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Artistic Liberation in La Belle Époque

The period of La Belle Époque was a time of economic prosperity, as well as a golden age for the French culture, between the years 1871 and 1914. They were decades of splendor in terms of art, which experienced spectacular advances in all fields with the appearance of the first avant-gardes. Paris then became the capital of that happy and confident society, a magnetic center that attracted people from all over the European continent. Taking into account the great massiveness that pictorial art was beginning to take, more people began to be interested in it. New names emerged, such as the now famous Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Cézanne, and Claude Monet among many others. This caused the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, known in France as the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture, to have certain doubts and to present complaints about these new artistic currents. That's how The Hall of the Rejected emerged, to break all these rules the academics were imparting.

Une Assemblée Ordinaire. Jean-Baptiste Martin. 1712.

The ambition of the Academy was to train and bring together the best artists in the kingdom, the most talented and the most gifted, to name them academicians, a prestigious title that guaranteed protection, notoriety thanks to The Hall of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, La Salle de l'Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts, and commissions from the State. This created obstacles for new artists who moved away from the realistic structure proposed by the Academy which tried to make painters almost like photographers. They could neither interpret a fruit or a face under their own principles in an abstract way, nor could they present controversial topics such as prostitution. This favored a type of art in which reason and rules prevailed, pointing out that painting should attract the mind instead of pleasing the eye, so it became a type of cultured art that did not reach the working class.

This is how The Hall of the Rejected, Salle des rejetés, was born, for all those who did not share this structured vision of art. The artistic currents in France, then, were divided into those that were accepted by the Academy, and those that were rejected by it. While the great exhibitions, those unattainable to the working class for their exuberant costs were filled with distinguished and wealthy visitors, the Hall of the Rejected filled its halls with works by artists who differed in their understanding of completely unsophisticated painting. It was performed twice and faced ridicule from the press and the public.

A Session Of The Jury in The Hall. Henri Gervex. 1885.

French historian Michel Winock in an interview with Le Nouvel Observateur, a French weekly, describes this period as follows; “Paris becomes the City of Light, attracting writers and artists from all over the world: Picasso, Chagall, Stravinsky, and the Russian ballets... Paris is where the great battle is fought between academic art, which still occupies the institutions, and the avant-garde: Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism… Montparnasse cafés are the headquarters of artists and writers of all nationalities. […] One can speak of a blinding light of the Belle Epoque” (Winock, 1981).

In his book La Belle Époque: La France from 1900 to 1914, he explains that in addition to being a time of prosperity for the economy, culture and politics, there was also an ideological change fostered among artists, promoting free thought, due to new trends in a power struggle (Winock, 2002).

This is how a change started in the general mentality regarding the conception of art, which can be seen in one of the most pioneering and controversial paintings of the time: Olympia, by Manet. The painting was showing a prostitute, who was well known in Paris, with a defiant look. At his feet is a cat, which meant that the woman had been involved in a promiscuous situation before being portrayed, this is also implicitly shown by the bouquet of flowers behind her, the orchid in her hair, and the use of heels that emphasize her nakedness.

Olympia. Édouard Manet. 1863.

The article The History of The Prestigious Hall Of Paris in the magazine My Modern Met goes through the different halls that opposed the academy. In 1874 The Hall of the Impressionist, Salon des Impressionists, was born. To a certain extent encouraged by Manet, several artists successfully exhibited their works in it. Renoir, Monet, Degas, Pissarro, Cézanne, among others, held their first exhibition on April 15, in an apartment. This event was even more disastrous than the Hall of Rejects, yet it was held five more times. Despite being criticized for his brushstrokes and use of colors, he managed to cause a tremendous repercussion among the public and annoyed critics, which is why the Impressionists represented an enormous liberating force from what was previously imposed.

Ten years later the Salon des Impressionists mutated into The Hall of Independents, La salle des indépendants. It was about creating a tool that would allow artists to live with their paintings without compromise, and exhibit them freely, without the worries of a jury or the promises of rewards. It was created for those convinced that in art, freedom remains the best means of order and justice.

Les Grands Baigneurs. Pierre-Auguste Renoir. 1887.

Mario De Micheli, in his book The artistic avant-gardes of the 20th century, explains that more artists arrived as the salon grew, and proceeds to dive into their stories. Regarding Post-impressionism, the most significant painters were VincentVanand Paul Gauguin, who reacted against impressionist color, showing the validity of pure tones; their works are enclosed in a happy world that they themselves create, showing banal themes, portraits, and landscapes. At the same time, in Cubism, Pablo Picasso and George Braque made traditional perspective disappear and trace forms through geometric figures. Rousseau was one of the innovators who opposed the academicians. He knew absolutely nothing about technique due to his work as a customs officer, so he learned to paint on his own. This was enough for him to move to ParisVincent van Gogh and be invited by the anti-academics to the Hall of Independents. At that time he received praise and was highly recognized by avant-garde painters. This was a clear example of the incentive and the help that there was among the artists (De Micheli, 1966, p.51).

La Guerre. Henri Rousseau. 1894.

Taking all this into consideration, it can be said that the Parisian art world of this era progressed steadily, with exhibitions serving to highlight faith in science and technology to the world, showing the individual's ability to master and overcome the obstacles that were presented to him.

Two great battles were fought, those of academic art that dealt with maneuvering painting as a list of rules to follow and that of avant-garde art, accompanied by these artists who brought a breath of fresh air to traditionalist painting. In order to create new ideas, ramifications of art such as Fauvism, Cubism, and Impressionism, among many others, were born. After several unsuccessful attempts to create their own Salons, this group of rejects, were able to finally spread their ideas.

Thanks to them, this new way of looking at art was finally understood, and accepted as valid by the majority of the population, not just by an elite. The light of La Belle Époque illuminated Paris, the Parisians, and all the great artists who fought for their dreams of freedom and recognition, thus leaving a great legacy to humanity.

Bibliographical References

De Micheli, M. (1966). Le Avanguardie Artistiche Del Novecento. Milán. Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Editore.

Vargas, S. (2021). La Historia del Prestigioso Salón de París (Y Los Artistas Radicales Que Se Rebelaron Contra Él). My Modern Met. Retrieved from:

Winock, M. (1981). 1914: El Fin de La Belle Epoque / Interviewed by Claude Weill. Le Nouvel Observateur. Retrieved from:

Winock, M. (2002). La Belle Époque: La France de 1900 a 1914. France. Perrin.

Image References

Gervex, H. (1885). A session of the Jury in the Hall. [Oil on canvas]. Retrieved from:

Manet, É. (1863). Olympia. [Oil on canvas]. Retrieved from:

Renoir, P. A. (1887). Les grands baigneurs. [Oil on canvas]. Retrieved from:

Rousseau, H. (1894). La Guerre. [Oil on canvas]. Retrieved from:


Author Photo

Antonella Cosentino

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