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Fine Art Connoisseur

Master Painters of La Belle Epoque


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By Bill Rau


To some, the final decades of the 19th century are known by the French expression La Belle Époque. Unfolding steadily after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, "The Beautiful Age" was a time of unprecedented luxury and confidence across Europe. Nowhere was this blossoming more tangible than in Paris, which had transformed itself into a beacon of modernity. For those living there, it was an age of glittering innovation and cutting-edge technologies: new, expansive boulevards bisected the city, and the well-to-do strolled the newly landscaped Bois de Boulogne and enjoyed decadent dinners at Maxim's, capped with racy nights at the casino.


Though this era is also now called the Fin de Siècle (End of the Century), its aura of celebration ended not with the arrival of 1900, but with the onset of the Great War in 1914. Though no one could have foreseen the extent of that tragedy, some feared that the good times were just too good to last. To assuage their fear, some people spoiled themselves to excess. Five o'clock was "L'Heure Verte" ("The Green Hour"), when barflies would swarm to their local bistro for a sip of intoxicating absinthe, and every evening club-goers packed the Moulin Rouge cabaret to admire the lascivious new dance known as the "Can-Can." In this fleeting moment, artists set out to immortalize the pleasures of Parisian life, at least on canvas. As they did so, the painters of La Belle Époque also inspired their fellow artists across Europe to study their own cities as never before.


Tissot and Stevens

One of the founders of this tradition was James Jacques Joseph Tissot (1836-1902), whose idyllic youth was spent in the bustling French port of Nantes. His family overlooked the picturesque harbor and its ships, and Tissot spent many an afternoon sketching Nantes's historic center, with its quaint medieval buildings. When he returned to Nantes from schooling in 1848, he decided to transform this love of ancient structures into a career in architecture. He soon realized, however, that it was the artistic aspect of architecture he enjoyed most, so he focused on art. Having been overjoyed by their son's dedication to architecture, Tissot's parents were now distraught. Eventually, the young man convinced them of his potential, and he moved to Paris in 1857, albeit without their financial support.


He began by painting portraits to make ends meet, and once he could afford it, he joined the studio of the academician Louis Lamothe (1822-1869). His time with Lamothe was impactful, but it was the other people he met during this period who would truly shape Tissot's career. The first was his fellow student Edgar Degas (1834-1917), who was also struggling with stylistic issues and trading ideas with his future Impressionist cohorts and others. The connection formed between young Tissot and Degas endured for decades. Degas was already active in a Parisian artistic circle, so he began to bring Tissot to its gatherings at an especially exciting moment. Departing from deeply engrained artistic traditions, all of the arts-literature, theater, music, dance, and fine art-were being energized by explorations of modern life and socially conscious themes.


Through these meetings, Tissot befriended Alfred Stevens (1823-1906), who would soon become another master of Belle Époque painting. Stevens spent his youth in Belgium, arriving in Paris at the age of 21. He began traditional academic studies with the neoclassical master Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867), but within a few years he found himself drawn to the very different work of the rising star Gustave Courbet (1819-1877). Now considered the father of Realism, Courbet raised his peasant subjects to the ranks of the elite, a theme that Stevens also addressed in his scenes of the late 1840's. When Stevens made his debut at the Paris Salon of 1853, his work won great acclaim.


By the time Tissot arrived in Paris four years later, Stevens was a leading figure, yet his art had shifted away from its drab palette and serious subjects, broadening out to bustling streets and intimate parlors. Stevens's remarkable knack for color, light, and texture is exemplified by The Blue Ribbon, which captures an elegant lady at the window, her porcelain skin and white dress accentuated by the verdant garden beyond, and the blue color of her ribbons tying the whole composition together. Here Stevens juxtaposes rigorous draftsmanship and perspective-as seen in the window frame and railing-with the uncanny naturalistic light and color conveyed through varying brushstrokes. It was scenes like this that not only secured Stevens's status as a master, but also inspired Tissot, who was 13 years younger.


Under the influence of Stevens and other newfound friends, Tissot began to adjust his style. Whereas his early works had been his historical tableaux crafted with tight brushstrokes and careful glazing, he now turned to the streets of Paris for inspiration. Equally influential was Tissot's fascination-shared by Stevens-with Japanese artistic techniques, which had surged to prominence across Europe after the American commodore Matthew C. Perry's "gunboat diplomacy" had reopened Japan to the West in 1854. The resulting influx of Japanese cloisonné, textiles, bronzes, and, most importantly, woodblock prints, spurred European collectors to display them at home, and also encouraged European artists to incorporate their lessons into their own work. This influence appears most clearly in the art of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, yet even Stevens and Tissot deployed Japanist notions of line and color to add drama to their detailing of texture and patterns. Soon, Tissot enjoyed as much popularity and profitability as Stevens.


