La Belle Époque: The Elite’s Last Hurrah
The “Beautiful Age” otherwise known as La Belle Époque was a period in French history that began around 1890 a few years after the Franco-Prussian War and ended in 1914 when World War I began. This seemingly golden age, sprouted after the defeat in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 where France’s previous empire The Second Republic under Napoleon fell and the Third Republic was declared. This regime held various short lived governments in power, but resulted in stability instead of turmoil. This time in history is normally recognized as an era of optimism, grandeur, and peace. It was a time of embracing new technology and scientific discoveries, as well as providing a flourishing environment for the arts such as literature, music, theater, and the newly recognized visual arts. It was seen as calm before the storm of World War I.
On the surface France seemed to be reveling in a prosperous place after the tumult of the previous war and compared to the upcoming devastation of World War I, it essentially began that way. This era in France bred ideas of affluence and positivity, cultivating culture and beauty. Other countries at the time such as England were more focused on expansion and gaining global power. Or the United States which concerned itself with the pursuit of wealth during its “Gilded Age” a term coined by Mark Twain, between the Civil War and World War I where the growth of industry and wealth resulted in materialism and heavy political corruption. France became the cultural center of influence around the world. The industrial revolution greatly influenced the engineering output of France in their iron, chemical and electricity industries, creating materials for the aviation and car industries. Other inventions such as the telegraph and telephone increased communications around the country also with the aid of railroad making it easier for the public to travel further and longer for holidays. Luxuries such as gas, water, electricity and sanitary plumping eventually made its way slowly to the middle class and maybe even to the lower class. Life expectancy of children had risen. Agriculture also expanded by developments in new fertilizers and machines. Frances new ability to mass produce goods and increase urban workers’ wages opened up a booming consumer world. All of this progress, however beneficial would eventually lend itself to the development of a material culture.
Consumption of certain goods tripled and quadrupled with improvements in food quality. Items like bread, wine, sugar, and coffee were now even more popular. Sports became a new favorite in both playing and watching. Along with this mass entertainment evolved to venues like the Moulin Rouge, best known for its Can-Can dance and new styles in Performance Theater. Film and music became influenced by modern writers. Print also became more accessible in price and literacy increased with new advancements in technology. The Eiffel Tower was also built as the grand entrance to the 1889 World’s Fair held in Paris A new world of wonder and entertainment opened up for France.
A sort of symbol for this age was the Moulin Rouge, it was created by Joseph Oller and Charles Zidler in the late 1890’s who jumped at the opportunity to appease the aristocracy’s new taste. It ultimately became a mixing bowl of upper class, middle class, women and foreigners all were able to bump shoulders in the exotic and extravagant setting. The signature Can-Can dance performed by the club’s seductive dancing courtesans made the cabaret style establishment became a hit early on. This type of entertainment spread across Europe with its influence. The Moulin Rouge was so successful not only because of its tantalizing dancers but also its innovative and ever changing décor that made it a place where every class could mix, they provided champagne events where people danced and let loose regularly, adding to the air of the fun and fancy free lifestyle of La Belle Époque. Artist’s like Toulouse-Lautrec loved it, his paintings and posters depicting the grandeur and joy of the Moulin Rouge put it on the map internationally. It was a place that glorified the bohemian lifestyle.
For those who were lucky enough to indulge in the splendor of La Belle Époque, it seemed like an ideal place in time to flourish. The Aristocracy pampered themselves with leisurely pleasures. The rich would concern themselves with debut balls, musical concerts, opera, and horse races. When that was over they would visit their quaint chateaus or go abroad for holiday. Women would enjoy displaying the latest fashions on a daily stroll, and when the Paris Salon opened influential artist displayed new paintings, sculptures, and decorative art it became an excuse to show off one’s highly exclusive frock. Fashion had become an important outlet for the rich with haute couture originating in Paris. This high fashion referred to the exclusive custom fit clothing that was normally made from high quality extremely expensive fabric. It displayed great attention to detail and was performed by only the most experienced and capable seamstresses, who hand crafted each frock, pushing France to become the fashion capitol of the world. The French demanded the highest degree of refinement in their search for beauty and culture. This luxurious splendor in experience only justified the name the “Beautiful Age.”
Even though this seemed like the golden age, the harsh reality of life in France was far from grand and beautiful. There was an entire underclass that never saw the spoils of the La Belle Époque’s special and entertainment. Poverty had still remained an epidemic in the urban slums of Paris before and after the era. Generally the years of La Belle Époque featured a sort of political stability, France also struggled with a corrupt government and combated anarchy that tried to uproot the elites hold over the government.
