The Paris of the Belle Époque will never be forgotten.
From roughly 1871 — the end of the Franco-Prussian War and the violent collapse of the defiant, insurrectionary Paris Commune — to 1914 and the beginning of World War I, the city was more than just the thriving, busy and peaceful capital of a strong European nation, France’s Third Republic.
It was the eternal City of Light. It was also, especially during Paris’ fin de siècle (turn of the century) and the International Exposition of 1900 that celebrated it, an inspiration to the world of what a great city is like at its zenith. It still is today, even if that actual era is now a memory. Or, rather, the subject of a museum exhibition.
Belle Époque Paris currently is available for us to visit at the Cincinnati Art Museum, where the ticketed exhibition Paris 1900: City of Entertainment has just opened and will be on display through May 12.
Organized by the Petit Palais Museum of Fine Arts, which is in a building originally constructed for the 1900 exposition, Paris 1900: City of Entertainment consists of more than 230 objects drawn from Parisian museums. This show first was on display in Paris in 2014, to commemorate the 1900 exposition. Sometimes also referred to as the Exposition Universelle, it was a world’s fair that celebrated Paris’ cultural and scientific optimism and progressive mindset. Held from April 14 to November 12, it drew 51 million visitors.
It helped usher Paris into the 20th century as if it would witness another 100 years of continued greatness.
“It’s an incredibly important period,” says Peter Bell, Cincinnati Art Museum’s associate curator of European paintings, sculpture and drawings. “You have the confluence of a number of different circumstances in Paris in the second half of the 19th century and around the turn of the century.
“It’s a peaceful time across Europe, by and large. There are all kinds of new technologies being invented, there’s now an influx of creative people into cities. There’s a profusion of artistic styles coming forward in Europe in this period. France decided to do an international exposition in that year and really turn Paris, and thus the Republic of France, out to the world.”
That made a long-lasting impact, Bell explains. “Whenever anyone thinks of Paris now, no matter how much exposure you have to its history, there are styles, fashions that come to mind that hit their highest peak in the Belle Époque, around 1900,” he says.
When the Petit Palais first staged Paris 1900, it was not immediately planned to be a traveling show. But the French consulate general/cultural attaché in Atlanta encouraged a U.S. tour, and the fact that one of the participating Parisian institutions — Musée Carnavalet — was undergoing renovations facilitated the availability of objects for overseas travel. A “reconsidered” version of the original exhibition opened at Nashville’s Frist Art Museum in October 2018. After Cincinnati, Paris 1900 concludes at the Portland Art Museum in Oregon.
“It provides an opportunity for American audiences to understand the importance of the International Exposition of 1900 to our contemporary culture,” says Cameron Kitchin, the Cincinnati Art Museum’s director. “That was a turning point in 1900, when so much was changing in terms of visual culture. It still has echoes and ripples that have led through Modernism and to today.”
(Christophe Leribault, director of the Petit Palais, had discussed the show with Kitchin in Paris in 2016; they talked again when Leribault came to Cincinnati in 2017 for the opening of Taft Museum of Art’s Bijoux Parisiens: French Jewelry from the Petit Palais.)
The 1900 exposition fills the show’s opening galleries at the Cincinnati Art Museum, giving it first billing among the multiple starring subjects that comprise Paris 1900. At the show’s entrance is a large photo of the exposition’s domed pavilion, the Porte Monumentale, with people walking by it. Its multiple arches look like the curves of a roller coaster — an invitation to a dizzying future.
And repeatedly, there are examples of how art, design, beauty, pleasure and happiness figured into everyday life. The exhibition features galleries devoted to the decorative Art Nouveau movement of the time, which incorporated more natural forms and lines into objects, especially those in the decorative arts. One gallery space has been partitioned into a sumptuous Art Nouveau living room containing chairs, lamps, a screen, bench and table.
Since Paris at the time was the home of the nascent film industry, the exhibit features nine minutes of the milestone 1902 film A Trip to the Moon by Georges Méliès. In a section devoted to the stylish, ascendant “Parisian Woman” is an otter-fur muff with satin and silk lining and an accompanying cassette-sized, fabric-covered muff warmer that could be filled with hot coals and placed inside. It’s an example of the kind of care and imagination — and fashion sensibility — that went into idealizing Parisian women as sophisticated and comfortably stylish.
“By having the enormous exhibition that this is, we’re able to both highlight the superstars but also give some context around them,” Bell says. “This brings forward a number of lesser-known names who are working at the very top of their game and are rivals with Rodin and Toulouse-Lautrec, but don’t have names that echo in our minds today. Although, perhaps, they should.”
Bell is deeply impressed by an oil painting by Georges Souillet from 1905, “Construction of the Metropolitain,” which depicts another technological accomplishment of the era — the laborious creation of a tunnel for the Paris Metro. Workers are in a pit, pushing a cart toward the tunnel, as enormous, brownish scaffolding towers above them. A cart, used to lift or lower material, hovers and looms threateningly over the workers.
