Dawn of the Belle Epoque: The Paris of Monet, Zola, Bernhardt, Eiffel, Debussy, Clemenceau, and Their Friends

Dawn of the Belle Epoque: The Paris of Monet, Zola, Bernhardt, Eiffel, Debussy, Clemenceau, and Their Friends

by Mary McAuliffe

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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?"

With the addition of an evocative new preface, Mary McAuliffe takes the reader back to these perilous years following the abrupt collapse of the Second Empire and


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?"

With the addition of an evocative new preface, 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 vivid narrative, McAuliffe brings this vibrant and seminal era to life.

Editorial Reviews

Today, Paris retains its allure as a mecca for lovers of art, fashion, and high culture. To an extent, that allure is a legacy of the Belle Epoque, an age from roughly the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 to the onset of WWI in 1914. McAuliffe examines the earliest phase of the period, up to the turn of the century. As the term indicates, this was an era of wonderful cultural flowering. In literature, giants like Zola and Hugo were active. The list of painters and sculptors who emerged seems endless, including Toulouse-Lautrec, Manet, Monet, and Rodin. McAuliffe tracks, on a year-by-year basis, this explosion of artistic expression. She does not ignore the seamy underside of this glittering picture. She pays ample attention to the political turmoil, beginning with the horrors of the Paris Commune and ending with the disgrace of the Dreyfus Affair, which virtually dominated French political discourse for years. This is an excellent and honest portrayal of an exciting and vital era in European history.
The New York Journal of Books
In Dawn of the Belle Epoque, Mary McAuliffe—who earned a Ph.D. from the University of Maryland and wrote for Paris Notes—tells the intriguing story of how Paris came alive again after that black period of French history. . . . To tell this incredibly complicated story, Ms. McAuliffe uses an interesting technique, one that might be identified more with fiction than nonfiction. Arranged chronologically into 28 chapters year by year from 1871 to 1900, the book consists of short scene-like vignettes featuring key historical figures and their actions during the year in question. Thus Dawn of the Belle Epoque reads more like a novel than an academic history. . . . Rich with the flavor of words taken from primary sources, the book provides an intimate look at the very human side of history. An extensive bibliography including French sources and 24 pages of endnotes allow for much further reading investigation. . . . Today's Paris rose from war and ashes, as Mary McAuliffe's Dawn of the Belle Epoque so eloquently proves.
Washington Independent Review of Books
It is within this psychologically damaged milieu that McAuliffe deftly explores the inner lives of the artists and those who surrounded them, and in the process humanizes these larger-than-life characters. . . . McAuliffe has added a truly remarkable degree of insight into both the lives of the participants and the turbulent world they inhabited. McAuliffe paints with broad, majestic strokes a world that has been lost to us or perhaps never was.
What a story [Mary McAuliffe] has to tell! In a world of breathtaking achievement in art, music, drama, dance, sculpture, literature, and occasionally even politics, the 'to-ings and fro-ings' of those synonymous with the period—Zola, Bernhardt, Clemenceau, Eiffel, Debussy, Rodin—are set against the perpetual high drama that was the Third Republic. This gossipy soufflé . . . will entertain those who love the arts, French history, or Paris. . . . A fun read for all. Highly recommended.
The Collected Traveller
Unique and insightful. . . . In each chapter we are introduced to the key personalities and events of the era, often through excerpts from letters or diaries. I felt like I was a part of the personal lives of everyone, and by the time I finished the book I had a deeper understanding of the (real life) characters, even those I already knew a lot about. Mary brilliantly juxtaposes the groundbreaking works in painting, sculpture, literature, poetry, architecture, and music with the collapse of the Second Empire, the Paris Commune, the Panama Canal scandal, turbulent clashes between the Republic and the Church, economic woes, nasty anti-Semitism, and the Dreyfus Affair. The struggles and events of these years have continued to influence French politics and society right up to the present day.