The aristocracy disassociated itself from the other classes and from the real realities. The elite constructed a ridged society based on dominion over the weak. There was a high separation of classes and an inequity. Aristocracy wanted to hold on to the status they felt entitle to. The change in economic, industrial and population expansions the rich wanted to ensure their position through this change. The newly rich were highly looked down upon, and the elite isolated themselves from the rest of the lowly society to practice their indulgence in luxury and extravagance. The best way the aristocracy thought they could remain in control was through a ridged code of behavior so they could seem even more superior to the lower classes. To maintain this control no inappropriate behavior was to be exhibited and in result no one was allowed to display feelings. The class structure ensured cheap labor, and many workers came to the cities to maintain factories and industry. This resulted in wealthy and working class neighborhoods being far apart from one another enforcing the separation of class.
There had been many forces that attempted to destabilize the current system and the anarchy movement was the most extreme. They had envisioned a stateless society where men would be free, and there would be no burden of ownership, law, government and all roots of evil. They thought that if property was eliminated then every human would be able to seek justice and that the role of the State would be changed to a voluntary cooperation of individuals for general welfare. The only way was to overthrow the current institution. Although many attacks, and attempts at assassinations, and the sudden death of a president had occurred the damage had not been too devastating and La Belle Époque was able to maintain some sort of stability. The most serious political issue of the time was the Dreyfus Affair where Captain Alfred Dreyfus was wrongly accused of treason due to evidence from the French government. It had directed heavy anti-Semitism at Dreyfus and stirred controversy over France’s tolerance on such an issue. It caused a public debate on the issue, calling out government corruption and France’s tolerance for anti-Semitism. The decadent façade of the golden age started to crack showing the dark currents of the era, it was starting to become a highly divisional society.
Other groups of nonviolent revolutionaries began to challenge those in power as well. These would include the artists and intellectuals. They fought for the liberation of the mind. They began to question the accepted rules and ideas as well as the hypocrisy of society created their own conventions. These thinkers realized that the aristocracy did not want to accept some of the new technological and scientific discoveries that were transforming society because they refused to evolve due to their tradition bound elitism. In result they came up with these rigid socials and behavior structures that lacked showing emotion or truth. Truly the only thing the rich cared about was keeping up appearances. Intellectuals believe these high strung codes of repressed emotions led to emotional anxieties and mental illnesses.
Artists began to rebel against the established ridged conventions of the academy. Like the elite the academy had set bars against any real form of original personal expression. They had to follow the “right” way to paint in order to have a shot of their work being deemed as art or be rejected. Artists shifted to break with tradition and chose to convey real emotions and issues. Impression met with skepticism at first in Paris and didn’t gain popularity until after World War I, but post-impressionism was prominent. A few artists that were associated with this movement were Redon, Gauguin, Matisse, Bernard, Rousseau, Toulouse-Lautrec, along with a young Picasso. More progressive painters included the Pre-Raphaelites who challenged the academy as well. Another style that is primarily recognized with La Belle Époque is Art Nouveau, a highly decorative style that characterized much of France around that time. These artistic movements chose to convey inner feelings, whether it be a emotional or spiritual message, modern artist were not afraid to refuse the standard term of beauty and wanted to depict a more honest and personal depiction of modern life. Just the artist and thinkers of that time were challenging what were accepted women also wanted a shot at change. They were tired of being thought of an object placed on pedestal and be content with obeying men and trite conventions of servitude and being complacent with rejected roles. In reaction women the formed the suffragettes and fought for social and economic equality of the sexes.
The “Beautiful Age” although depicted as flourishing and peaceful time in French history had its fair share of flaws. Ultimately its downfall was progress. Technology and industry had implicated a force in the public that made things accessible to all. Advances in technology had crated new economic prospects for all citizens. Before most establishments such as bureaucracies, the church, corporations and guilds had been concerned with keeping the status quo. However technology called for change and with these new advances, social conventions were challenged. The public was able to gain education easily through industry and business. In result this rapid increase in technology had begun to level out the playing field for society. The elite couldn’t handle this aspect and tried to shut itself off from the common people and maintain its grasp at power and influence while they still could. The elite were slowly being stripped of their influence over society as the lower classes became more aware. This increase in indulgence and frivolous behavior was like the elite’s retreat to their last hurrah, while they chose to not deal with the reality of ever changing modern life.