the Belle Époque
Transbordeur bridges in France and the world 2: focus on Portugalete, Chicago,
La Belle Époque, - the Beautiful Era - is an expression, born after the First World War, created to evoke the period stretching from after the Napoleonic campaigns until the watershed in Europe of the Great War: the years from 1890 to 1914.
The name Belle Époque encompasses the realities of expansion, carefree attitudes, a faith in progress, and an affluence spreading down through society, together with a certain nostalgia. This nostalgia was an embellishing memory of reality coming out of the trauma of the First World War. [Note that the term Belle Epoque was not widely used by the French.]
The social disruption, turmoil and loss of the Great War, caused by the millions of young men sent away from their families and work, never to return, marked Western Europe and its societies. Women having to cope without men and replace them at work resulted in female emancipation and independence, while returning military turned against the almost feudal nature of civilian society.
The Belle Epoque was coined to describe the years of peace and prosperity that marked middle-class life in France, before the Great War changed so much. The name soon spread to include many other countries in the West.
The Bell Epoque had notable features, such as dress, art and, with the optimism generated by a new century, engineering feats and technological progress. Art included painting such as the Impressionists, furniture and architecture, much styled by Art Nouveau and the English Arts and Crafts movement.
After the Franco-Prussian War, Europe saw a long period of peace, at those times unusual yet favourable to economic and technical progress. This progress touched particularly France, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Germany, Italy and Austria-Hungary.
People at that period were very optimistic and carefree about the future, thanks to the extraordinary technological advances. Positivism (Faith in science) and scientism (Science explains everything) made their appearance. La Belle Époque was manifest mainly on the streets of European capitals, in cafés and cabarets, in workshops and art galleries, concert halls and salons - places frequented by middle classes who benefited from economic progress.
After the 19th century Great Depression of 1873/4 to 1895/6, France entered a period of sustained growth in what was termed the Second Industrial Revolution.
The French population, while remaining hierarchical, became aware of belonging to a single nation. The rail network extended and helped open up the countryside, although France’s population remained largely rural.
The English, from different social groups, would come to France during this period. They came both for holidays where the seaside was an attraction, especially in winter when they could escape the bleak northern winters, and because France was a cheaper and socially more accepting place to live.
Exiles from the harshness of UK society included Oscar Wilde, and later the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Oswald Mosley and his wife. Hitler chose Hendaye on the south-west coast to meet Franco, a town where later Winston Churchill would come to convalesce after World War Two. Decca Mitford lived in Bayonne when she and her reporter husband , Esmond, ran away to join the Spanish Civil War.
At this period, those of very limited means and the idle classes travelled to France because of its low prices, and for fun in the sun. For the richer people, there were virtually no borders, and they discovered the newest means of touring by motor car and coach.
Motor touring on the coast road at Nice - "the Grand Corniche and its habitués".
Charabanc outing in the Pyrenees
The English disported themselves in casinos and on the Mediterranean coast, on the Côte d’Azur. There were so many English people staying in Nice that the main road along the sea front was named la Promenade des Anglais - the Promenade [seaside walkway] of the English. The English also came to the southern Atlantic coast, particularly to sojourn at Biarritz, with its sheltered beaches and more affluent commerce.
During this period, there were a succession of inventions that fundamentally altered people’s lives: the harnessing and use of electricity, the internal combustion engine, vaccinations against disease [invented by Louis Pasteur], the photograph, films, the bicycle. There was also immense progress made in chemistry and steel. These technological advances made life easier at all levels of society.
As well as the national demonstrations of engineering prowess, there were more local examples like the funicular train up the Rhune mountain in Pyrenees Atlantiques, built as a tourist attraction and still growing strong in the 21st century, and the moving pedestrian ramp at Biarritz, sadly dismantled to help the Great War war effort [page under preparation].
All this progress gave people a feeling of optimism, that anything was possible.
The World Fair of 1889, when the Eiffel Tower was opened to the public, and the Universal Exhibition of 1900 put Paris and France on the map as lively, expanding places in international society. For the Universal Exhibition, many new buildings were erected for the exhibition, often lit by the then novel electric lighting, while gas lamps illuminated the streets. Thus, Paris became an early City of Lights.
