The spirit of the Belle Epoque

It was a time of sheer opulence: exotic feathers, haute couture and the perfection of sparkling Champagne. It was also a time of major social change resulting from the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the middle classes. Known in retrospect as the Belle Epoque (beautiful era), the period spanning the late 19th century through the eve of World War I marked Europe?s entrance into the modern age.

?Paris 1900: Art Nouveau and Modernism: Treasures from the Petit Palais, City of Paris Fine Art Museum,? an exhibition currently on display at the National Gallery in Athens, captures the spirit of the Belle Epoque through the period?s flourishing visual and decorative arts.

Showcasing about 200 works, some of them by big names including Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Pierre Bonnard, Aristide Maillol and Camille Pissarro, among others, the exhibition was put together in return for ?Mount Athos and the Byzantine Empire: Treasures of the Holy Mountain,? which went on display at the Petit Palais in Paris last year.

At the National Gallery, the exhibition starts at the time of the Paris 1900 Exposition Universelle (World Fair). Held from April to November that year, the monumental event drew a record number of visitors (50 million), who turned up to observe the displays of more than 76,000 exhibitors.

While the City of Light?s signature construction, the Eiffel Tower, had already been erected in time for the Exposition Universelle?s 1889 edition, the 1900 World Fair had its own share of new landmark buildings, among them the Petit Palais museum, the Gare d?Orsay (now the Musee d?Orsay) and the majestic Alexander III Bridge.

As passengers ventured out on the first line of the Paris Metro, which had been completed in July that year, the fair spread across the city and included the hosting of the second Modern Olympic Games, in which female athletes made their debut.

It was also the year in which Greece, slowly rising from its own ashes, participated in the fair. Photographs on display at the National Gallery show the Greek pavilion standing alongside those of Serbia and Italy, among other neighbors. The pavilion came in the form of a Byzantine church, a structure which was later transported back home and is now the Aghios Sostis Church standing on Syngrou Avenue in Nea Smyrni.

Symbolic of the country?s history, the pavilion was one aspect of the country?s entry, which also included a series of paintings depicting local life. On the National Gallery walls a selection of these works reflect the era?s social diversity: Iakovos Rizos and his ?Soiree Athenienne,? a well-documented image of a seemingly laid-back encounter on an Athenian terrace with the Parthenon in the background; Nikiforos Lytras?s portrait of a sardine vendor in action; Giorgos Iakovidis on one of his favorite subjects, children, with ?Le Concert des enfants,? a painting which earned him a gold medal in the fair?s competition section. Interestingly enough, that same year marked the establishment of the National Gallery in Athens, with Iakovidis becoming its first director.

By leaving behind mythology and focusing on the diversity of artistic genres, the Belle Epoque witnessed Gustave Courbet?s Realism and Emile Zola?s literary Naturalism, while developments in photography and cinema also became determining factors. As rigid corsets gave way to the fluid garments of designers like Paul Poiret, Post-Impressionism paved the way for Fauvism and Cubism in the visual arts.

Sarah Bernhardt, a woman who captured the creative flair of the Belle Epoque, features prominently in the Athens exhibition. A majestic portrait of the celebrated stage and early film actress (who was also known for her efforts in sculpture and painting) by Georges Clairin greets visitors on the museum?s ground floor. Thanks to this Orientalist painting, Bernhardt was to become a leading figure in the representation of Parisian women, women who defined their time with their singular style and personality. The world of female artistes was also the domain of diminutive artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, whose Moulin Rouge and Revue Blanche posters mirror the period?s bohemian feel.

In the field of the decorative arts, the dominance of the Art Nouveau movement, which rejected the restrictions of 19th-century academic art and design, saw the rise of curvilinear forms which took the lead in interior design as well as in furniture, decorative objects and jewelry. At ?Paris 1900,? vases created by masters such as Emile Galle and the Daum brothers, namely Auguste and Antonin, are vivid examples of the Art Nouveau style, along with a set of chairs designed by architect Hector Guimard and a selection of highly detailed sketches of jewelry pieces created by masters such as Rene Lalique and designers collaborating with the house of Cartier, among others.

For further reading and analysis, the exhibition?s 328-page catalog is a Greek-French bilingual effort which includes essays by Gilles Chazal, director of the Petit Palais, as well as art history professor Marina Lambraki-Plaka, director of the National Gallery in Athens.

National Gallery, 50 Vas. Constantinou, tel 210.723.5937-8. The exhibition runs to February 28. For more information, visit

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