The belle époque, a French expression meaning “beautiful era,” refers to the interwar years between 1871 and 1914, when Paris was at the forefront of urban development and cultural innovation. During this time Parisians witnessed the construction of the Eiffel Tower, the ascendancy of the Montmartre district as an epicenter for art and entertainment and the brightening of their metropolis under the glow of electric light. From the nostalgic perspective of the twentieth century, this four-decade period of progress and prosperity was a golden age of spectacle and joie de vivre.
For artists living through the epoch, however, the less triumphant details of daily life were often the ones that inspired creative expression: a puff of factory smoke mingling with the clouds; the saucy sneer of a cabaret performer; the densely patterned décor of a domestic interior. To convey the immediacy of what they observed, artists like Pierre Bonnard and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec rejected the formalities of oil painting, preferring loose, sketch-like handling, abrupt compositional cropping and oblique points of view that situate the spectator within the scene. Many painters turned to printmaking as a newly compelling pictorial medium, one that invited bold aesthetic experimentation while broadening the potential market for avant-garde art. By Day & by Night: Paris in the Belle Époque surveys the rich range of artistic responses to life in the French capital through a selection of paintings, drawings, prints and photographs from the Museum’s collections. Together these works of art demonstrate that visual artists participated in the inventive spirit of the age by interpreting the everyday as something extraordinary.