1900, the Birth of the Parisian Myth

The City of Light was at its peak in 1900. The Alexandre III Bridge, Orsay Station, the World’s Fair, and the first subway line were all inaugurated. An exhibition on Paris from the Belle Epoque era, initially presented at the Petit Palais, is opening on June 8 at the Portland, Oregon, Art Museum.

For France-Amérique, Cécilie Champy-Vinas, curator at the Petit Palais, discusses the development of the exhibition Paris 1900 : la ville spectacle (Paris 1900: City of Entertainment) and the birth of the Parisian myth.

France-Amérique: Why was the year 1900 such a major turning point?

Cécilie Champy-Vinas: The years from 1890 to 1910 were ones of economic prosperity and demographic expansion in the French capital. In 1900, Paris was home to almost 3 million people compared with 2.2 million today, and was hosting both a World’s Fair and the Olympic Games. This was a time of real progress. The public discovered electricity, the first automobiles appeared in the streets, and the first line on the Parisian subway from Porte de Vincennes to Porte Maillot was inaugurated. But it was also a time of artistic vitality. Alphonse Mucha’s stained-glass windows, Victor Prouvé’s posters, and the subway entrances designed by Hector Guimard showcased the Art Nouveau style. Artists from all over the world came to train in Paris. American painter Marie Cassatt and her compatriots, the sculptors Paul W. Bartlett and John S. Conway, rubbed shoulders with Edgar Degas, Paul Cézanne, Berthe Morisot, and Auguste Rodin.

This period is still a source of fascination today. What traces of this time are still visible today?

Many iconic Parisian monuments were built between the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And not only the Sacré-Cœur Basilica and the Eiffel Tower, but also the Petit Palais, the Grand Palais, Orsay Station, and the Iena, Alma, Invalides, and Alexandre III bridges. This was when Paris became the city we know today.

The Belle Epoque also coincides with the start of the myth surrounding the Parisian woman, which is still very present today. What inspired it?

The myth of the Parisian woman precedes the Belle Epoque. In the early 19th century, Balzac’s novels popularized the image of grisettes, young women working in the fabric industry who were both stylish and well-mannered. The reputation of Parisian women for being elegant reached its peak in the 1900s. There is even a vast body of work on the subject. It was said the Parisians were the most beautiful women in the world. They also walked the best, knowing how to lift up their dresses to avoid dirtying their clothes without revealing their ankles. Around the same time, the leading couture houses moved to Paris and established themselves along the Rue de la Paix. Notable examples include Charles Frederick Worth — who designed an evening cape for the Countess Greffulhe, the most elegant Parisian of the day — and Jeanne Paquin, renowned for her evening gowns embroidered with 18th-century motifs.

Henri Gervex, An Evening at the Pré Catelan, 1909. © Musée Carnavalet, Paris

Part of the exhibition is given over to the “underbelly” of Paris with its cabaret halls and prostitutes…

We named this final part “Paris by Night.” After all, the French capital’s reputation is also founded on its night life. The city is renowned for being an exuberant place, a sort of Babel of vices. You need only look at the fine arts of the time. The cafés and cabarets were where different social classes met and mixed. Many aristocrats and members of the smart set came to Paris to slum it at the Moulin Rouge and the Chat Noir. Toulouse-Lautrec was born into a noble family from Southern France, and spent his entire career in the capital’s cabarets and brothels. And Degas painted numerous actresses, singers, and prostitutes.

This exhibition offers a romantic vision of France that resonates deeply with Americans. Was this a conscious decision?

The exhibition was not designed specifically to make Americans happy. The six parts were developed to reproduce the atmosphere of the 1900 World’s Fair and show how the Parisian myth was born and evolved. Several Parisian museums helped us to conjure up this Belle Epoque feel. The Palais Galliera — the City of Paris Fashion Museum — lent us evening attire, as well as daytime outfits such as riding habits that women would wear while on horseback. A loan from the Carnavalet Museum also enabled us to recreate an authentic Parisian café from the Belle Epoque. The chairs, benches, tables, and lamps at the Café de Paris in the Opéra neighborhood are magnificent examples of this Art Nouveau style!

Paris 1900: City of Entertainment

From October 12 through January 6, 2019
Frist Art Museum
919 Broadway
Nashville, TN 37203 

From March 1 through May 12, 2019
Cincinnati Art Museum
953 Eden Park Drive
Cincinnati, OH 45202

From June 8 through September 8, 2019
Portland Art Museum
1219 SW Park Avenue
Portland, OR 97205

  • The Frist Museum lists three locations for this exhibit, but I cannot locate an additional schedule. Does anyone have information about possible other cities in the US?

    • Dear Mrs. Mandry,
      The exhibition will be on view at the Cincinnati Art Museum from March 1 through May 12, and at the Portland, Oregon Art Museum from June 8 through September 8, 2019.

  • J’ai eu la chance de visiter l’exposition “Paris 1900: City of Entertainment” au Frist Art Museum de Nashville, TN, et je la recommande grandement. J’ai particulièrement apprécié la façon dont elle mêle à la présentation historique de ce qu’était Paris au niveau culturel et du monde du spectacle un commentaire politique et sociétal sur l’évolution de la capitale (et de la France) à l’aube du 20e siècle. A voir !

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