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*The Magazine* of La Belle Epoque

From our perspective one hundred years later, we might not see much to distinguish the end of the 19th C. from the beginning of the 20th C. However, the French regarded the 15 years prior to the outbreak of World War I as La Belle Epoque… “The Good Years”. It was a time of great wealth and cultural extravagance. Soon after the Franco-German war of the early 1870s France began to experience an unprecedented period of cultural and artistic acceleration. This cultural explosion was aided by the economic and technological advances of second stage industrialization. Such advances included the development of the combustion engine, pioneering new methods of steel mass production, as well as numerous groundbreaking discoveries in electrical and chemical engineering.

With so many changes afoot in the late 19th C French workers from the countryside-both men and women-began pouring into Paris to find “new” work; often in the factories. City life held a new promise; no longer did one need to posses and work an abundance of farmland in order to make a living. The economic boom and an abundance of jobs created a new class of workers that were well paid and organized. For the French La Belle Epoque was a period of class equalization.

The epicenter of la Belle Epoque was Paris. Indeed, Paris at the turn of the century was unlike any other period in any other major city in modern history. Years later Walter Benjamin would claim Paris as the "capital of the nineteenth century." Just as the workers before them, many famous and aspiring late 19th C artists gravitated to Paris from all over Europe . And with this artistic migration, Paris soon became a kind of showcase-for the Arts, new technology, for fashion, and for entertainment. In the Belle Epoque's spirit of equality Parisian city authorities took an active interest in promoting new ideas for the consumption of the general public with its expositions of 1855, 1867, 1878, 1889, and 1900. As such it seems inevitable that the Eiffel tower was constructed during this period.

The Rise of the News Journal

Critic Vanessa Schwartz claims that the modern concept of mass culture has its origins in Paris in the last third of the 19th century. She argues that what emerged at the turn of the century was a society that sought to represent reality as a spectacle to be viewed, referring to it as the "spectacularization of everyday life." In addition to the technological and social developments already mentioned, Schwartz examines what she regards as characteristic Parisian preoccupations: the avid consumption of mass-produced illustrated daily newspapers. A number of factors contributed to an enormous boom in daily newspaper sales, including cheaper paper and cheaper printing costs as a result of greater industrialization, and a social movement in France promoting universal literacy.

The voice of emerging dailies was directed more toward the general reader, and as the intention was to grab the attention of a rapidly growing mass market, the coverage of events was typically highly sensationalized. When stiff competition ensued features were added to further engage the audience: the serial novel and the illustration. The effect of the latter was to add the suggestion of authenticity to the treatment of an event. It is this kind of visual image that Schwartz refers to as "spectacularization" of reality: a representation of an event from everyday life as spectacle-something to be viewed. As a unique feature of Parisian life this sense of spectacle certainly contributed, along with the other factors mentioned, to the cultural phenomenon of turn-of-the-century Paris .

With more money and leisure time, the urban population reached out for intellectual and spiritual experiences. Now better educated, people acquired an appreciation of culture, art, and literature. As the posters for publications attest, there was a hunger for books, newspapers and magazines that brought the outside world to the reader as never before (publications such as Harper's, Lippincott's, Le Journal, Pan, Gil Blas, La Revue Blanche, and Le Rire)."

The History of Le Rire

Nothing personifies and amplified the spectacle of La Belle Epoque quite like it's decadent laugh. It seems fitting then that one of the premier weekly newspapers of the era would be titled Le Rire (meaning ‘To Laugh').

Le Rire was the most successful of all the "Journal Humoristique," to be published in France during the "Belle Epoque". Released as an illustrated satirical weekly, from October 1894 to well into the 1950's. It was founded in Paris by Felix Juven in 1894. At that time corruption and incompetence ran rampant in the politics of the French government. There was anti-republican unrest directed towards the infamous Dreyfus affair. But, it was also the gay nineties, a time of crowded cabarets and cafes flowing with the likes of Yvette Guibert and Polaire, to entertain the restless generation of the new found industrial age. In short, Le Rire was the perfect satirical medium with which poke fun at the political and social issues of the day.

It was the superb full color drawings of the front and back covers and the centre spread, which made Le Rire outstanding. Printed as a small newspaper, black and white text and advertising appears on the reverse of each color drawing. The great artists that flourished in Paris at the time were lined up to display their talents in Le Rire to an anxious public.

While it is believed that Le Rire was printed using Zinc* plates, four color lithography is found on the front and back cover of each magazine. It is a unique glimpse into the amazing period know as La Belle Epoque. The images appearing in Le Rire were printed over 100 years ago, many of the artists who produced satirical art for this weekly paper, have become world famous. These antique magazine covers have become highly sought after by collectors and are increasingly difficult to find in good condition. Printed on newsprint, a medium not well suited to aging, and limited in quantity due to the mechanical requirements of lithography very few issues of Le Rire have survived in good condition.

It's most famous and important contributor was Toulouse-Lautrec, who did ten remarkable colored drawings plus seven in black and white, during the first three years of publication (October 1894-October 1897). He introduces us to many of the celebrities of the day as well as social situations from the bedroom to the brothel. Creating some of the most beautiful and memorable drawings ever produced for the publication.

The most prolific of all artists for the various journals of Paris, including Le Rire, was the great master Steinlen. Between 1883 and 1900 he produced close to 2000 illustrations for 50 journals. "The humanity of the street, the working class, the uneducated, the exploited, were the pervasive subject of Steinlen's art. His popular sympathies found an economical and popular means of communicating his social messages" (Color Revolution p. 8) He contributed over a dozen striking works to Le Rire.

In 1898, the soon to be famous young Italian artist Leonetto Cappiello, decided to pay a visit to Paris . He found the city exciting, and wanted to stay, but had to find a way to support himself. He approached two famous compatriots, the actor Novelli and the composer Puccini, and asked them to let him sketch their caricatures. They obliged, and Cappiello submitted the drawings to the humour magazine Le Rire. They were promptly accepted, and were so well received by the public that he became, virtually overnight, the favoured artist of the Paris Theatre. His dozens of drawings for Le Rire earned him great recognition and his first poster commission, from which he went on to become one of the most popular poster artists of the 20th Century.

Other Artists Include:

Jean-Louis Forain; Lucien Metivet (1863-1937); Leon Lebeque (1863-1930); Jules Abel Faive (1867-1945); Georges Meunier (1869-1942); Henry Gerbault (1863-1930); Leonce Burret (1866-1915); Henry Guydo (1868-1931); August Roubille (1872-1955); Charles Huard (1864-1965); Henry Mirande (1877-1955); Torne Esquius (1879-1936); Rene Prejelan (1877-1968); and Charles Carlegle (1877-1937) just to name a few.

* Zincography \Zin*cog"ra*phy\, n. [Zinco- + -graphy.] The art or process of engraving or etching on zinc, in which the design is left in relief in the style of a wood cut, the rest of the ground being eaten away by acid.