The Belle Époque in France was the exotic epoch between the Franco-Prussian War of 1871 and the Great War of 1914. It witnessed a cultural explosion – Impressionism, Zola, the Ballets Russes, the Eiffel Tower, the Paris métro, the Paris Opéra and the Moulin Rouge. It was here that Toulouse-Lautrec, all four foot of him, drank absinthe (hidden in his cane), talked and loved and sketched the demi-monde – that eclectic classless mix of pimps and pansies, artists and aristos. He created the posters that enticed the cabaret’s clientele, in the new process of colour lithography, a medium he relished. From 1891 until his death in 1901 (from syphilis and drink), he produced nearly 350 prints and posters, much influenced by Degas, Van Gogh, and Japanese art. He made performers famous, like La Goulue (Louise Weber) and Jane Avril (Jeanne Beaudon), can-can dancers. Both died in obscurity and poverty, as did so many who once delighted ‘all Paris’. The can-can summed up the epoch as jazz did the Jazz Age. It was abandoned and boisterous. Scandalous even. There were attempts to suppress it. At that time, women wore crotchless pantalettes; high kicks were revealing. 

The Belle Époque was the great age of the poster. Artists like Lautrec, Chéret and Grün were part of the creative explosion on Paris walls, and on the métro which became a ‘free museum for the masses’.

The Moulin Rouge was all sex and spectacle (like its rival the Folies-Bergère), and a place where louche behaviour was de rigueur. But near the Champs Élysées was Maxim’s, the world’s most famous restaurant, where etiquette was of a different sort. Lehár set the third act of The Merry Widow here. It was at Maxim’s that Gigi dined with Gaston. And it was here that Paris still preserved a certain hauteur, where overdressed courtesans behaved like ladies. Cocteau called these concoctions ‘an accumulation of velvet, lace, ribbons and diamonds’ and observed that ‘to undress one of these women would take three weeks.’ Proving perhaps that, despite the crashing of social barriers at the Moulin Rouge… ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.’


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