These major exhibitions were symbols of the Belle Epoque.
The Belle Epoque was marked, particularly among the wealthier, by particular dress styles.
1890-1900 Marked by leg of mutton sleeves, very small waists and skirts flared like a cone. Often, women wore an ensemble of a tailored short jacket and skirt - a suit.
1900-1907 Better-off women wore corsets which altered their silhouette to an S-shape. High-collared necks during the day gave way to very low decolleté scoop necks in the evening. Sleeves were wide and loose, held in by a wrist cuff.
1908-1914 Corsets extended downwards, to make the body look much slimmer and willowy.
Fashion Era is an impressive web site with sections on fashion from many historical periods.
The cultural scene flourished and took on new forms with Impressionism and Art Nouveau, the realistic novels of Gustave Flaubert and Emile Zola, cabarets, the French Cancan.
After 1880, Neo- or Post-Impressionism outgrew the school of painting, that had arisen first in France, called Impressionism.
Impressionists had burst onto the French art scene in the 1860s. They painted in a fresh new style with colour, light, strong brush strokes, compositions taken directly from life and painted in the open air, not keeping to accepted formal rules of sombre presentation and historical and religious subjects, painted only indoors in a studio.
The Impressionists’ new style was rejected by the establishment in the guise of the Paris Salon, managed by the Académie des Beaux-Arts and founded by Emperor Napoleon III. However, it was Napoleon III who, in due course, supported the alternative Salon des Refusés - Exhibition of the Refused - so the general public could decide for themselves the merit of the new painting style.
Impressionists in France included Eduard Manet, Claude Monet, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, Paul Gauguin, Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro, Berthe Morisot, Armand Guillaumin, Frédéric Bazille.
Neo-Impressionists in France included Georges-Pierre Seurat, Camille Pissarro, Paul Signac, Charles Angrand, Maximilien Luce, Henry Edmond Cross.
The great radical Dutch painter, Vincent Van Gogh, was a pioneer of a movement known as Expressionism. He lived in France from 1886 until he died there in 1890.
The creators of the Art Nouveau [New Art] had the ambition to break ties with the past, and to invent forms of art which would employ new techniques and new materials. Art Nouveau would be expressed in an original style, without precedent.
The source of paramount, sometimes exclusive, inspiration was nature and its seasons. Everything in the choice of the lines and forms was provocative, coming very close to disrespecting tradition. All lines were based on a stylisation of plants.
Art Nouveau was both a reaction against the established culture of historical art and a response to the Industrial Revolution, with its new materials and techniques, and sometimes shoddy standards of production.
This new artistic movement encompassed many areas of everyday life as a “total work of art”, or Gesamtkunstwerk: buildings, furniture, textiles, clothes, and jewellery. These were all designed to conform to the principles of Art Nouveau, which started in about 1890 and ended in 1914 with the coming of the Great War.
It is thought that this movement acquired its name from a shop in Paris, also called Art Nouveau and opened in 1895.
“It is always from Nature we must seek advice”, said in 1899 by Hector Guimard, architect and designer of many Paris Metro entrances. The Art Nouveau designers and artists were attracted by the linear qualities of plants and their expression of an organic force. Plants preferred were iris, umbelliferae, water lilies, sometimes made more stylised, with designs inspired by the stems rather than the flowers. There was also the influence of Japanese art, particularly tusche paintings.
Despite the desire to achieve an art for all and allow for some industrialised manufacturing, often unique or small series were made. These were mainly the work of craftsmen such as woodworkers, sculptors, workers in marquetry, and so expensive and accessible only to the wealthier.
Art Nouveau arose almost simultaneously in most West European societies. Here is a list of proponents in several countries:
In the Netherlands
In United States
Fundamental elements of Art Nouveau design are the line and the curve. Slim and stringy iron constructions were invented. Horta used lines and curves as graphical ornaments, Guimard tried to bring lines into space and created compositions of iron, glass, and air. However, van de Velde considered a dynamic, abstract line as intrinsic construction element. He said:
Thus, the legs of furniture are usually made of curves, flaring outwards, that the plan is often curved, sinuous moulding and carved decoration or applied bronzes, well integrated to the structure, Walnut, oak and above all pear, tamarind or mahogany wood are preferred.
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