europe.
It was not entirely the reality of life in Paris or in France, however. France had a large economic underclass who never experienced much of the Belle Époque's wonders and entertainments. Poverty remained endemic in Paris' urban slums and rural peasantry for decades after the Belle Époque ended. The Dreyfus Affair exposed the dark realities of French anti-Semitism and government corruption. Conflicts between the government and the Roman Catholic Church were regular during the period. Some of the artistic elite saw the Fin de siècle in a pessimistic light.
Those who were able to benefit from the prosperity of the era were drawn towards new forms of light entertainment during the Belle Époque, and the Parisian bourgeoisie, or the successful industrialists called nouveau-riches, became increasingly influenced by the habits and fads of the city's elite social class, known popularly as Tout-Paris ("all of Paris", or "everyone in Paris"). The Casino de Paris opened in 1890. For Paris' less affluent public, entertainment was provided by cabarets, bistros and music halls.
The Moulin Rouge cabaret is a Paris landmark still open for business today. The Folies Bergère was another landmark venue. Burlesque performance styles were more mainstream in Belle Époque Paris than in more staid cities of Europe and America. Liane de Pougy, dancer, socialite and courtesan, was well known in Paris as a headline performer at top cabarets. Belle Époque dancers such as La Goulue and Jane Avril were Paris celebrities, who modelled for Toulouse-Lautrec's iconic poster art. The Can-can dance was a popular 19th-century cabaret style that appears in Toulouse-Lautrec's posters from the era.
The Eiffel Tower, built to serve as the grand entrance to the 1889 World's Fair held in Paris, became the accustomed symbol of the city, to its inhabitants and to visitors from around the world. Paris hosted another successful World's Fair in 1900, the Exposition Universelle (1900). Paris had been profoundly changed by the French Second Empire reforms to the city's architecture and public amenities. Haussmann's renovation of Paris changed its housing, street layouts, and green spaces. The walkable neighbourhoods were well-established by the Belle Époque.
Cheap coal and cheap labor contributed to the cult of the orchid and made possible the perfection of fruits grown under glass, as the apparatus of state dinners extended to the upper classes. Exotic feathers and furs were more prominently featured in fashion than ever before, as haute couture was invented in Paris, the center of the Belle Époque, where fashion began to move in a yearly cycle. In Paris, restaurants such as Maxim's Paris achieved a new splendor and cachet as places for the rich to parade. Maxim's Paris was arguably the city's most exclusive restaurant. Bohemian lifestyles gained a different glamour, pursued in the cabarets of Montmartre.
French cuisine continued to climb in the esteem of European gourmets during the Belle Époque. The word "ritzy" was invented during this era, referring to the posh atmosphere and clientele of the Hôtel Ritz Paris. The head chef and co-owner of the Ritz, Auguste Escoffier, was the pre-eminent French chef during the Belle Époque. Escoffier modernized French haute cuisine, also doing much work to spread its reputation abroad with business projects in London in addition to Paris. Champagne was perfected during the Belle Époque. The alcoholic spirit absinthe was cited by many Art Nouveau artists as a muse and inspiration and can be seen in much of the artwork of the time.
Large public buildings such as the Opéra Garnier devoted enormous spaces to interior designs as Art Nouveau show places. After the mid-19th century, railways linked all the major cities of Europe to spa towns like Biarritz, Deauville, Vichy, Arcachon and the French Riviera. Their carriages were rigorously divided into first-class and second-class, but the super-rich now began to commission private railway coaches, as exclusivity as well as display was a hallmark of opulent luxury.
In 1890, Vincent van Gogh died. It was during the 1890s that his paintings achieved the admiration that had eluded them during Van Gogh's life, first among other artists, then gradually among the public. Reactions against the ideals of the Impressionists characterized visual arts in Paris during the Belle Époque. Among the post-Impressionist movements in Paris were the Nabis, the Salon de la Rose + Croix, the Symbolist movement (in music as well as visual art), Fauvism, and early Modernism. Between 1900 and 1914, Expressionism took hold of many artists in Paris and Vienna. Early works of Cubism and Abstraction were exhibited. Foreign influences were being strongly felt in Paris as well. The official art school in Paris, the École des Beaux-Arts, held an exhibition of Japanese printmaking that changed approaches to graphic design, particular posters and book illustration (Aubrey Beardsley was influenced by a similar exhibit when he visited Paris during the 1890s). Exhibits of African tribal art also captured the imagination of Parisian artists at the turn of the 20th century.
Art Nouveau is the most popularly recognized art movement to emerge from the period. This largely decorative style (Jugendstil in central Europe), characterized by its curvilinear forms, become prominent from the mid-1890s and dominated progressive design throughout much of Europe. Its use in public art in Paris, such as the Paris Métro stations, has made it synonymous with the city.