A prime example of this approach is Tissot's The Chimney. Instead of centering his composition, the artist set his elaborately dressed model against the magnificent fireplace that dominates the picture's left side. The rippling patterns of her dress are accentuated by the brilliant veins of marble and deep wood tones that complete the mantel backdrop. It is just this combination of detail with a seemingly "natural" sense of composition that came to characterize Belle Époque painting.


Caillebotte and Béraud

Though perfected by Tissot and Stevens before the Franco-Prussian War, this approach became popular among other artists as the Belle Époque got underway. Soon Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894) and Jean Béraud (1849-1935) would carry it forward in France, both having turned to art as the war ended. Caillebotte spent his youth training to become a lawyer, yet he had always pursued his hobby of sketching. Ultimately he enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, but early on he felt the lure of Realism, and then of Impressionism. Indeed, his loose brushwork, dappled colors, and participation in the Impressionists' exhibitions have led most viewers to consider him one of them, yet his distinctive treatment of the streets and pedestrians of Paris place him squarely in the Belle Époque camp, too. In addition to such iconic boulevard views as Paris Street: Rain, Caillebotte devoted several canvases to the working man. A superb example is The Floor Scrapers, in which three men toil at the seemingly endless task of refinishing hardwood floors in the heat of the summer. Their only respite appears to be the bottle of wine staying cool on the marble hearth at right.


At the same time that Caillebotte was establishing himself, Jean Béraud was making a name for himself as well. Born to French parents in St. Petersburg, Béraud was raised in Paris, where-like Caillebotte-he trained in law before pursuing studies in art. After some training at the École des Beaux-Arts, he began to paint portraits and earned broad popularity among the Parisian elite, who admired his pictures at the Salon from 1873. True fame, however, arrived at the Salon of 1876, by which time he had turned to Parisian streets for inspiration. Of particular interest were the busting wholesale market stands, restaurants, bakeries, and shops around Les Halles, and also the lively neighborhood of Montmartre. On high ground to the north of central Paris, Montmartre was technically outside the city limits, a fortuitous circumstance that encouraged the proliferation of nightclubs and cabarets seeking to avoid the city's high rates of taxation. Among them were two of the most iconic clubs of the late 19th century: the Moulin Rouge and Le Chat Noir. Such activities inevitably drew artists to the hill, a tradition that remains today.


One aspect that makes Béraud views of these bustling sites so enthralling is his ability to merge loose, Impressionistic brushstrokes with delicate, refined details. His painting Mrs. Helpful is a prime example. The relaxed strokes with which Béraud conveys most of his composition contrast dramatically with the ethereal wisps of white he uses to capture the translucent veil covering the woman's face. Such veiled beauties feature prominently in Béraud's works, a hallmark not only of late 19th-century Parisian fashion, but also of Béraud's impeccable skill.


And in Italy...

While Caillebotte and Béraud brightened the Belle Époque in France, artists around Europe helped spread its spirit abroad. The portraitist Giovanni Boldini (1842-1931), along with Giuseppe De Nittis (1846-1884) and Vittorio Matteo Corcos (1859-1933), launched this tradition in Italy by depicting scenes of modern life there. Both Boldini and Corcos trained in Florence, which was then under the influence of the Macchiaioli. Translatable as "Daubers" or "Spotters," this was a group of Tuscan artists who melded Realism with Impressionist daubs of paint. Boldini adapted this approach for his portraits, which remain some of the most breathtaking works of the Belle Époque. Corcos, who revered noth the Macchiaioli and Boldini (17 years his senior), captured scenes across Italy in his own manner.


Those who lived through the Belle Époque had no way of knowing just how beautiful their age really was. In fact, this term came into common usage only after World War I in a rush of sobering nostalgia. The world was forever changed by the war, leaving in its wake enormous public debts to be paid down and devastating reductions in manpower. (France lost an incredible 30 percent of all its men aged 18-45.) As memories of the Belle Époque grew fainter and thus fonder, the paintings that immortalize those golden years served to transport viewers back to a glimmering moment. In this way, the Belle Époque painters were as much historical chroniclers as artists.


Bill Rau is the third generation of his family to run M.S. Rau Antiques, a leading gallery based in New Orleans.


Editors Note: This article is adapted from a chapter in the author's 2012 book, Nineteenth-Century European Painting: From Barbizon to Belle Époque. Published by Antique Collectors' Club, Rau's handsome 648-page volume contains other chapters devoted to such topics as the Barbizon School, sporting art, Pre-Raphaelitism, Impressionism and Venetian Views. Closing each chapter are brief biographies of the genre's leading artists. Rau's book can be ordered via; all proceeds are donated to the Rau for Art Foundation, which advances art appreciation and scholarship in Greater New Orleans.


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