Belle Epoque evokes a period of recklessness, scientific innovations, artistic effervescence, but was it really beautiful ?
Far from peaceful
After the First World War, the French kept such memories of the period that preceded it that it became forever the “Belle Epoque”. However, it was far from peaceful : labor disputes shook it and the Dreyfus affair divided the country into an anti-militarist left and an anti-Semitic right. However, the progress of electricity and vaccination, then the automobile, the telephone and the cinema transformed daily life, while movements such as Impressionism or Art Nouveau revolutionized creation.
A solid democracy
Working conditions have also changed during the Belle Epoque. The working world has come out of poverty and benefits from a few social laws such as Sunday rest (1907) or workers’ pensions (1910) but it still endures trying working days in fear of unemployment. Nevertheless, the French also enjoy a solid democracy. They even pride themselves on having the only Republic on the European continent (apart from Switzerland). Republican institutions, secular education and also the railways have considerably strengthened national cohesion and the feeling of belonging to a common homeland. We are in a very tough moment but, moreover, it is also a period of fairly strong economic growth, monetary stability, which allows a relative rise in the standard of living. A whole popular petty bourgeoisie, which we will later call the middle classes, begins to experience a form of prosperity. A striking example : the bicycle. It is developing enormously, its price is falling a lot, and this has two important consequences: when you are a worker, you realize that industry is not only the industrial prison, it is also something that can produce useful things you can buy. And for teenagers and women, the bicycle is synonymous with freedom.
The triumph of positivism
Above all, the French cultivate with some reason the feeling of being at the forefront of civilization. The memory of Victor Hugo, a universal author with no equivalent in his century, is still alive in everyone’s mind, as is that of Louis Pasteur, the most popular scientist of all time. Thanks to the experiences of Clément Ader at the beginning of the century, aviators Louis Blériot and Roland Garros managed to cross the English Channel (1909) and the Mediterranean (1913). In 1896, Henri Becquerel discovered natural radioactivity and two years later, Pierre and Marie Curie succeeded in isolating radium. It is the triumph of positivism, this belief in the inevitable progress of humanity, particularly in the scientific field, and of which the Eiffel Tower becomes the symbol.
The triumph of French cuisine
French cuisine continued to rise in the esteem of European gourmets during the Belle Epoque. The word “ritzy” was coined around this time, referring to the chic atmosphere and clientele of the Hôtel Ritz Paris. The Ritz’s head chef and co-owner, Auguste Escoffier, was the preeminent French chef of the Belle Époque. Escoffier modernized French haute cuisine, also doing a lot of work to expand his reputation abroad with business ventures in London in addition to Paris. But the arts and letters are not left out. Several avant-garde movements emerged at dizzying speed and radiated internationally, in particular thanks to collectors, gallery owners and major art dealers: Impressionism, then Fauvism, Cubism, Expressionism and Art new.
The Impressionists had paved the way in 1874 by studying the variation of colors according to light. Auguste Renoir and Claude Monet continue to work in this way during the Belle Epoque. But other painters open new avenues of research. This is the case of Gauguin who juxtaposes flat areas of bright colors and simplifies the line to the extreme to bring out the authenticity of the scenes. Cézanne and Van Gogh accentuate these tendencies by resorting to very clashing colors and a drawing which makes Cézanne the precursor of the cubists. The forms are treated by the cubists in a revolutionary way ; the vision of reality is exploded, decomposed, to be restructured according to intellectual conceptions where the forms that impose themselves are the cube, the sphere and the cylinder. Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque or Juan Gris are the masters of the trend. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon completed by Picasso in 1907 is considered the first Cubist manifesto. The Belle Epoque was a society that loved above all to laugh and take pleasure in everything, despite the difficulties. A definitively republican France but which takes itself for an empire. A Republic which will become secular by force of law and which must face unprecedented social tensions. A time which we do not know if it was really beautiful but which, without a doubt, was fascinating.