Prominent artists in Paris during the Belle Époque included post-Impressionists such as Odilon Redon, Maurice Denis, Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard, Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, Émile Bernard, Henri Rousseau, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (whose reputation improved substantially after his death), and a young Pablo Picasso. More modern forms in sculpture also began to dominate as in the works of paris-native Auguste Rodin.
Although Impressionism in painting began well before the Belle Époque, it had initially been met with skepticism if not outright scorn by a public accustomed to the realist and representational art approved by the Academy. In 1890, Monet started his series Haystacks. Impressionism, which had been considered the artistic avant-garde in the 1860s, did not gain widespread acceptance until after World War I. The academic painting style, associated with the Academy of Art in Paris, remained the most respected style among the public in Paris. Artists that appealed to the Belle Époque public include William-Adolphe Bouguereau or the British John William Waterhouse, or the idyllic Roman scenes of Lord Leighton. More progressive tastes patronized the Barbizon school plein-air painters. These painters were associates of the Pre-Raphaelites, who inspired a generation of esthetic-minded "Souls".
Many successful examples of Art Nouveau, with notable regional variations, were built in France, Germany, Belgium, Spain, Austria (the Vienna Secession), Hungary, Bohemia and Latvia. It soon spread around the world, including to Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and the United States.
European literature underwent a major transformation during the Belle Époque. Literary realism and naturalism achieved new heights. Among the most famous French realist or naturalist authors are Guy de Maupassant and Émile Zola. Realism gradually developed into modernism, which emerged in the 1890s and came to dominate European literature during the Belle Époque's final years and throughout the interwar years. The Modernist classic In Search of Lost Time was begun by Marcel Proust in 1909, to be published after World War I. The works of German Thomas Mann had a huge impact in France as well, such as Death in Venice, published in 1912. Colette shocked France with the publication of the sexually frank Claudine novel series, and other works. Joris-Karl Huysmans, who came to prominence in the mid-1880s, continued experimenting with themes and styles that would be associated with Symbolism and the Decadent movement. André Gide, Anatole France, Alain-Fournier, Paul Bourget are among France's most popular fiction writers of the era.
Among poets, the Symbolists such as Charles Baudelaire remained at the forefront. Although Baudelaire's poetry collection Les Fleurs du mal had been published in the 1850s, it exerted a strong influence on the next generation of poets and artists. The Decadent movement fascinated Parisians, intrigued by Paul Verlaine and above all Arthur Rimbaud, who became the archetypal enfant terrible of France. Rimbaud's Illuminations was published in 1886, and subsequently his other works were also published, influencing Surrealists and Modernists during the Belle Époque and after. Rimbaud's poems were the first works of free verse seen by the French public. Free verse and typographic experimentation also emerged in Un Coup de Dés Jamais N'Abolira Le Hasard by Stéphane Mallarmé, anticipating Dada and concrete poetry. Guillaume Apollinaire's poetry introduced themes and imagery from modern life to readers. Cosmopolis: A Literary Review had a far-reaching impact on European writers, and ran editions in London, Paris, Saint Petersburg, and Berlin.
Paris' popular bourgeois theatre was dominated by the light farces of Georges Feydeau and cabaret performances. Theatre adopted new modern methods, including Expressionism, and many playwrights wrote plays that shocked contemporary audiences either with their frank depictions of everyday life and sexuality or with unusual artistic elements. Cabaret theater also became popular.
Musically, the Belle Époque was characterized by salon music. This was not considered "serious" music but, rather, short pieces considered accessible to a general audience. In addition to works for piano solo or violin and piano, the Belle Époque was famous for its large repertory of songs (mélodies, romanze, etc.). The Italians were the greatest proponents of this type of song, its greatest champion being Francesco Paolo Tosti. Though Tosti's songs never completely left the repertoire, salon music generally fell into a period of obscurity. Even as encores, singers were afraid to sing them at "serious" recitals. In that period, waltzes also flourished. Operettas were also at the peak of their popularity, with composers such as Johann Strauss III, Emmerich Kálmán, and Franz Lehár. Many Belle Époque composers working in Paris are still popular today: Igor Stravinsky, Erik Satie, Claude Debussy, Lili Boulanger, Jules Massenet, César Franck, Gabriel Fauré, and Camille Saint-Saëns and his pupil, Maurice Ravel.
Modern dance began to emerge as a powerful artistic development in theatre. Dancer Loie Fuller appeared at popular venues such as the Folies Bergère, and took her eclectic performance style abroad as well. Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes brought fame to Vaslav Nijinsky and established modern ballet technique. The Ballets Russes launched several ballet masterpieces, including The Firebird and The Rite of Spring (sometimes causing audience riots at the same time).