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Do you ever wonder what it must have been like, to live in 1900? What it must have been like to live in an age where the sky seemed to be the limit. Where new technologies developed so rapidly, traveling became so easy, and wealth was (for some people) so abundant?

Oranjelaan around 1920

When I am admiring a beautiful Art Nouveau house I always wonder who lived there. How rich really were they, and why? Were they old nobility or so-called Nouveau Riche? I wonder what fabrics the ladies’ dresses were made of, what their jewellery looked like and what colors were used in their homes. Most probably they had servants, so what did they do to keep busy during the day?

In order to fully understand why Art Nouveau could flourish so abundantly, particularly in Paris, we need to get an understanding of daily life at the turn of the 20th century…

Paris 1900 Exposition Universelle

The best way to get an ‘inside’ look, I figured, would be to read about it, preferably in books that are actually written during the Fin-de-Siècle. And there are some really interesting books that I can recommend, some of which have even been turned into a movie. The first book I think you should read is called Chéri, a French 1920 novel by Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (1873-1954). The second book I would like to recommend (and this is actually one of my favourite books) is a Dutch 1889 novel called Eline Vere by Louis Couperus (1863-1923).

Scene with Michelle Pfeiffer in the movie Chéri (2009) at Hotel Mezzara

Scene with Michelle Pfeiffer in the movie Chéri (2009)

Chéri was turned into a 2009 drama film directed by Stephen Frears, starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Rupert Friend. The story is set in 1900s Belle Époque Paris, and tells of the affair between an ageing retired courtesan, Léa, and a flamboyant young man, Fred, nicknamed “Chéri”, which is french for “Dear” or “Darling”. The two believe their relationship is casual until they are separated by Chéri’s marriage. The love story ends when Chéri realises that Léa is the only woman he could ever love, and he commits suicide…

Eline Vere - The movie

Scene with Marianne Basler in the movie Eline Vere (1991)

Eline Vere was turned into a film in 1991. The melodramatic film follows Eline Vere (Marianne Basler) as she attempts to break free from the confines of her narrow existence in The Hague through three tumultuous and ultimately disastrous courtships. Eline desperately wants to be happy, but instead she is over-sensitive and nervous, lonely and depressed, and struggling with her emotions. The movie ends when Eline becomes addicted to morfine and commits suicide.

Scene with Maggie Gyllenhaal and Hugh Dancy in Hysteria (2011)

And I found yet another movie that can give us some insight in the daily lives of the 1900s bourgeoisie. Hysteria (2011) is a romantic comedy showing how the medical management of hysteria led to the invention of the vibrator. The film’s title refers to the once-common medical diagnosis of female hysteria. Women considered to be suffering from it exhibited a wide array of symptoms including faintness, nervousness, sexual desire, insomnia, fluid retention, heaviness in the abdomen, muscle spasm, shortness of breath, irritability, loss of appetite for food or sex, and “a tendency to cause trouble”.

Now, I know I am going a bit off-topic here, but watching these movies leads me to believe that many young people, and in particular young women, were very unsatisfied with their wealthy lives. They seem bored out of their skull and seriously depressed due to the strict rules of protocol and good manners.

1899 Decadent youth - Ramon Casas

1899, Decadent Youth, by Ramon Casas

Lennart Booij writes about the Nouveau Riche in his dissertation about the the reception of René Lalique’s (1860-1945) glass objects in the Netherlands. “During the nineteenth century industrialization took place in Europe and new markets emerged. The international competition put a strong imperialism in motion. Sources were tapped in the fiefdoms, rare minerals were won, and a lot of homegrown products such as cocoa, rubber and tobacco were exported to Europe and the United States. As a result of all of these interlocking developments, a new wealthy middle class emerged in the West. This Nouveau Riche or bourgeoisie was individually self-conscious because of its trade successes, but socially insecure about the new acquired status. Initially, this new class copied the behavior and manifestations of the existing elite, the nobility. But at the end of the nineteenth century their taste and understanding of style changed. The emergence of Art Nouveau can be explained as an expression of this new self-awareness. For the bourgeoisie the concept of good taste, le bon goût, was explicitly important. Good taste would determine the fine line between membership and exclusion of the wealthy bourgeois class. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu explicitly mentions good taste in his classic La Distinction in relation to social ranking. “Paris high society, which consisted mainly of the “haute bourgeoisie”, was looked upon by the rest of the world as the tone setter for a fashionable and luxurious life style. Foreign aristocrats and people of great wealth flocked to Paris, all eager to be entertained, and all ready to adhere to the Parisian high society’s strict rules of protocol and good manners, which were the essence of the high life.”

And I think these “high society’s strict rules of protocol and good manners, which were the essence of the high life” were to blame for the boredom of the younger generation. Imagine you have no other purpose in life than to be pretty and marry well!?!

Nouveau_RicheAnyway, back on topic, this same “essence of high life” appears to be the main reason for Art Nouveau to be so successful! “Since the bourgeoisie had become the ruling class in the late nineteenth century, they took each other’s measure. With precise refinement, knowledge and exclusive property one could outdo the other. And a smart artist or designer did well to emphasize the exclusivity of his work while good taste dictated that one had to possess it” explains Lennart Booij.

Paris served as a magnet for the bourgeoisie who settled in upscale apartments on the main avenues. The flourishing arts and theater made an entertainment culture emerge and strolling along boulevards as well as viewing shopfronts became a regular daily activity of the bourgeoisie. The need of this new class to nicely decorate their modern city apartment and thus to distinguish themselves caused a large and specialized range of department stores and luxury shops to arise. And lots of galleries too, where collectors obtained exquisite art objects to add to their private collections.

So, in short, industrialisation made a new upper class emerge. This Nouveau Riche soon developed a distinct taste for luxury goods and their own strict rules of protocol and good manners demanded they distinguish themselves through refinement, knowledge and exclusive property, which of course the galleries were delighted to supply!

Bing Gallery L'Art Nouveau


For those of you who are interested in scenes from Eline Vere:

And I also discovered all 11 episodes of Chéri (complete movie):


Continue Reading
Dissertatie Lennart Booij: De ontvangst van het werk van René Lalique (1860-1945) in Nederland
Introduction to “Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste”
The Book “Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste”
Wikipage about Exposition Universelle 1900 Paris