The more than forty year period from the early 1870s to the beginning of World War I saw peace across much of Europe. Fueled by the continuing advancements of the Industrial Revolution, the era was marked by optimism and prosperity - for some. In France, this period is known as La Belle Époque, 'the beautiful age', a description applied to it in hindsight after the horrors of the First World War. During this time, the arts flourished. Theater, music, visual arts and literature evolved and gained worldwide attention.
Many well-known artists came in to prominence during the Belle Époque. Artists Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, Henri Rousseau, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and a very young Pablo Picasso were hard at work. Writers Guy de Maupassant, Émile Zola, Marcel Proust and Colette had their works published, some with great controversy attached (as we read about in Zola's case in The Painted Girls). Musicians like Eric Satie, Claude de Bussy and Maurice Ravel also came into their own during the Belle Époque, as did scientists such as Marie Curie and Louis Pasteur.
For the affluent and middle classes, the Belle Époque was definitely a time of prosperity. For the lower classes, however, such financial success was elusive. In The Painted Girls, the van Goethem family lives in lower Montmartre. Their home was a single room within a tenement. During the Belle Époque, artists and bohemians moved into Montmartre, where housing was cheap. A carnival atmosphere was prevalent. Cabarets, dance halls, and prostitution grew in the neighborhood, providing entertainment to the less affluent, but also drawing a wealthier clientele.
1889 was arguably the pinnacle of The Belle Epoque. The year that France celebrated a century since the storming of the Bastille by hosting the Exposition Universelle (World's Fair) in Paris - the lasting legacy of which is the Eiffel Tower, built to mark the entrance to the fair. The famous Moulin Rouge also opened in 1889, in the Pigalle district, close to Montmartre; and the very grand Casino de Paris opened a year later. All these structures are evidence of the pomp and circumstance of a blossoming cultural time.
Picture of Moulin Rouge by Steve from Wikipedia.org
This article was originally published in March 2013, and has been updated for the
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