For many Western nations, and some countries in other parts of the world, the turn of the 20th century was a time of modern invention, intense art production, and relative peace. The French called this period La Belle Époque, meaning “the beautiful era.” During this time, in the early 1900s, the modern city emerged, shaped by industry, innovations in transportation (especially railroads), and mass migrations of people (including a wave of European immigration to America). Among the cities that changed most completely and rapidly was Paris, its growth driven by advances in technology and engineering.
In manufacturing, machine-based production displaced handcrafted goods, while in farming, machines changed labor and production methods. Factories began springing up in suburbs outside the city. Methods of cross-continental transportation—like the railroad and the steamship—moved both people and goods in and out of urban centers at an unprecedented rate. In Paris, residents were either awed or repelled by modern engineering marvels like the new subway system and the Eiffel Tower.
The opinions of those living through these metamorphoses of modern life varied. Some people were excited by what they saw as great progress, others feared that machines would make human beings obsolete. For many artists, photographers, designers, and architects, the modern city became an important subject. They developed new ways to document the dramatic changes they witnessed all around them, and sometimes took a central role in transforming the urban landscape.
To explore more, click on each artwork thumbnail, then click again on the larger image that appears in the box above.
The science, art, or profession of designing and constructing buildings, bridges, and other large structures.
One who uses a camera or other means to produce photographs.
An image, especially a positive print, recorded by exposing a photosensitive surface to light, especially in a camera.
A rendering of the basic elements of a composition, often made in a loosely detailed or quick manner. Sketches can be both finished works of art or studies for another composition.
A representation of a person or thing in a work of art.
A setting for or a part of a story or narrative.
A work of art made with a pencil, pen, crayon, charcoal, or other implements, often consisting of lines and marks (noun); the act of producing a picture with pencil, pen, crayon, charcoal, or other implements (verb, gerund).
A person who conceives and gives form to objects used in everyday life.
French for “beautiful era,” a term that describes the period in French history beginning in 1890 and ending at the start of World War I in 1914, which was characterized by optimism, relative peace across Europe, and new discoveries in technology and science.
The visual or narrative focus of a work of art.
A copy or reproduction.
Modern can mean related to current times, but it can also indicate a relationship to a particular set of ideas that, at the time of their development, were new or even experimental.
1. A detailed three-dimensional representation, usually built to scale, of another, often larger, object. In architecture, a three-dimensional representation of a concept or design for a building; 2. A person who poses for an artist.
The natural landforms of a region; also, an image that has natural scenery as its primary focus.
The method by which information is included or excluded from a photograph, film, or video. A photographer or filmmaker frames an image when he or she points a camera at a subject.
In photography, editing, typically by removing the outer edges of the image. This process may happen in the darkroom or on a computer.
Questions & Activities
Document Your City with Photographs
Make. Photograph your town or city, looking for interesting architecture, landscapes, monuments, or street scenes. During your hunt for interesting scenes, be sure to pay attention to how you frame and crop your image to compose the most visually rich image possible. Think about Eugène Atget’s project of recording “documents” rather than making art. Are your photos more like art or documents?
Create Your Own Mini World’s Fair
The 1889 Exposition Universelle, or World’s Fair, took place in Paris and showcased new innovations, recent geographical and scientific discoveries, and works of art. World’s Fairs, or Expos, as they are often called today, still take place and are hosted by various countries.
Conceptualize your own mini World’s Fair. Come up with a list of themes or ideas your fair should represent (i.e. technology, innovation, environment, politics). Include photographs, drawings, or replicas of important existing inventions (or drawings or models of your own inventions) that you would like to showcase in your fair. Consider how your environment influences how you think, work, live, and play.
Design and Advertise a City Improvement
The Paris Métropolitain (subway) improved life in the city by making transportation cleaner and faster. Hector Guimard’s gates helped advertise the Métro, making it the most popular way to travel around Paris.
Step one: Think about something you would like to do to improve your city, neighborhood, or school. Sketch it out.
Step two: Sell the idea in an advertisement of your own design. Think about ways to entice people to use your improvement. What slogans could you use? What celebrities or images would you include? Look at projects by the Center for Urban Pedagogy for inspiration.