1. What defines the Belle Époque?
Spanning the years between the end of France’s Second Empire (1852-1870) and the beginning of the First World War, the Belle Époque was an era characterised by optimism, economic prosperity, and technological and scientific progress in both Europe and the United States. In this prosperous climate, the arts flourished.
The French expression ‘Belle Époque’, however, was only applied to the era in retrospect, as a way of highlighting the decadence, exuberance and frivolity that epitomised the heady era before the outbreak of World War I.
2. Who were the most prominent artists of the period?
Notable Belle Époque artists include Jean Béraud, Paul César Helleu, James Whistler, Jacques Emile Blanche, John Singer Sargent, Giovanni Boldini, Henri Gervex and Louis Marie De Schryver. These artists were making flat art — primarily oil paintings, watercolours, and works on paper — as well as sculpture and objets d’art.
3. What subjects did Belle Époque artists paint?
Baron Haussmann’s modernisation of the centre of Paris saw the cramped medieval streets replaced with grand boulevards, parks and public squares. These newly developed public spaces became the playground for the elite of fashionable Parisian society. In their work, artists of the Belle Époque strived to capture their rapidly changing environment and scenes of modern life.
‘Belle Époque artists were mostly depicting the upper classes, their pictures were comparable to what one might find in Vogue magazine today,’ says Deborah Coy, Head of European Art at Christie’s in New York. ‘People wanted to see what the leisured elite were doing in their spare time and see their own lives reflected in paint.’
This helps to explain the wealth of Belle Époque pictures depicting fashionable folk at the opera, in elegant horse-drawn carriages, buying flowers, at the races, at cafés, promenading along grand boulevards, at milliners, or reclining in opulent, lavish interiors. 'Fashion is also hugely important in these pictures,’ explains Coy. ‘Belle Époque artists chronicled the most au courant trends, fashions and interiors of their time.’
Pictures depicting women in Paris and other European capitals wearing elaborate hats and dresses with fitted waists, minimal bustle and full A-line skirts are characteristic of the era, says the specialist, as are ‘swagger portraits’, commissioned by the luminaries, literati, royals and aristocrats of the 1890s.
‘Many of the works by Belle Époque artists are characterised by light colours, quick brushstrokes and a vibrant, optimistic subject matter,’ Coy says. Belle Époque artists moved away from studio work and academic renderings of their subjects to embrace a more spontaneous, ‘in situ’ style of painting.
De Schryver, who maintained a studio on the rue Pergolèse, often painted subjects he had seen first-hand, while Béraud, known for his paintings of Parisian café and street life, would even paint from the back of a carriage on the Parisian streets.
5. Did Belle Époque art remain fashionable?
The frivolity and gaiety that characterised the Belle Époque era was abruptly curtailed with the outbreak of the First World War. ‘Everything came crashing down,’ says Coy.
As sensibilities changed and new technologies developed apace, Belle Époque painting began to look old-fashioned. It would not be long before Modernism, shaped, in part, by the horrors of war, would take hold.
6. What is the market like for Belle Époque works?
‘Belle Époque works were hugely popular in their time, particularly in America,’ the specialist explains. So much so, in fact, that many of the prominent Parisian dealers, such as Adolphe Goupil and Paul Durand-Ruel, opened additional galleries in New York to meet the demand.
‘Today,’ says Coy, ‘Belle Époque paintings are enjoying an enormous success, both in America and internationally, and the market for these works is still quite strong.’
These beautiful, optimistic depictions of modern life are also well-suited to cross-disciplinary collectors who are looking for decorative works, and new collectors who are looking for an entry point into the category. They are still remarkably affordable, which is why Belle Époque paintings appeal to collectors worldwide.
7. Where can new collectors find out more?
According to Coy, it is likely that there are more brilliant examples of Belle Époque paintings in museum collections across America than in Europe. ‘This may be due to their great and enduring popularity among American collectors,’ she says.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York would be a good starting point. Recent travelling exhibitions, such as the Musée d’Orsay’s major Fashion, Impressionism and Modernity, which opened in 2013, have also cast a new light on the role of fashion in art during the Belle Époque.