“There was so much going on in terms of changing the physical fabric of Paris across the 19th century,” Bell says. “Artists like Souillet take the city as their subject matter, and they do that in this gritty way, by also finding the beauty in the compositional complexity of scaffolding as much as in the finished terrace housing or churches. There are a couple other instances in the exhibition where you’ll see this wonderful treatment of the city as this living, growing thing. And also the importance of labor.”
Among works of note by Art Nouveau artists are René Lalique’s glass-and-silver chalice, with its surface that creates an illusion of being covered by pine cones, and Jean-Joseph Carriès’ bizarrely cheerful glazed stoneware, “Frog with Rabbit Ears.”
“Carriès was a very accomplished sculptor and decided to move his entire creativity into stoneware and ceramics and drawing out this fantastical subject matter and elevating the potter’s art to something of real sculptural merit,” Bell says.
The exhibition also spotlights women artists working in Paris around 1900, such as sculptors Hélène Bertaux and Camille Claudel, and the painter Berthe Morisot (who died in 1895).
“Around 1900, there are a number of major figures who come forward that are women,” Bell says. “Claudel was also Rodin’s lover, so we think about her personal life perhaps more than we should. But we have a bust of Rodin in the show by Claudel, who worked in his studio and went on to achieve a career of her own.”
Another female sculptor represented in the show is a surprise — Sarah Bernhardt, probably the greatest French actress of the period as well as an international celebrity. She starred in many of the most popular plays. The show features her “Seaweed,” a ruggedly dagger-shaped bronze piece that she made after taking plaster molds from seaweed gathered on the Brittany coast.
“We have a bust (by her) of Sardou, the playwright who wrote many of her best parts as leading lady,” Bell says. “She made this fantastic bronze bust of him that’s front and center in a section of the exhibition.” (Victorien Sardou, among other things, wrote the play La Tosca for her; Giacomo Puccini later turned it into the famous opera.)
The exhibition also features a 1905 photograph by Henri Manuel of Bernhardt onstage in a theater bearing her name, such was her fame, in the Victor Hugo play Angelo, Tyrant of Padua.
There is a steamy, erotic side to the exhibition, represented well by Hubert-Denis Etcheverry’s oil-on-canvas study for a larger-scale painting of “Vertigo.” A tuxedo-wearing man leans over a couch to passionately kiss a woman reclining on it. The back of his bent-over head obscures half her face; we can see her one eye closed. Curtains separate them from a couple dancing in an adjoining room.
“It’s a painting of an illicit encounter — a kiss over the back of a sofa,” Bell says. “It might seem quite tame to us now, but even in a period of excess such as Paris in 1900, there are still social norms. Shining a light on high society and the activities of the rich and famous is something artists did in this period.
“In many ways, these studies or sketches can be even more thrilling than the finished work itself because you see the artist in motion, working out what he or she wants to capture.”
Nightclubs, cafés and concert-staging cabarets like Moulin Rouge, Folies Bergère and Le Chat Noir were fashionable during the Belle Époque, and they’re well-represented in Paris 1900. Edouard Zawiski’s painting of Moulin Rouge, the boisterous dance hall in the hilly Montmartre district where the can-can was invented, captures the bright, inviting appeal of its entrance at nighttime, when the lighted red windmill (for which it was named) was illuminated.
Toulouse-Lautrec’s lithograph of a show rehearsal at the Folies Bergère, the club in Paris’ 9th arrondissement known for its provocatively dressed (and undressed) dancers, captures an intimate view of the club’s workings. Toulouse-Lautrec also did the colorful poster in the show that promotes another Montmartre club, Divan Japonais. And the place that was considered to be the original bohemian cabaret, Le Chat Noir, is represented by several pieces, including an 1881 painted sheet metal sign designed by Adolphe Willette that proudly displays its symbol, an Art Nouveau-stylized black cat, and a poster by Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen advertising the 1898 sale of the venue’s art collection after the owner died.
“At the café-concerts and cabarets, all levels of society could be found mixing at these variety shows, and that in itself is one of the hallmarks of this era,” Bell says. “Of course, there’s ballet and opera and institutions frequented by the upper class, but the upper class would also come and be seen side-by-side with the artists and bohemians at the cabaret and café concerts.
“That’s a uniquely Parisian phenomenon that has one of its great moments in the years around 1900.”
The Belle Époque ended with the outbreak of the first World War in 1914 — Germany declared war on France. That war lasted until 1918, but since the French were among the victors, you might assume the country resumed the good times as if they were never interrupted.
