May 17, 2017

A Taste of France in STL: Spectacle and Leisure in Paris (Degas to Mucha)

(Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec - Click here for the image source.)

It's Tuesday afternoon, and in the midst of this busy week I am stealing a moment to write because I've been missing it. Sometimes it can be wonderful to miss something. It just goes to show how much joy this blog brings me (and I hope to you too). 

Last week I was having coffee with a friend who asked if I'd heard about the current exhibit at Washington University's Kemper Art Museum. While I am usually in the know when it comes to all things French in STL, this one had slid under my radar. Saturday I was out and about meeting a friend for coffee (it's a favorite activity) and running errands. I realized Kemper was on my route, and decided to make a stop for yet another artistic taste of France in STL. St. Louis is so incredibly lucky to have many wonderful museums. If you live here, taking advantage is a must (and most are free!). 

Spectacle and Leisure in Paris: Degas to Mucha was a camera free exhibit, so I will do my best to paint a picture of what I saw and learned for you here. Featuring works by Edgar Degas, Alphonse Mucha, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, this exhibit highlighted a moment in Parisian history when work weeks shortened, leisure was of high value, and the arts & entertainment scene boomed (1870-1940). While Degas and Mucha created works inspired by the ballet, opera, and theatre, the Lumière brothers experimented with film. All of these images played a pivotal role in Parisian culture during this period. 

(A scene from An American in Paris (1951)- Click here for the image source.)

As I explored the gallery, I conjured up images of Gene Kelly in An American in Paris (1951) selling his paintings in bustling Montmartre. While the setting of this film dates a little later than the period featured in this exhibit, I couldn't help but think about how what started during Degas and Mucha's time inspired much of the Parisian culture we know and love today. Street culture mattered then as it does now. People walking past Morris columns would be entranced by the colorful and eye catching posters of Toulouse-Lautrec and Mucha. They would be drawn not only to forms of entertainment, but also to products promising an enhanced life. The exhibit explained that the women portrayed in these works were meant to express "carefree states of beauty and abundance", both of which aligned well with the desire for a more leisurely pace and enjoyable life. 

(Alphonse Mucha - Click here for the image source.)
While Paris is beautiful in it's architecture, monuments, history, baked goods, and spring blooms, it is the people, the creativity, and the passion for quality both in products and in life that further enhance the city's beauty. In her book The Only Street in Paris, Elaine Sciolino beautifully describes her life on the Rue des Martyrs. It is the people (the green grocer, the fromageur, the café and shop owners) that give the street and neighborhood it's color and life. I love the way that every day life, leisure, art, and entertainment come together in Paris to form une très belle vie indeed. 

Can you imagine if this Paris did not exist? In a shocking twist, I also viewed a documentary with my boyfriend last week called Citizen Jane: Battle for the City. This film highlights the life and work of Jane Jacobs, an author an activist who believed strongly that it is the people who truly make cities what they are. In the film, they discussed a plan in the 1920s to demolish a part of Paris and modernize it, making it clean and "pure". See a model of that plan below.

(Click here for the image source.)

I can't imagine this Paris, and I am grateful that the vitality that existed in Paris' people and streets during Degas and Mucha's time remains today. To me, this is Paris at its purest. 

Learning about Paris through the lenses of art and history are some of my favorite ways to get to know the city more. If you are in St. Louis and you have the time, definitely check out Spectacle and Leisure in Paris: Degas to Mucha. It only runs through this Sunday (5/21/17), but why not make a Friday afternoon, Saturday morning, or Sunday afternoon of it? If you go on Saturday, it wouldn't be too far out of your way to stop in for a pastry at La Pâtisserie Chouquette and truly experience France for a day right here in our home town. :) 

Warm wishes for the rest of your week and beyond,


  1. Wonderful post! I do miss living near Chicago and the Art Institute.

    1. Merci, Kim! Are you still in Chicago? I love love love Chicago!


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