The abundance of the Belle Époque
Paris VI, the Pont des Arts and the Institut de France(C) BnF, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image BnF
With universal expositions and steam locomotives, gleaming cars overtaking hackney cabs, feathered hats, parasols and chichi parties, the iconography of the Belle Époque is instantly recognisable for the inventiveness that permeated every sphere.
A peaceful political climate and faith in progress
The expression “Belle Époque” appeared long after this defining period between the 19th and 20th centuries as an idealised interpretation of the decades preceding the First World War.
Europe saw several years of peace, which fostered technological developments.
France took advantage of its stable currency to strengthen national cohesion around republican institutions and the veneration of emblematic figures such as Victor Hugo, Louis Pasteur and the Curies. The dazzling progress gave the impression of being at the cutting edge of civilisation in every field.
Celebration of the centenary of the birth of Victor Hugo at the Panthéon, Théobald Chartran
(C) RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Versailles) / Gérard Blot
Paris: a renovated and modern capital
Transformed by the work of Baron Haussmann, Paris boasted widened streets and new and innovative architecture, featuring iron and glass, for the universal expositions. It was a period of construction that would shape the city, with the Eiffel Tower, the Grand and Petit Palais, the Pont Alexandre III, the Orsay and Invalides stations and the first metro line, which crossed the city from the Porte Maillot to the Porte de Vincennes.
Grands magasins, or department stores, grew larger and new retailers emerged, attracting an international clientèle seeking out French-style good taste in the wake of the universal expositions.
Building the Métropolitain (Paris metro), 1900, Luigi Loir
(C) Musée La Piscine (Roubaix), Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Arnaud Loubry
Technological progress and developments
Inventions and discovery in industry and chemistry and new modes of transport and communication represented the promise of a greater future. The aeroplane, the telephone, the car, the train, the velocipede, the gramophone, the cinema and the telegraph, though the preserve of the wealthy segment of society, suggested universal access to these innovations, which over a short time saw rapid improvements.
1900 Universal Exposition - Palais de l'Electricité
(C) MuCEM, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image MuCEM
A transforming society
These developments, which reshaped society and laid the foundations for massive change, mainly affected the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, while a large section of the still-rural, working-class population was impervious to these contemporary advances. The concept of progress emerged at the point when science and technology were regarded as advantageous to society. Indeed, mechanisation also enabled a significant reduction in working hours: the length of the work day fell from 14 hours to eight, Sunday rest was established, and compulsory education took children away from the fields and factories. Dance halls and cabarets also began to emerge, as well as the tentative discovery of leisure activities.
The Chalet du Cycle in the Bois de Boulogne, Jean Béraud
(C) RMN-Grand Palais / Agence Bulloz
The creation and revival of the Arts
The Belle Époque also saw a tremendous revival in the artistic field. This was the era of the poster, with Leonetto Cappiello, Jules Chéret, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Alfons Mucha. Designers such as Emile Gallé and René-Jules Lalique offered a new aesthetic approach to daily objects, while Hector Guimard introduced an architectural style dominated by a roundness inspired by the plant kingdom. Although Art Nouveau really represented the hallmark of this period, other new artistic movements also emerged, spearheaded by Picasso, Braque and Kandinsky, whose cubism and abstract painting rubbed shoulders with the work of the Impressionists. This period of inventiveness and effervescent creation contributed to the myth of a golden age worthy of the chrononym “Belle Époque".
The Seasons: Spring, Summer and Autumn, Alfons Mucha
(C) BnF, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image BnF