ABOUT LA BELLE ÉPOQUE
What and when exactly was the Belle Époque and was it so “belle”?
With regard to France, historians still debate when exactly the Belle Époque took place. Some argue the terminology refers to the 20 years before 1900; others between 1900 and 1914. All place it somewhere between the Third Republic (1871-1914) and the outbreak of first World War. These 40 years have attracted much attention as it was a time of great political, social, legal, and industrial change. The Paris Commune, the revolutionary socialist government that ruled Paris from March 18 to March 28, 1871, was harshly suppresed by the French Army in what came to be known as “The Bloody Week.”
Seven years later, Paris was host to the International Exhibition, showing the world in the summer of 1878 that la Ville Lumière was alive again. An even greater International Exhibition was staged in 1889, with the colonial empire as its central theme and celebrating its achievements: art, electricity, the telephone, horseless carriages—with the Eiffel tower designed as its crown. The International Exhibition of 1900 outshone them both, with the resplendent new bridge, Pont Alexandre III, and the Grand and Petit Palais.
Public nostalgia for the era was largely based on the peace and prosperity connected with it in retrospect. To characterise the arising of the Belle Époque, one can find terms like satiety of the traditional in art, architecture and daily life; satiety of the pomp; and ostentation of the past. The joy of life awoke in all social classes; the desire of new, extraordinary, sensational things.
Today, in the French imagination, the Belle Époque is associated with the impressive architecture in Paris erected during the Universal Exhibitions, the elegance and beauty of the women in the French salons, and the vibrant nightlife for all classes in between two wars in places like Le Chat Noir and Le Moulin Rouge.
But not everything was so belle during that period. There was political instability with the affair Boulanger, the president who was elected in 1887 and was about to become a hero. Two years later, General Georges Boulanger committed suicide on his mistress’ grave. A Panama Canal scandal exploded in 1892 with investors losing millions and politicians convicted of corruption.
The Anarchist scourge scarred Paris, with Ravachol, Auguste Vaillant, and their followers bombing houses of public figures, before their subsequent public execution. The Dreyfus Affair divided the nation—with the French split on the question of the guilt or innocence of a Jewish army captain, Alfred Dreyfus. In Montmartre artists led a poverty-stricken Bohemian life, drinking absinthe in nightclubs and cabarets and struggling to remain afloat.
At the same time, there were affirming awakenings, including in the French salons, which had been prevalent since the 18th century with Madame Pompidour. This primarily French phenomenon became a new arena in which women could exert their influence.
Although the money spent there often flowed from serially unfaithful husbands, the biggest salons of the day became an area where women could sway key figures in the cultural landscape. Among the best-known hostesses: Countess Greffulhe, Princess Mathilde Bonaparte, Misia Sert, Comtesse de Loynes and Madame Arman de Caillavet.
Countess Greffule, a renowned beauty was mostly robed in sumptuous Charles Worth dresses that accentuated her fine waist. She introduced to Paris the Russian Ballet with Serge Diaghilev, opera singers Feodor Chaliapin and Enrico Caruso, and composer Claude Debussy. Equally at home in the highest echelons of Parisian society and in Europe’s princely courts, kings, grand-dukes and ministers would mingle in her drawing room with scientists, scholars, poets and musicians.
In music she organized public concerts. She rented Paris’s biggest concert halls and put on works such as Handel’s Messiah. Her salon gave writers like Anatole France, painters like Rodin, Manet and Renoir the pleasant opportunity to meet in elegant surroundings as though in a club. Marcel Proust immortilized the countess by basing the duchesse de Guermantes in his In Search of Lost Time on her.
Today it can almost be argued that Paris has never been more international than at this period! The city attracted Americans, British, Austrians, Spanish and many others from all social backgrounds and has fascinated us all enough to retrospectively call it La Belle Époque.