The Belle Époque and its Beasts

At the Cirque Fernando, Rider on a White Horse, 1887-1888
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864-1901) Pastel and drained oil on board.
© Norton Simon Art Foundation 

The Belle Époque and its Beasts
Review: By Day & By Night: Paris in the Belle Époque at the Norton Simon Museum of Art

by Michelle Straebler

Plumed hats and perfumed gloves, Can-Can dancers and cabarets: What’s not to love about the Belle Époque? This is Paris at the apex of her glory — fondly remembered as the “beautiful era” — the years between the end of the Franco-Prussian War (1871) and before World War I begins (1914). The Eiffel Tower, built as the gateway to the 1889 World’s Fair, rises a thousand feet into the sky. The Orient Express, luxury on rails, first puffs out of the station. Pleasure reaches dizzying heights in the entertainment capital of Montmartre, and new electric lights blaze across the Parisian night like shooting stars. Most exhibitions about art in Paris during this golden age are little more than love letters to history, metaphorical carriage rides through the Bois de Boulogne. But at the latest exhibition at the Norton Simon, things get a little bumpy.

By Day & By Night: Paris in the Belle Époque pits the glamorous exterior the period is known for against its dark underbelly to reveal startling dichotomies. Like the flâneur, we stroll the museum galleries, observing everyday moments that stir underlying tensions — like artworks celebrating the privileged, and capturing the reality of the poor. Seeing the era through the eyes of Realist painters, Impressionists, and Post-Impressionists like the Nabis, we continually shift our perspective as artists construct and dismantle our idealized notions of the time.

society’s ladder

We know the ambassadors of the Belle Époque when we see them: top hats and walking sticks, that look that just screams ‘one percent’. There’s an art to being elite and that means having one’s portrait painted — becoming a work of art oneself. The upper crust clamored for the services of Realist portraitist Giovanni Boldini. Dubbed ‘Master of Swish’, he had a way with brushstrokes. In “Portrait of a Dandy” (1880), his subject sports a collar and cuffs that could slice bread. His powder blue bow tie is impeccable. His stylish mustache frames his face just so. His glasses, for better looking down on us, sit perfectly perched on his nose. We can feel his leather gloves, soft as butter, as he slips them off his fingers. This is how a gentleman enters a dinner party, where he is obviously much in demand. Such figures draw us in to the period but even in such genteel circles, baser activities intrude.

From private bedrooms to city streets, prostitution was rampant. Dropping in on one of Paris’s many brothels, we meet a dapper gentleman. Top hat on his head, he negotiates for services. Courtesy of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, we begin a tour of the days and nights of sex workers. In a series of crayon, brush, and spatter lithographs called Elles (1896), we watch as women bathe, take tea, and gossip to pass the time. Some are probably lovers, others might be friends. The artist, an aristocrat more at home on the lower rungs of society’s ladder, eschews eroticism and portrays their lives very matter-of-factly.

In “Lassitude” (1896), a long-haired brunette sprawls sideways across a bed. Depleted of energy, her eyes fix on nothing. Is she in the grips of sickness? Exhausted after a client? Perhaps she is under the influence. Addiction to morphine was common, as was the over-imbibing of absinthe.

A woman contemplates her private misery in “The Streetwalker” (1892). Working without the protection of a licensed brothel, like the one we have just seen, she seeks clients in dark corners. Harm and disease can easily come to her at a time when sex trafficking and syphilis were widespread. In this oil painting, Toulouse-Lautrec, a man with his own deep set of troubles, captures her alienation. Her circumstances will never improve. The world has always used and discarded women, in every profession — a sorority without end.

Take Carmen Gaudin, the artist’s favorite muse. We discover later that when she changed her hair color, Toulouse-Lautrec dumped her. We imagine being at the whim of an employer who so casually discounts the rapport you’ve built together, his lack of concern for how you will feed yourself once his support is gone. We encounter the melancholy Carmen as “The Redheaded Woman in the Garden of M. Foret” (1887). She seems lost in despair, somehow confined by the nature around her. But it’s human nature exerting the most pressure, and the unfortunate necessity of relying on others’ empathy.

Some muses had more staying power. Édouard Vuillard painted Madame Hessel over and over, year after year. She was his friend and lover for decades, despite being married to his art dealer. Here, “Lucie Hessel” (1900) daydreams on an orange sofa. Her creamy beige face is half bathed in gentle shadows. Her ivory blouse, grey skirt, and sinuous body blend seamlessly with the shape and textures of the room. Vuillard was a Symbolist painter, more interested in conveying emotion than an exact likeness. He was a member of the Nabis, artists who resisted the Impressionists’ vision of the world as a reflection of light. A printmaker as well as a painter, Vuillard blurred the lines between people and backgrounds. Here he translates his muse into beautiful decor. We feel vaguely like voyeurs as we watch Madame sleep.