What a story [Mary McAuliffe] has to tell! In a world of breathtaking achievement in art, music, drama, dance, sculpture, literature, and occasionally even politics, the 'to-ings and fro-ings' of those synonymous with the period—Zola, Bernhardt, Clemenceau, Eiffel, Debussy, Rodin—are set against the perpetual high drama that was the Third Republic. This gossipy soufflé . . . will entertain those who love the arts, French history, or Paris. . . . A fun read for all. Highly recommended.
French Studies
Mary McAuliffe’s book is a charming and detailed meander through the lives of the writers and artists who lived and worked in Paris between 1871 and 1900. Each chapter describes a year in the life of the French capital, during which the author depicts the major Parisian events and provides a fascinating variety of anecdotes, little-known facts, and background detail that any connoisseur of the city will relish. . . . The result is an informative and evocative guide to late nineteenth-century Paris that would be an ideal accompaniment to a stay in the capital. . . . A most entertaining and readable account of a fascinating era and will be useful to both students of Paris and visitors alike.
Jeffrey H. Jackson
Mary McAuliffe takes us on an engaging tour of Paris at a turbulent moment in its history. From the disastrous Franco-Prussian War to the hopeful turn of the twentieth century, year by year she chronicles in wonderful detail the highs and lows faced by the city’s high-powered political leaders and its creative men and women. Along the way, her beautiful storytelling reveals the triumphs, challenges, and scandals of an age that brought one century to an end and launched another. Anyone who loves Paris will enjoy this delightful book.
Mark Eversman
Composers, scientists, engineers, architects, politicians, painters, sculptors, novelists, poets, hoteliers, restauranteurs, journalists, actors, dancers, courtesans, merchants, patrons. . . . Somehow, someway, Mary McAuliffe, in Dawn of the Belle Epoque, manages to unwrap the essences of all of their lives and to uncover their almost unbelievable interconnectivity during an astonishing inflection point in Paris—indeed, world—history. Out of hundreds, this is simply the most enjoyable Paris book I have ever read.
Mimi Gregory
The Federation of Alliances Françaises is pleased to suggest Mary McAuliffe's wonderful new book. Once again this historic period comes to life as the Paris of 1871 recovers to greet the 'full flower' of the Belle Epoque. A great read for your book clubs.
Jane Robert
I love Dawn of the Belle Epoque. It gave me a whole new layer of Paris to appreciate, and I truly savored every insight.
Contemporary French Civilization
McAuliffe should be strongly commended for corralling such an immense amount of data into a tightly paced, informative, and highly readable compendium. The book is sure to delight readers as much as it informs them and it should be of interest to anyone teaching or taking courses on the history of Paris.
French History
This book explores the private and public lives of well-known artists, composers, architects, poets, novelists, sculptors, playwrights, actresses, dancers, entrepreneurs, and politicians in the last third of the nineteenth century. McAuliffe’s deep research in both primary and secondary sources, combined with her skilled reconstruction of social and professional networks, results in a wealth of fascinating, roughly interwoven biographies and historical events. . . . [I]t is an evocative and pleasurable read.
New York Times
[In her] splendid . . . work, Dawn of the Belle Epoque, Mary McAuliffe strikingly evoked the three flourishing decades of culture that followed France’s humiliation by Germany and the never-to-be-forgotten crowning, in 1871, of a German emperor at Versailles.
Publishers Weekly
Rising from the ashes of the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune, the tumultuous Third Republic’s early years from 1870 to 1900, known as the belle epoque, was an era in which groundbreaking artists flourished: Manet, Eiffel, Rodin, Debussy, and other one-name legends. McAuliffe (Paris Discovered: Explorations in the City of Light) chronicles the story of Paris’s rebirth, capturing the artistic freedom of impressionism in painting and music, and new ideas in sculpture and on the stage even as Republican secularists, lingering Communards, and the royalist Catholic hierarchy fought for political and popular control, a struggle wonderfully illustrated through the construction in this era of the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, and the Basilique du Sacré Coeur. The fascinating glimpses into the lives of each significant figure are necessarily truncated, including Sarah Bernhardt’s, whose self-marketing could well have served as a blueprint for Lady Gaga. The author doesn’t overlook the Dreyfus affair and economic hard times, but the relationships and creative output of the era’s innovators create a marvelous vision of Paris at its heady, uncertain best. Illus. (May)