But the war profoundly changed French life afterward, even if it took awhile for that to set in. Paris did recover somewhat in the 1920s, especially with the help of the Americans — the African-American dancer Josephine Baker, for instance, became a star of the Folies Bergère; Paris became the base for “The Lost Generation” of American writers like Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
But there was another Lost Generation, too. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, of the 8 million French soldiers mobilized for the war, a staggering 1.3 million died and 1 million were crippled. Northeast France was devastated by the combat, and economic growth and industrial production plummeted.
“There’s no question that all of society in France was affected by World War I, (although) that feeling that society could return to its prewar sense of optimism and positivity lingered until maybe the mid-1920s,” explains Jane Alden Stevens, a professor emerita of Fine Arts at University of Cincinnati whose 1999-2003 photography project, Tears of Stone: World War I Remembered, resulted in a book. “Then they came to grips with the new reality — they had ended the war with a collective sense of grief that pervaded everything. No one in France after the war had not lost someone, or knew someone who had been killed or disfigured, or were experiencing what we now call PTSD. There were simply so many people in mourning that they were the majority of the people.”
And beyond that, World War II awaited. Still, the Belle Époque lives on in our memory — we don’t just want to remember it, we want to relive it. On my tour of Paris 1900 during the media preview, a visitor commented to me, while looking at a short film of people on the moving sidewalk at the 1900 Exposition Universelle, that she wished we all could travel back to that time and place — right now.
We can’t, but we can do the next best thing — spend time with Paris 1900 and learn what it says about golden ages.
“This was a very specific moment in history, and the arts in general were responding to it with a wonderful focus on making life beautiful for a public that consumes it,” says curator Bell. “Art was taking the spirit of the age as its substance. Not everything was rosy and glowing in 1900 in Paris or at any other city in the world, but there was this spirit of patient progress and belief in beauty, and it expressed itself through these objects we are fortunate enough to assemble.”
Paris 1900: City of Entertainment continues through May 12 at the Cincinnati Art Museum (953 Eden Park Drive, Mount Adams). Tickets cost $12 for adults; $6 for seniors, college students and children ages 6-17. Free for members and children under 5. More info: cincinnatiartmuseum.org.
Programs & Events Related to Paris 1900
Kreines Lecture: Art Nouveau–What’s in a Name? with Dr. Martin Eidelberg — 2 p.m. | March 10
*Public Tour with ASL Interpretation: Paris 1900: City of Entertainment — 1 p.m. | March 16
See the Story Book Club: Rodin’s Lover by Heather Webb — 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m. | March 16
Artist Workshop: Printmaking — 1-2 p.m. | March 16
Wee Wednesday: Petite Paris — 10 a.m.-noon | March 27
Paris 1900 Concert with Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra in the Fath Auditorium — 7-8 p.m. | March 28
Art After Dark — 5-9 p.m. | March 29
*Gallery Experience: Paris 1900: City of Entertainment with Associate Curator of European Art Peter J. Bell — 3-4 p.m. | April 7
Baby Tours: Parisian Babies —11 a.m./2 p.m./3 p.m. | April 19
Memories in the Museum: Paris 1900: City of Entertainment —10 a.m.–noon | May 1
*Exhibition tickets must be purchased separately
7 p.m. | March 7
Directed by Nicole Vedrès and filmed in 1946, this documentary draws on archival footage and interviews with artists, writers and politicians to paint a vivid picture of life in Belle Époque Paris. Excerpts taken from more than 700 films shot between 1900 and 1914 were pieced together by Vedrès to tell the story of the City of Light during an exciting period of change. See Paris from the perspectives of flâneurs and flaneuses, market vendors, and personalities such as Léon Blum, Claude Debussy, André Gide and Auguste Rodin. A post-film conversation with Michael Gott and respondent Peter Bell, associate curator of European paintings, sculpture and drawings, follows.
7 p.m. | April 4
At the turn of the century, two anonymous circus performers meet and devise an act together. Monsieur Chocolat would rise to fame and became the first black performance star in French history after he and his partner Footit are discovered and recruited to perform their exuberant routine in Paris. French director Roschdy Zem’s historical biographical drama depicts the career of Monsieur Chocolat and offers an artist’s perspective of Belle Époque Paris, but it is also fundamentally a story about race and discrimination in French society at the turn of the century.
Zazie dans le metro
7 p.m. | May 2
Director Louis Malle’s exuberant comedy evokes the exhilaration and experimentation of the French New Wave but careens off into an entirely different register, using playful editing tricks and special effects. Malle follows 10-year old Zazie on a quest across a burlesque, colorful Paris at a crucial point in the city and the nation’s history. Although set in a later era, Zazie uses new mobile camera technology to offer a unique glimpse into the sights and sounds of a rapidly changing city, from Art Nouveau metro stations to 19th-century passages. A post-film conversation with Michael Gott and respondent Stanley Corkin, professor of film and media studies at the University of Cincinnati, follows.
Event information provided by the Cincinnati Art Museum