Week 4 / September 27: La Belle Epoque: Symbolism and Art Nouveau

Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881-1973), Family of Saltimbanques, oil on canvas, 83 x 90 inches. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC


La Belle Epoque

Rather than a style, la Belle Epoque designates a time period during the end of the 19th Century, throughout the 1890s and into the early twentieth-century, during which time many styles proliferated.

During this time, Post-Impressionism developed, opening the door for abstraction in the 20th-century: Toulouse-Lautrec died in 1901, Cezanne in 1906 and Gauguin in 1903; Seurat and Van Gogh both died before the turn-of-the century. Many different artists, styles and types of art were appearing throughout this period, but these 5 artists remained incredibly influential.

This week, you will learn about:

  • a style in art, graphic design, furniture and architecture called Art Nouveau
  • Symbolist artists, including a group called the Pre-Raphaelites, who you encountered when reading about the critic John Ruskin and James Whistler. Gauguin is considered a Symbolist because he uses a mixture of things from his surroundings as visual jumping-off points to express symbolic ideas and issues that are important to him. Pablo Picasso, the most important artist of the 20th Century, also begins working as a Symbolist in Paris at the turn-of-the-century in what is called his Blue Period, for the work’s moody melancholy atmosphere.
  • Auguste Rodin, considered the first modern sculptor
  • the influence of Japanese woodblock prints on Western artists throughout this period of time, including on Whistler, the Impressionists, some of the Post-Impressionists, and on the Art Nouveau movement
  • This week, you will also visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where you will examine artworks in person from all of these styles and from Impressionism. Based on this visit, you will complete the Met Museum #1 assignment.
  1. The Art Nouveau movement encompasses and expresses the complexities of the modern experience in the urban metropolis by synthesizing many of the major industrial, cultural and social issues and ideas of the era into a new style of decoration, architecture and interior design.

Once you have completed the above, contribute key words and concepts from your notes on Art Nouveau into the class wiki to build up a thorough, yet concise study guide for this material. Include these terms and concepts into one of three main areas in the wiki: 1) introductory facts about Art Nouveau; 2) visual characteristics and features common to Art Nouveau objects; and/or 3) how Art Nouveau relates specifically to modern urban culture. Review your notes from the ‘Becoming Modern’ essay and try to relate the developments in Art Nouveau to these categories. In your contribution, do not repeat anything that has already been stated. Define terms in your own words. Include major ideas and information only. (there are additional instructions on the Blackboard site)

  1. Symbolism is a broad category for different artists whose work uses signs and symbols to communicate information beyond the visual appearance of things. The Symbolist movement coincides with Art Nouveau and Post-Impressionism at the end of the nineteenth century.

Read my analysis (below) and look at the Picasso artwork above as an example of how what we see in an artwork – here, a group of circus performers – can be taken at face value for what it is, but also has symbolic information relevant to the artist that we can and should analyze and interpret for its added significance.

Pablo Picasso’s The Family of Saltimbanques:

Though his boldest contribution to modern art would come in 1907 with the development of Cubism, Pablo Picasso’s The Family of Saltimbanques, 1905, is a pivotal work that announces the arrival of the most influential visual artist of the twentieth century. This was the largest painting Picasso had attempted and he worked on it for 9 months in a deliberate effort to establish his identity as an artist in Paris, where he had moved in 1900 from his native Spain.

The melancholy painting depicts a troupe of itinerant circus performers in a barren landscape rather than inside a circus tent. Picasso regularly attended the Cirque Médrano in his Montmartre neighborhood, sometimes going three or four nights a week, and he especially enjoyed mixing with the performers in the local cafés afterward.[i] Picasso felt a deep kinship with these performers who lived in close-knit itinerant communities outside of established French society. He admired their commitment in devoting themselves fully to their art with their survival dependent on the sublimation of their life to their work.

With this painting, Picasso began his lifelong identification with the figure of the harlequin – the witty trickster character from the Italian commedia dell’arte theater, seen on the far left in his checkered costume and here, featuring a self-portrait of the young artist. The harlequin holds the hand of a young girl who symbolizes Picasso’s younger sister, Conchita, who died when she was 7 years old in 1895 before the artist moved to Paris to establish himself as an artist.

The figure of the clown next to him was based in part on Picasso’s friend, the poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire, and also on Grock, a clown introduced by the Cirque Médrano in 1904. The artist’s personal identification with the circus performers confirms Picasso’s commitment to spend his life making art on his own determined path outside the mainstream. Like the performers, the artist’s situation was similarly precarious at the time, existing hand-to-mouth far from home with nothing but his talent and instinct as he sought to establish himself as an artist in Paris. In 1905, Picasso and other impoverished and unknown artists, writers and poets lived together in a dilapidated building known as the Bateau Lavoir. In spite of their meager circumstances, the group was rich with energy and camaraderie going out every night to the circus, cafés or dance-hall and working to express vital aspects of their experience in new visual or literary experiments that would become the foundation of modernism.

  1. Auguste Rodin is an important sculptor who had a long and complex career. The Met has an extensive collection of works by Rodin. Read the Met’s essay about Rodin: LINK: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/rodn/hd_rodn.htm When reading the Met’s essay about him, focus on taking the shortest, most efficient but effective notes, by summarizing and distilling the content to as little information as possible. Note the titles of only the artworks that seem to be the most important and keep your bullet points of notes to individual words and short phrases.

For example, my notes for the first paragraph would say only this: Paris born, 1840; traditionally trained, rejected from Ecole-des Beaux Arts(traditional art school)

With this information, and knowing Rodin is the first modern sculptor, I now have a brief sense that although he is classically trained, his style is going to defy tradition.

Met Museum Assignment #1: Read over the entire assignment and information about the museum before your visit. Do the week’s Art Nouveau, Symbolism and Rodin readings before your visit. The Met Museum Assignment #1 contains 4 short answer questions to be completed after visiting the Met Museum and seeing artworks in person that relate to the artists and styles discussed so far this semester. This assignment is due typed, at the beginning of class next week with no exceptions.

For class next week – summary of the 3 required things to do:

  1. Go back to the Impressionism discussion board and fix, edit, or update the content you contributed as needed to make sure everything is accurate and thorough. Contribute one piece of information from your Post-Impressionism notes and the in-class exercise to the Post-Impressionism discussion board. (instructions for both are at their home pages)
  2. Read and take notes on Art Nouveau, Symbolism, japonisme, and Rodin. Contribute one piece of information from your Art Nouveau notes into the class wiki.
  3. Complete the Met Museum Assignment #1 answering 4 short answer questions. Your typed paper should be numbered 1 -4 and using a 12-point font, double spaced lines. Proofread, spell-check and review your paper thoroughly before turning it in. This assignment is due next class #5

Remember / FYI: The powerpoint and discussion boards or wikis are always on Blackboard. The Met Museum assignment #1 is available here (link above) and on Blackboard.


Footnote in my Picasso analysis: [i] See John Richardson, A Life of Picasso: The Early Years, 1881-1906 (New York: Random House, 1991); and Fernande Olivier, Picasso and His Friends, translated by Jane Miller (New York: Appleton Century, 1965); see also Theodore Reff, “Harlequins, Saltimbanques, Clowns, and Fools” in Artforum vol. X, no. 2 (October 1971), 30-43.

For further analysis of this Picasso artwork and information on the artist, use this link: https://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/Collection/highlights/highlight46665.html