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Dawn of the Belle Epoque

The Paris of Monet, Zola, Bernhardt, Eiffel, Debussy, Clemenceau, and Their Friends
By Mary McAuliffe


Copyright © 2011 Mary S. McAuliffe
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4422-0927-5

Chapter One



What blood and ashes! What women in mourning! What ruins!" Sarah Bernhardt, like so many of her fellow Parisians, had left Paris during the height of the siege, and now that the "abominable and shameful peace" was signed and the "wretched Commune" crushed, she ventured back. But the Paris she found was not what she expected. Everywhere, she wrote in her memoirs, one could smell the "bitter odor of smoke." Even in her own home, everything she touched left an unpleasant residue on her fingers.

Emile Zola, who had holed up in his small house on Rue La Condamine (17th), in the heart of the fighting between government and Communards, had an entirely different reaction. For two months he had tried to keep up his writing as cannon boomed night and day and as shells hissed over his head, but at last—warned that he was about to be seized and possibly shot by the Communards—he fled Paris. At the time, it seemed the end of the world. But he quickly forgot this once the Commune was over. Writing in July to his boyhood friend, Paul Cézanne, he told him that now that he was back in his home in Paris, it all seemed as if it had been a bad dream. When he saw that "my house is the same, my garden has not budged, not a piece of furniture, not a plant has suffered," he concluded that it almost seemed as if it all had been a "nasty farce invented to frighten children."

Yet if Zola's little world remained blessedly untouched, the larger world around him had suffered enormous damage. Not only had the Tuileries Palace and a swath of historic public buildings gone up in flames, from the Palais de Justice to the Hôtel de Ville, but countless private houses and businesses had been damaged or reduced to rubble. Many of these, like Thiers' mansion, had been the target of angry mobs, while countless others were the random victims of Communard fire-bombers. But many more, primarily in the western sectors of Paris, had suffered from the lengthy cannon bombardment by government troops prior to their forced entry into the Commune-controlled city. Ironically, this western sector was the part of Paris most likely to contain government supporters, but western Paris took its hit not only from the mob its residents feared, but also from the government troops that these Parisians regarded as their saviors.

Pummeled in turn by the Prussians, by French government forces, and by the Commune, Paris in late spring of 1871 was a shambles. Not even the trees along its avenues and quays remained standing, having been used for fuel during the siege's long winter months. All suffered, but not equally, for the greatest damage was borne by the poor, whose despair and anger had fueled the Commune. The death toll from Bloody Week was enormous by any standards, and for years there was a noticeable dearth of men of a certain age in the working-class areas of Montmartre and Belleville.

Georges Clemenceau was acutely aware of this when he returned to Paris in the summer of 1871. Although his career in politics would eventually take him to the pinnacle of power, he began life as a doctor, with a deep abhorrence of all forms of political and social injustice. Born and raised in the remote reaches of the Vendée, near Nantes, Clemenceau had followed in his well-born father's footsteps, both in his medical studies and in his ardent republicanism. Paris made its imprint on him at an impressionable age, as a young medical student—one who enthusiastically participated in left-wing protests against Napoleon III's repressive empire. America made a deep impression on him as well, where he traveled widely, served as a foreign correspondent for a Paris newspaper, and (strapped for cash) taught at a girls' finishing school. After that, life as a country doctor in the Vendée must have seemed extraordinarily dull—especially once it became evident that Napoleon III's war on Prussia was turning into a disaster for the French. As the Second Empire tottered, Paris beckoned ever more strongly, and at last Clemenceau left his young American wife and child in the Vendée and headed for the City of Light. Here he settled in Montmartre and promptly dived into the turbulent politics of the time.

French military defeat and the end of the Second Empire soon vaulted him into public life as mayor of the eighteenth arrondissement (essentially, the mayor of Montmartre), where his left-wing politics and devotion to his constituents won him widespread support during the long difficult months of Prussia's siege of Paris. Elected to the National Assembly, he voted against Prussia's terms for peace but was outvoted by a conservative majority, which formed a new government. Soon after, during the opening days of the bloody Commune uprising of 1871, Clemenceau's attempts to broker a peaceful resolution between government and workers came to naught, ironically earning him the enmity of both sides.

Significantly, he did not join the Commune. Although sympathetic with its poverty-stricken followers and their hostility to the newly formed government, he firmly believed that such a government could only be legitimately opposed—and modified—through peaceful means, not through violence. At last, just before the height of the bloodshed, he returned to the Vendée and his family, a decision that may have saved his life.

But Paris still beckoned, and he returned after the Commune's bloody demise, opening a dispensary in the heights of Montmartre, at 23 Rue des Trois-Frères (the small building in which it was housed is still there). Here, for two days a week, Clemenceau cared for the poor of Montmartre, free of charge. And here, driven by the appalling conditions he saw around him, he reentered politics.

