Typically reminisced upon as France’s Golden age, when art was rich with the new wave of Impressionist artists and Paris saw itself re-modelled to flaunt a modern, neo-classical style, the Belle Époque eclipses a certain suffering.
The labouring class that previously took residence in central Paris were ousted from their quartiers during Baron Haussmann’s massive urban renewal programme of the capital. While the work of these subordinated citizens was celebrated, their wellbeing and roots were not respected, nor protected.
Central Paris quickly became dominated by the upper classes, in particular the working, business men of the early 19th century, who profiteered from the economic progression, due in large part to industrialisation. There was a need to make room for bourgeois men’s demand to reside close by to their work environment during the week; the lower classes were separated quite physically from their social superiors.
Impressionist artists were quick to record these social changes, with their appropriately new, fast technique of painting their ever-changing surroundings. They rejected the classical, academic approach to the creation of an artwork, and launched straight into capturing the visions in front of them, frequently setting up their workspace in the thick of the city’s action. The term ‘Impressionist’ itself comes from the rapid impressions that marked the artists’ canvases that they had nestled, along with their brush in hand, in and amongst the bourgeoisie. The transient lifestyle full of new material goods, entertainment and wealth demanded this revised approach to recording the live spectacles, which met artists such as Antoine Blanchard’s eyes. His ‘La Madeleine Boulevard des Capucines’ records a characteristic scene of well-dressed bourgeois women parading Paris’s main shopping street. It must be noted that the practice of painting these new beautiful streets and scenes of upper class prosperity was intended for those who are depicted. Artists themselves were feeding off the riches and requests for visual representations of their experiences. They too were distanced from the labourers who grew ever poorer and remote from this social circle.
While the Belle Époque was undoubtedly an era of advancement and luxury, there are evident flaws with our appreciation for the real nature of wider society. The Belle Époque was therefore merely an incomplete representation of society by a group of aspiring bourgeois Impressionist artists, motivated to satisfy the commissions of those who would raise their economic and social status.