The convergence of the Belle Époque

History is awash with incredible connections and encounters whereby cultural titans occupied the same timeframe, country, city or even the same room. One prime example is Socrates teaching Plato, whose pupil Aristotle later taught Alexander the Great, who famously encountered Diogenes, founder of the Cynics, all within a few decades.

Another, how Italy during the High Renaissance was host to Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Botticelli and Bellini all at once, and the small city of Florence was remarkably home to da Vinci and Michelangelo simultaneously. They even encountered each other in person.

Or how at the Cedar Tavern in 1950s New York on any given night were painters (Jackson Pollock, Willem De Kooning, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, Joan Mitchell) converging with writers, poets and composers (Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, John Cage).

Head of the Statue of Liberty on display in a park in Paris, 1883 by Albert Fernique (1841-98) [Photographer]. Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi (1834-1904) [Sculptor]. Collection: New York Public Library.

Such times are the fertile coalescing of great minds, with the notion that revolution was occurring was palpable then and there, rather than requiring historical hindsight.

One such period was the Belle Époque (1871-1914), an era of true Cultural Revolution ablaze with artistic, technological and scientific breakthroughs, with its epicentre France alive, and no city more so than Paris.

In 1884 alone, plaster casts of ‘The Kiss’ and ‘The Thinker’ were resting in Auguste Rodin’s Parisian studio. John Singer Sargent’s scandalous Portrait of Madame X in his own.

That year, Sargent even captured Rodin in paint. Exhibitions bore the newfound ‘Impressionist’ work of Monet, Manet, Degas, Pissarro and Renoir. A teenage Marcel Proust was learning English in the school Stéphane Mallarmé taught it.

The Statue of Liberty – constructed with Gustave Eiffel’s assistance – rested in the city, ready to be shipped to stateside shores. Eiffel’s own construction, the iconic triangular beauty of the Eiffel Tower, was whipped-up and shown off as the world’s largest structure shortly after, at the 1889 Exposition Universelle.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Vincent van Gogh, 1887. Coloured chalk on cardboard, 57 cm x 46 cm. Collection: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation).

One time travelling to 1887 Montmartre would find a small sloped district swarming with artists and intellectuals, all writing, painting, drawing, printing, composing and socialising.

By day, Montmartre cafes teemed with caffeinated chatter. By night, cigarette smoke and absinthe.

Renoir and Degas had homes on its lower slopes.

At 54 Rue Lepic, a young Dutchman was painting views that’d one day wind up in a museum built solely to showcase his outstanding output.

Among the cafes Vincent van Gogh frequented was Le Guinguette, which he immortalised, joining friends Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Emile Bernard and Paul Signac in rounding off each day to meet la fée verte.

Lautrec captured this pensive portrait of van Gogh doing so.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, At the Moulin Rouge, 1892–1895. Oil on canvas, 123 x 141 cm. Collection: Art Institute of Chicago. Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection.

In studios mere metres away were relatively-obscure composers. One had just written Pavane (Gabriel Fauré).

Another, in the midst of his Gymnopédies (Erik Satie). Another, who’d soon write Clair de Lune (Claude Debussy), would join his companion Satie for drinks at Le Lapin Agile.

At this same time, printmaking was being born, as we explored in our 2018 exhibition Pin-Ups: Toulouse-Lautrec and the Art of Celebrity.

By 1891, the curious were flocking to the newly-opened Moulin Rouge, and the Folies Bergère and Le Chat Noir, all advertised by the sensational illustrations of Lautrec, Theodore Steinlen and Jules Cheret.

Lautrec would imprint the Rouge into art history, with works of its dancers La Goulue (here and here) and Jane Avril, and with paintings like the ghostly At the Moulin Rouge. 

That same year, Marie Curie first arrived in Paris, readying herself for studies which would culminate in pioneering work on radioactivity, earning her two Nobel Prizes. Motion picture was being formulated by Louis Bouly and independently, the Lumière brothers. Playwright Georges Feydeau was working on his great farces. The list goes on.

And like other great eras, this energy rippled throughout France. In Brittany, Gauguin was wrestling with his angel (1888). Not far from Paris, Claude Monet was painting Haystacks (1890) and Poplars (1891). In the north, Henri Matisse was first picking up a paintbrush (1889). In the south, Cezanne was capturing Montagne Sainte-Victoire. An hour away, Vincent was immortalising sunflowers, cypresses and the starry night.

At the Belle Époque’s beginning, traditionalist critics scoffed at Monet’s bold Impressionist daubs. By its close, artists in Paris were shattering our understanding of the image with Collage, Cubism and Modernism (Braque, Picasso, Duchamp). Elsewhere, scientists were shattering our understanding of the world (Einstein, Planck). There were even humans in aeroplanes (The Wright Brothers). And in between, there were countless acts of genius, many condensed into nothing more than a little cobblestoned district, by artists who together would converge to discuss everything, having that day just painted, written, composed or sculpted their own place in history.

29 November 2018