He had seen too many women like Gervaise Lantier, the tragic heroine of Zola's still-to-be-written great novel, L'assommoir (Zola had just begun the serial publication of the first of his twenty-volume series on the Rougon-Macquart family, including L'assommoir, which would be published in 1877). Indeed, Clemenceau and Zola did not yet know one another, although their paths had briefly crossed several years earlier, when both had written for the same left-wing student newspaper in Paris. Now they lived only a few blocks from one another, but while Clemenceau was avidly pursuing his path in politics, Zola was torn between the life of tranquility and the life of action. Both were ardent republicans of a left-wing but nonextremist cast, yet it would be many years before their paths would memorably cross, with Zola at last taking the path of action. In the meantime, Zola wrote with driving power and a journalist's eye for detail about the heredity-driven lives of his fictional family, including Gervaise Lantier, who found herself mired in poverty on the slopes of Montmartre.

Zola certainly was not sentimental. In his preface to L'assommoir, Zola wrote that this was "the first novel about the common people which does not tell lies but has the authentic smell of the people." From this, he added, "it must not be concluded that the masses as a whole are bad, for my characters are not bad, but only ignorant and spoilt by the environment of grinding toil and poverty in which they live."

By contrast, Zola's childhood hero, Victor Hugo—whose blockbuster novels Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre-Dame) and Les misérables seethed with righteous indignation over the plight of the common people—served up large quantities of heart-wrenching sentiment. But while Zola (along with Flaubert and other leading intellectuals of the time) now regarded Hugo as a man of the past—a giant, perhaps, but an outmoded one—the common people regarded Hugo in an almost messianic light. Returning to Paris the day after the empire's fall, Hugo was greeted by a huge crowd at the Gare du Nord. Never one to shy from an audience, he pushed his way through the mob and into a café, where he spoke from a balcony: "Citizens," he told them, "I have come to do my duty." He had come, he added, "to defend Paris, to protect Paris"—a sacred trust, given Paris's position as the "center of humanity." After that, he climbed aboard an open carriage, from where he spoke again to the fervent crowd before making his way to the house of a friend, near Place Pigalle. There the young Montmartre mayor, Georges Clemenceau, warmly welcomed him. Altogether, it must have been a most gratifying occasion for the old man, who had left Paris almost twenty years before in what had amounted to a self-imposed exile.

Hugo arrived just as the siege set in, and on October 22, he reported in his diary, "We are eating horse in every form." A month later, he noted: "People are making rat pâté," adding (with a bit of ghoulish delight), "It is said to be quite good." Several days later, he was one of the lucky ones still to have meat, only this time it was antelope, bear, and stag, in that order—courtesy of the zoo in the Jardin des Plantes. (During these same desperate days and weeks, young César Ritz, who was working at the elegant—but similarly food-deprived—Restaurant Voisin, served up épagneul, or spaniel, and a dish of elephant trunk with sauce chasseur.)

Deprivation was not the only difference in the Paris that greeted the returning Hugo. Paris's physical appearance had undergone an enormous transformation, and much of the city he had known so well no longer existed. Baron Haussmann, Napoleon III's prefect of the Seine, had cut a swath through some of the oldest and most poverty-ridden quarters of Paris, in the process eradicating whole sections of the city that had provided the setting—indeed, had served as a major character—in Notre-Dame de Paris and Les misérables. Haussmann had destroyed history, but he had not been able to destroy memory. Les misérables—which Hugo had written in large part while on the Isle of Guernsey—summoned up the Paris that he had known so well before his departure in 1851.

But when Hugo returned to Paris in triumph in 1870, he found a city he no longer recognized, set out along broad boulevards that served a distinctly military as well as aesthetic purpose. The churches still existed—SaintMerri, Saint-Médard, Saint-Jacques du Haut Pas, and of course Hugo's beloved Notre-Dame, which he had almost single-handedly saved from irreversible decay and ruin. But so much else did not.

Not surprisingly, such changes dismayed Hugo, an ardent lover of the Gothic—one who proclaimed that Paris had reached architectural perfection in the fifteenth century, only to come downhill ever since. Touring the city on the Petite Ceinture, the circular railway that since 1852 had run along the inner wall of the Thiers fortification, he commented with considerable irony, "Fascinating. Paris demolishing itself in order to defend itself—a magnificent sight."

* * *

Paris had of course undergone considerable demolition and change throughout the centuries, although nothing quite as far-reaching as what Haussmann and the Second Empire undertook. Philippe-Auguste's twelfth-century wall—a hulking physical presence for several centuries—had long since been bypassed by an expanding population and fallen into ruin. The wider-circling fourteenth-century wall that sheltered Notre-Dame de Paris's thieves and gypsies had been destroyed by none other than Louis XIV, who loftily pronounced the irrelevance of such a fortification in light of his proven prowess as a military commander. Louis then had this wall replaced with today's Grands Boulevards, a demolition scheme that seems to have pleased everyone.

