Dawn of the Belle Epoque: The Paris of Monet, Zola, Bernhardt, Eiffel, Debussy, Clemenceau, and Their Friends
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A humiliating military defeat by Bismarck's Germany, a brutal siege, and a bloody uprising―Paris in 1871 was a shambles, and the question loomed, "Could this extraordinary city even survive?"
Mary McAuliffe takes the reader back to these perilous years following the abrupt collapse of the Second Empire and France's uncertain venture into the Third Republic. By 1900, Paris had recovered and the Belle Epoque was in full flower, but the decades between were difficult, marked by struggles between republicans and monarchists, the Republic and the Church, and an ongoing economic malaise, darkened by a rising tide of virulent anti-Semitism.
Yet these same years also witnessed an extraordinary blossoming in art, literature, poetry, and music, with the Parisian cultural scene dramatically upended by revolutionaries such as Monet, Zola, Rodin, and Debussy, even while Gustave Eiffel was challenging architectural tradition with his iconic tower.
Through the eyes of these pioneers and others, including Sarah Bernhardt, Georges Clemenceau, Marie Curie, and César Ritz, we witness their struggles with the forces of tradition during the final years of a century hurtling towards its close. Through rich illustrations and evocative narrative, McAuliffe brings this vibrant and seminal era to life.
made her debut at the Comédie-Française—starting at the top. But she was young and inexperienced, and she did herself no favors with her volcanic temper, more suited to a diva. Discouraged by cold treatment and bad reviews, she left the theater for a series of adventures, one of which left her pregnant with her beloved son, Maurice. Unquestionably, she could have been successful at her mother’s profession, but fortunately she decided to give the theater another try. The director of the Left Bank
exceptional teacher and a kind friend, one who would take great interest in Ravel’s career. Ravel in time would dedicate compositions to his “dear teacher Gabriel Fauré,”4 and he indeed bloomed under Fauré’s tutelage, completing his first work for orchestra (the overture to Shéhérazade) and making his formal debut as a composer in a concert given by the Société Nationale de Musique. This event, which took place on March 5, featured pianists Ricardo Viñes and Marthe Dron performing Ravel’s Sites
history and antiquity—in much the same spirit as Zola, who was also finding his way during these same years. Monet’s approach was entirely different from Zola’s, of course, for in breaking away from the conventional modes of representation, he focused on light and beauty rather than grittiness and sordidness—on attractive landscapes and ordinary people enjoying themselves in the out-of-doors. Even Monet’s cityscapes from the 1860s show Paris at its best, not its worst. But whether or not Zola
of the opera’s opening night, hundreds of people gathered outside its doors, and by evening at least seven or eight thousand spectators were eagerly jammed together in the Place de l’Opéra, awaiting the glittering crowd that was about to arrive. It had been touch and go until the very last minute as to whether the building would be finished in time, and the magnificent red curtain with its gold fringe was fully installed only an hour before it was scheduled to rise. The guest list included
boy with Madame Mauté, who—whatever her credentials—must have been an inspiring teacher. Debussy certainly thought so, and in later years was generous with his credit. But with all due respect to Madame Mauté, she unquestionably was working with remarkable material. Indeed, in 1872 at the age of ten, Debussy showed enough talent that he was accepted by the Paris Conservatoire on the first try. This amounted to starting at the top, and Debussy’s father was delighted. But although Debussy did not