If you’ve always been fascinated by the idea of time travel, and Paris at the turn-of-the-century sounds especially appealing, we have a suggestion for you.
Head to the Cincinnati Museum of Art, where four tractor trailers recently delivered more than 200 pieces of precious art — all created in the period known as the Belle Epoque or “Beautiful Era.”
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We’re talking about a glamorous era that encompassed the construction of the Eiffel Tower, the Paris Métro, the beginning of the Basilica of Sacré-Cœur and the completion of the Paris Opera.
Millions of visitors flocked to Paris to attend international expositions to check out the newest contributions to commerce, art and technology. Paris was the scene of the first public projection of a motion picture and the birthplace of the Ballets Russes, Impressionism and Modern Art.
The exhibit — “Paris 1900: City of Entertainment” — is on view through May 12. Organized by the Petit Palais Museum of Fine Arts in Paris with additional loans from other Paris museums, the show will be making only three stops in the United States. It kicked off in Nashville and will travel to the Portland Art Museum in Oregon this summer before returning to Paris.
Renowned artists represented in this show include Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Auguste Rodin, Antoine Bourdelle and Camille Claudel. The extensive variety of art objects ranges from picturesque paintings and prints to early film clips, furniture, sculptures, souvenirs, stained glass windows and costumes.
In his introduction to the exhibit catalog, Christophe Leribault, director of the Petit Palais, says the exhibition captures an era in which his city was known for its “extraordinary vibrancy in the arts and performance, as well as in fashion, gastronomy, and in the freedom of its customs.”
The galleries are themed; each one filled with a mix of objects that reflect Paris of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The introductory space, for example, focuses on the 1900 International Exposition that brought 51 million visitors from around the world to Paris within a six-month period. In addition to seeing pavilions from other nations and scientific discoveries, visitors could climb on the tallest Ferris wheel in the world, dine at gourmet restaurants and attend theatrical performances.
You’ll see original film clips from the Exposition and paintings that capture its glamour and excitement. Artist George Roux takes us inside the centerpiece of the event — the 1,000-foot tower built by architect Gustave Eiffel that remains one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions.
A ticket to the International Exposition cost only one franc or about 20 cents, making it affordable for everyone. Tickets were sold at tax collection offices, tobacco shops and cafés, and admission was free for soldiers in uniform
The Art Nouveau section includes a suite of furniture, as well as lovely examples of art pottery and glass. Especially charming is the gallery devoted to the fashionable Parisian Woman. On display is her sewing kit containing 120 objects, as well as the outfits and accessories she might have worn. You’ll learn that small boxes with hot coals were placed inside a woman’s “muff” to warm her on a cold day. A series of 10 postcards documents an hour-by-hour account of a Parisian woman’s day. Let’s just say this particular woman enjoyed a day of leisure!
Another section of the show is dubbed Paris by Night. Entertainment abounded for every social class. Choices ranged from cafes and cabarets to the popular Comedie-Francaise and Moulin Rouge.
Some other highlights:
- Those who visited the Dayton Art Institute’s recent Alphonse Mucha exhibit will remember Mucha’s images of famed actress Sarah Bernhardt. The Cincinnati exhibit has an original colorized silent film clip of Bernhardt in the role of “Hamlet,” as well one of her elaborate costumes encrusted with gilded metal thread, lame embroidery and glass beads.
- Did you know that Bernhardt was also a sculptor? Examples of her artwork are on display as well.
- You’ll get a kick out of the iconic black-and-white silent film“A Trip to the Moon” created by Georges Melies, considered a pioneer of fantasy films and special effects. This was the first-ever science fiction film as well as the first blockbuster and contains the famous scene of a rocket landing in the moon’s eye.
- A magnificent stained glass window on display was created by Adolphe Willette who was commissioned to create it when the famous Chat Noir moved to a new location in 1885. The 19th-century entertainment establishment was located in the bohemian Montmartre district of Paris.
- Among the items on display is one of the last paintings that Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec made before his death at age 37. Although he is best known for his images of nightlife, he was also known for his portraits. The painting on display is the poet and playwright André Rivoire.
The exhibit also highlights the importance of printmaking. Painters of this period became known as painter-printmakers and thanks to printmaking were able to have much greater distribution of their work. Toulouse-Lautrec and his friend Pierre Bonnard are primary examples and created many popular posters.
“This is one of the most iconic moments of one of the important cultural capitals of the world,” says Peter Jonathan Bell, associate curator of European paintings, sculptures and drawings at the Cincinnati Museum. “So many of the objects are different media so it gives you a rich variety and an impression of the cultural life of Paris at the turn-of-the-century.”