The eighteenth century brought an even wider-circling tax wall, which its proponents mistakenly thought would charm Parisians with its sublime architecture, especially its neoclassical tollhouses, which were designed by one of the foremost architects of the day. Instead, these tollgates were among the first targets of the irate Paris populace during the opening days of the 1789 revolution. Still, the wall itself remained in place for decades longer, as two emperors and a sequence of returning monarchs agreed that the customs it collected were unquestionably useful. Only in 1860 did it come down, thanks to Baron Haussmann, who perceived that the Thiers fortifications (which encompassed Paris in an even larger circle) could serve the same purpose, and to much better effect.

A fortification rather than a mere tax wall, the massive Thiers structure—built in the 1840s and named after the same Adolphe Thiers who in 1871 was once again head of government—turned out to be especially useful as a tax barrier. Of course its original purpose was defensive, with an eye toward the northeast and a reunited Germany. That it failed miserably during the Franco-Prussian War—and just as miserably during the Commune uprising—did not persuade the government of the Third Republic to tear it down. Not until after World War I did it finally disappear, ultimately to be replaced by Paris's unloved ring road, the Périphérique.

In the meantime, the removal of the older tax wall in 1860 meant a new look for Paris. Villages such as Montmartre, Belleville, and Grenelle now were incorporated into Paris proper, with the city's original twelve arrondissements, or administrative units, expanded into twenty, completing the number of arrondissments and establishing Paris's administrative limits as they exist today. This meant that the barrier that once divided the city from such outlying areas as the Butte of Montmartre had now disappeared, its path marked only by a series of boulevards, such as the Boulevard de Clichy, that once ran alongside it. Soon Parisians in search of a good time flocked northward to the cabarets that began to open in Montmartre.

Unlike these well-to-do pleasure seekers, the residents of those regions once beyond the wall, much like Zola's Gervaise Lantier, found it almost impossible to leave their particular hellholes once industrialization and its accompanying poverty set in. Those who did manage to cross the great divide, leaving their poverty and former addresses behind, typically did so in much the same fashion as Gervaise's daughter, Nana—as common street prostitutes or, if especially ruthless and fortunate, as high-society courtesans, living in the shadows of upright society. It seems hardly surprising that Nana and others like her treated the world with as much contempt as the world had treated them.

* * *

"What terrible events, and how shall we come out of this?" wrote Edouard Manet to his young artist friend, Berthe Morisot. "Each one lays the blame on his neighbour, but to tell the truth all of us are responsible for what has happened."

Morisot's response is not recorded, but her parents certainly would not have agreed with Manet. For years, Madame Morisot had chaperoned young Berthe and her sister on their regular outings to the Louvre, where they studied and painted. For years, Madame Morisot had disapproved of the young men they had met there, but Edouard Manet and his two brothers, Gustave and Eugène, were a different matter. The Manet brothers came from exactly the sort of social milieu that would recommend them to the family of a sheltered young woman of the Parisian haute bourgeoisie such as Berthe Morisot.

Still, there was an element of danger to the brothers, especially Edouard, that Madame Morisot found worrisome, even if her daughter did not. Elegant and sophisticated, Edouard was a ladies' man. He was also a painter of provocative pictures. His Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe (Luncheon on the Grass), with its startling juxtaposition of clothed men and a nude woman, as well as his Olympia, with its brazenly sexual courtesan, created a hullabaloo in the art world before eventually being acknowledged as masterpieces. And then there was the matter of his politics. Madame Morisot, who along with her husband was a firm supporter of Thiers, thought Manet's sympathy for the Communards was totally incomprehensible. By contrast, she and her husband took considerable pride in their son, Tiburce, and his decision to join the Versailles government's general staff. Yet neither of the senior Morisots was enamored with the full-fledged monarchists in the Versailles government. The Morisots were—like Thiers—constitutional monarchists, and they were just as wholeheartedly anti-Communard.


Excerpted from Dawn of the Belle Epoque by Mary McAuliffe Copyright © 2011 by Mary S. McAuliffe. Excerpted by permission of ROWMAN & LITTLEFIELD PUBLISHERS, INC.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Mary McAuliffe received a Ph.D. in history from the University of Maryland and has taught at several universities and lectured at the Smithsonian Institution. For many years she was a regular contributor to Paris Notes. She has traveled extensively in France and is the author of Paris Discovered: Explorations in the City of Light. She lives in New York City with her husband. Click here to visit her photo blog on Facebook for insights on French history and culture.

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