Belle Époque Exhibition Offers A Glimpse Of Parisian Labor, Leisure And Life In the decades before World War I, French artists began painting scenes of ordinary life — on the street, at work, at home, in clubs and cafes. Their work elevated common acts into fine art.
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Get A Glimpse Of Labor, Leisure And Everyday Life In Paris' Belle Époque

Get A Glimpse Of Labor, Leisure And Everyday Life In Paris' Belle Époque

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We can take a break now from coronavirus concerns and stock market shakes and political turmoil because the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, Calif., offers a glimpse at what were seen as happier days more than a century ago in Paris. The four decades before World War I are called the Belle Epoque. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg interprets.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: It means beautiful era. There was lots of change going on, struggle, of course, but also much beauty.

EMILY TALBOT: It was a special moment...

STAMBERG: Curator Emily Talbot says a long stretch without war brought peace to Paris lives.

TALBOT: ...A particularly joyful and exuberant moment in Parisian history.

STAMBERG: The Eiffel Tower went up, broad boulevards replaced shabby medieval paths, France's largest city became the City of Light.

TALBOT: We see electric lights on the streets of Paris.

STAMBERG: In the exhibit "By Day & By Night: Paris In The Belle Epoque," some artists report on what was happening on the city streets, in homes, at work and at leisure in cafes, the circus and clubs. A lithograph by Pierre Bonnard shows a busy street corner in 1899.

TALBOT: You have a woman holding a basket, a child and a dog, a laborer carrying a plank, another one pulling up a pushcart of some kind.

STAMBERG: Some housekeeping is going on out a house window. Bonnard looked out his own window for that one and made a lithograph of what he saw.

TALBOT: A woman across the courtyard who seems to be shaking out her laundry or perhaps...

STAMBERG: Right.

TALBOT: ...Beating a rug - something like that.

STAMBERG: Women are doing a lot of work on these Norton Simon Museum walls. And it's not all pretty pictures. Two females are hard at work in Edgar Degas' painting "Women Ironing." Hand laundering was big business in the late 19th century. About a quarter of the female workforce earned money at it - washing, starching, pressing, throwing the full weight of their bodies into guiding their heavy irons. Degas shows one of them rubbing her neck and yawning in exhaustion while the other toils away.

TALBOT: You're seeing them in the midst of their hard labor, one woman pressing down on the iron, creating these gorgeous crisp shirt cuffs that you can see on the table.

STAMBERG: A group of prints Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec made in 1896 flips the theme of women working to show various Paris prostitutes taking a break - prostitutes in their off moments, bathing.

TALBOT: A woman snuggling under her bed sheets, another woman fixing her hair, an older woman bringing breakfast to a younger woman - these are casual moments. They're banal. They're intimate.

STAMBERG: It could be any of us.

TALBOT: Yeah, exactly.

STAMBERG: Ordinary moments in the day elevated into fine art. The Belle Epoque exhibition closes March 2. After that, these scenes of daily life in Paris so many years ago are tucked back into the Norton Simon permanent collection to linger in memory as souvenirs of a beautiful age.

In Pasadena, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

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