Lucie Hessel, 1905
Édouard Vuillard (French, 1868-1940) Oil on Cardboard
© Norton Simon Art Foundation

We should be like the gentleman seen patiently waiting outside the door “At the Evening Party” (1883), but Jean-Louis Forain sneaks us inside the ladies’ cloakroom at an elegant soiree. He treats us to a glittering vision: a woman in a white gossamer gown, holding a matching feathered fan. She looks at herself in a mirror, buttoning a glove before she joins the gathering. We can imagine heads turning, voices falling silent, as she steps into the room. Rendered in gentle sweeps of pastel, she could easily dematerialize at any moment.

But while we celebrate the fairy-tale princess, it is the mice that spin straw into gold. In “Dressmakers Under the Lamp” (1892), two women huddle in a claustrophobic room, lit only by a single kerosene lamp. Shadows constrict the space so severely it feels like a prison cell. They are making fine things for others to swan around in. This is the second time Vuillard brings us into a private setting: this time, it is his heart as much as it is a workroom as one of the seamstresses is believed to be his mother. A widow, she worked countless hours in these conditions to put food on the table. Through this canvas, Vuillard wants us to see how worn-out hands must still bear the weight of a family’s survival.


Changing skylines and cityscapes represent the persistence of Napoleon III’s dreams of a modernized Paris coming to life. His city planner, Baron Haussmann, rebuilt Paris from parks to transportation, and turned it into the City of Light. He conceived the sweeping, tree-lined boulevards that even today are hallmarks of the capital but this improved quality of life came at a cost.

Armand Guillaumin, an Impressionist before the movement even had a name, was devoted to nature. His small canvas, “The Seine at Charenton” (1874), blends the bright and the gloomy. A young woman in a long black skirt and smart chapeau walks the narrow cobblestones beside the river. The water mirrors the soft blue sky. But factories in the distance spew black smoke, choking the clouds into obscurity. Guillaumin captures the reality of Paris in the midst of transformation — growing industry and encroaching pollution, life’s metaphor for taking the good with the bad.

The Seine at Charenton (formerly Daybreak), 1874
Jean-Baptiste Armand Guillaumin (French, 1841-1927), Oil on Canvas
© Norton Simon Art Foundation

Photographer Eugène Atget spent his life observing Paris. He wanted to preserve its character, and characters, before they vanished forever. A predecessor to the Surrealists, he recorded quirky moments that defined his fellow Parisians’ lives. His photo of an itinerant “Lampshade Peddler” (1899) introduces a mustachioed man in a straw boater. He carries a basket and sack spilling over with lampshades and odd sundries. He stands on a cobblestone street that, along with his trade, would soon be gobbled up by the future. He, and others like him, are relics in their own time. They just don’t know it yet.

Post-Impressionist Pierre Bonnard specialized in urban landscapes. A member of the Nabis, he is one of art’s great colorists. His “Place Clichy” sings with prosperity, a bustling boulevard lined with verdant trees, a stately backdrop for shops and cafes, carriages and horses. A fashionably dressed woman occupies center frame, a symbol of the new Paris and its vitality. Her matching floral blouse and umbrella command our attention. She glides through the street (and no doubt life) with a chic black dog at her side. In a companion piece, however, this confidence gives way to despondency.

“Fruit Vendor” conjures a wholly different plane of existence. Bonnard’s lithograph shows us a pushcart vendor, back crooked with age, selling his wares. A woman with tired eyes crosses before him, clutching a shawl around her. A broken little dog scurries by. This humble trio makes up the bizarro world version of Bonnard’s earlier scene. The beauty of the era depends entirely on where you are standing.

life after dark

Life after dark was a Belle Époque specialty with endless entertainments and the promise of l’amour. Artists, aristocrats, bad girls, and bourgeoisie — society converged in the district of Montmartre. With venues like the Moulin Rouge, Chat Noir, and Cirque Fernando, this bohemian playground was Studio 54, Cirque du Soleil, and Times Square all at once. Night after night, crowds flocked to risqué and raucous performances. But how much control did performers have over the sexual suggestiveness of their routines? Some own their celebrity while others give hints of unease.

Toulouse-Lautrec immortalizes “Jane Avril” (1893) in the high kick of the Can-Can. She inspired Nicole Kidman’s character in Moulin Rouge! Her petticoats on full display, she is a living, breathing neon sign with her hair and dress in flamboyant hues. A musician’s hand grips the neck of a cello in the lower-right hand corner of the lithograph, an allusion to the titillating effect of the dance.

