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Exhibition surveys the rich range of artistic responses to life during the belle époque
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901), At the Cirque Fernando, Rider on a White Horse, 1887–1888. Pastel and drained oil on board, 23-5/8 x 31-1/4 in. (60 x 79.5 cm) Norton Simon Art Foundation.

PASADENA, CA.- The Norton Simon Museum is presenting By Day & by Night: Paris in the Belle Époque, an exhibition that surveys the rich range of artistic responses to life in the French capital during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During this time, later dubbed the belle époque, or “beautiful era,” Paris was at the forefront of urban development and cultural innovation. Its citizens witnessed the construction of the Eiffel Tower, the ascendancy of the Montmartre district as an epicenter for art and entertainment and the brightening of their metropolis under the glow of electric light. For artists like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Edgar Degas and Pablo Picasso, however, it was often the less triumphant details of modern life that inspired creative expression. The paintings, drawings, prints and photographs in this exhibition demonstrate that these artists participated in the inventive spirit of the age by interpreting the everyday as something extraordinary.

The graphic arts—and color lithography in particular—enjoyed something of a renaissance in the belle époque, and many painters turned to printmaking as a newly compelling medium, one that invited bold aesthetic experimentation while broadening the potential market for avant-garde art. By Day & by Night features three of the most groundbreaking suites of lithographs produced in this period: Pierre Bonnard’s Some Aspects of Life in Paris (1899), Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s Elles (1896) and Édouard Vuillard’s Landscapes and Interiors (1899).

Some Aspects of Life in Paris summons viewers on a stroll through the city (which, not coincidentally, is how Bonnard derived inspiration for the series). Images of bustling streets, famous monuments and a crowded theater position the spectator as a participant in the action by using abrupt compositional cropping and oblique points of view to situate our visual perspective within the scene. In House in the Courtyard, the artist has aligned the margins of his composition with the frame of a window, obliging us to enact the process of peering past the open shutters to glimpse a neighbor across the way. Alongside this dynamic portfolio of prints are photographs by Eugène Atget, who famously captured overlooked oddities in Paris, such as the eccentric wares of a traveling lampshade peddler or a cluster of strangers viewing a solar eclipse.

Toulouse-Lautrec is best known for colorful interpretations of performers and personalities associated with the bohemian neighborhood of Montmartre. But in addition to his humorous and exaggerated style of draftsmanship, the artist also perfected a thoughtful and sensitive approach to depicting female subjects, regardless of their station in life. In his lithographic suite Elles, a series of images depicting kept women, we are invited into the intimate spaces of bedrooms and boudoirs—yet rather than emphasizing titillating details, Toulouse-Lautrec focuses on the banality and even boredom of the subjects’ daily routines. On the other side of the spectrum, the artist’s dynamic pastel At the Cirque Fernando, Rider on a White Horse (1887–88) dramatizes the sensation of movement by representing a bareback circus performer as she whips by on her mount. This interest in depicting life in Paris as it unfolds was likely inspired by Edgar Degas, whose work Toulouse-Lautrec greatly admired. Degas also depicted the city’s many female performers, and By Day & by Night features several works that show women on and offstage, such as the impressively-scaled oil painting Actress in Her Dressing Room (c. 1875–1880 and c. 1895–1905) and the diminutive pastel Café-Concert Singer (c. 1877). Other artists, in contrast, turned their attention to those who patronized the concert halls of Paris. A twenty-year-old Pablo Picasso, newly arrived in the city, drew a scene of intriguing spectators in his Moulin Rouge (1901), while the Italian expatriate Giovanni Boldini captured an elegant man about town in his pastel Portrait of a Dandy (1880–90).

At the same time, not all of the era’s artists were drawn to busy street scenes or the dazzling world of theater. In a departure from these more publicly oriented works, the exhibition also includes Vuillard’s vividly patterned series Landscapes and Interiors, which demonstrates the artist’s fascination with personal subjectivity and ways to render it pictorially through texture, color and the articulation of space. One of a group of artists known as the “Nabis,” the Hebrew word for prophet or seer, Vuillard was drawn to quiet moments—friends playing chess or family members at home. Even his outdoor subjects convey calm and serenity rather than the frenzied bustle of Bonnard’s parks and boulevards. Joining this portfolio of prints are two small paintings by Vuillard, The Dressmakers under the Lamp (c. 1891–92) and Lucie Hessel (c. 1905), both depicting women who were important to the artist, as well as subdued and even somber works by fellow Nabis Ker-Xavier Roussel and Maurice Denis.

In addition to making drawings, paintings and limited-edition print portfolios, artists like Bonnard and Toulouse-Lautrec used lithography to make large-scale, dynamically designed posters, which were plastered throughout Paris to advertise products from champagne and lamp oil to literary journals and famous nightclub entertainers. By Day & by Night includes six iconic posters, generously lent by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, to demonstrate the pervasiveness of visual art in a city increasingly associated with printed images.

The belle époque is often imagined as a golden age of spectacle and joie de vivre. Yet as the works of art in this exhibition demonstrate, the experience of daily life was often the impetus for bold artistic expression, as evident in the spellbinding array of scenes and personalities in By Day & by Night: Paris in the Belle Époque.

By Day & by Night: Paris in the Belle Époque is organized by Emily Talbot, Acting Chief Curator at the Norton Simon Museum.

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