Not everyone, it seems, wears the spotlight so comfortably. We are thrown by Toulouse-Lautrec’s “At the Cirque Fernando, Rider on a White Horse” (1887). In this sexually charged pastel, a bare-legged rider in a tiny blue dress sits atop a huge white horse. The swift brush strokes let animal and arena spin around and around in our imaginations while the rider remains frozen in place. An anonymous gentleman, alone in the stands, watches her rehearsal. Some vague disquiet makes her look back at us over her shoulder. We wonder what she is thinking, or might be trying to say.

In “Portrait of a Woman” (1891), a caricature believed to be cabaret singer Marguerite Dufay, artist Louis Anquetin captures the chanteuse’s larger than life persona. With an overflowing bosom and irrepressible grin, she gives off a wicked sense of humor and unapologetic sexuality — a 19th Century Lizzo.

“The Seated Clowness” (1896) is a performer who also mixes sexuality and humor. She is a contortionist who makes the crowds laugh, gasp, what have you. Resting between acts, she sits with her legs splayed in an undignified (or intentionally mischievous?) pose. Her ostentatious ruffled top, flouncy skirt, and gravity-defying updo speak to the vibrancy of her performance. Here she looks weary of the limelight. She gives us a smile that doesn’t reach her eyes.

Color illustration of seated female circus contortionist/clowness resting between performances with legs spread widely apart, in yellow flouncy. ruffled top and black stockings and shoes, with blonde topknot
Elles: The Seated Clowness, 1896
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864-1901), Color Lithograph
© Norton Simon Museum

On the heels of Montmartre and its lively atmosphere, “The Entombment” (1893) comes as a shock. Maurice Denis, a founding member of the Nabis (from the Hebrew word for “prophet”), takes us out of the nightlife and into the night eternal. In this painting, mourners move from right to left, following pallbearers to a grave just beyond our view. The mourners’ bodies, formed by thick dabs of black paint, express a heaviness that pulls them downward. They create a mass of black, the boundaries between them indistinguishable, united in their grief. By contrast, the deceased, swathed in white linen, seems light and free. A faint, golden light circles his head, a sign of his salvation. A woman in the center holds a bouquet of tiny white flowers. Springing like a well of relief, they visually reinforce a message of redemption. “Art remains a sure refuge,” Denis writes in his personal journal, “the hope of a reason for our life here…” Sometimes, however, there is no refuge. And from one prophet we go to another, the message of hope becoming a harbinger of despair. Because the beautiful era, for all its surface gaiety, was tainted by bigotry.

We come to the exhibition’s only sculpture: Picasso’s “The Jester” (1905). This furiously worked black bronze shows the bust of a man wearing a three-pointed cap. His slight smile — forced and unnatural — hints he knows something he isn’t telling. His hollowed out eyes, like a blind seer, disturb us. The sculpture started life as a likeness of Picasso’s friend, Max Jacob. He was a gay poet, born Jewish but a convert to Catholicism. Who could have foreseen that decades after the Belle Époque had come and gone, Nazis would occupy Paris. Jacob would be arrested and die on his way to a concentration camp.

Yet anti-Semitism did not enter France on the heels of German boots.

It was alive and well when champagne was overflowing at the Moulin Rouge. In 1894 a Jewish military officer named Dreyfus was framed, arrested, and sent to die on Devil’s Island. Some gloated. Some raged. Émile Zola publicly accused his countrymen of appalling prejudice, setting the well-coiffed hairs of Paris on fire. Eventually the wheels of justice turned in the right direction, but France would bear the scar, and the Belle Époque the shame.

So what the Jester sees, but does not say, haunts us.

ghosts of history

By Day & By Night: Paris in the Belle Époque is as big a show as you choose to make it — and an absorbing one. The Museum rightly leaves us to our own interpretations. The ghosts of history ran well ahead of me through the galleries, speaking of inequality, troubling racial dynamics, and sexual exploitation. They whispered about sin, reminisced about spectacle. I got a sharper picture when I lost myself in the details: I had to be the swan at the dinner party; the courtesan lost in a morphine haze; an uneasy rider in the circus; a dab of black paint in a graveyard. But why, after all this time, should the nuances of the Belle Époque concern us? Because little more than a century after it collapsed, much of their world resonates with our own. Because for every negotiation, someone somewhere loses everything. For every lavish banquet, someone goes unfed. And for every person claiming their own unique identity, someone else, as we speak, is being erased. No single narrative can ever tell the whole story about a time, place, or people. But then, as now, we can never have la belle without its beasts.

(c) 2019 MuseumHawk/Michelle Straebler, all rights reserved.