Old England - MIM © Brussels Arts & Heritage

Optimism, peace, new technologies, scientific discoveries and – last but not least – a flourishing art scene: these are the things we associate with the Belle Époque. And it is still possible to recapture some of the old joie de vivre in the Brussels of today.

The Belle Epoque

Victor Horta Museum Brussels © PhotoMKSFCA

In stark contrast with World War One, the period between 1871 and 1914 was a thriving and prosperous one for France and Belgium. So much so that it became known as the Belle Époque ('Beautiful Era'). The economy was strong, which led to the artists' salons in Brussels, among other positive developments.

One cannot talk about the Belle Époque in Brussels without mentioning Victor Horta. With his architecture he sought to break away from tradition and to achieve something never seen before. Fuelled by this passion, he became a pioneer of the Art Nouveau movement in Belgium. Seeking to counterbalance the straight forms of the contemporary industrial buildings, he referenced nature in his architecture, integrating flowing lines and floral motifs. He also began to design more and more of the furniture and décor, so that his houses became a self-contained artwork unto themselves.

Hotel Tassel (1893) was his first building in the new style. It featured some of the most typical characteristics of this revolutionary period: differences in level, unique glass work, conservatories, staircases and skylights. The latter allowed Horta to flood every area with light and to greatly increase the sense of space in his houses. Another typical Horta feature was the large amount of ironwork on the façades of his buildings.

Anyone seeking to gain a unique insight into Horta's work should pay a visit to the Horta Museum. The museum is housed in his own magnificent home, which was built between 1898 and 1901 and carefully restored in recent years. The harmonious interior, largely original, is packed with subtle details that reveal Horta's perfectionism and craftsmanship. Unfortunately, many of Horta's homes are not open for public viewing. Every two years, however, Horta aficionados can look forward to the Art Nouveau and Art Deco festival.

There are also a number of buildings from his later period that have become an essential part of the cityscape. The Centre for Fine Arts (Bozar – Palais des Beaux Arts) is one such example, a building world-renowned for its cutting-edge exhibitions and acoustically excellent concert hall. Horta also sketched the initial plans for the Central Station, which would be completed by Maxime Brunfaut after his death in 1947.

Design Museum Art Nouveau Horta © Joost Joossen

Anyone seeking to gain a unique insight into Horta's work should pay a visit to the Horta Museum. The museum is housed in his own magnificent home, which was built between 1898 and 1901 and carefully restored in recent years. The harmonious interior, largely original, is packed with subtle details that reveal Horta's perfectionism and craftsmanship. Unfortunately, many of Horta's homes are not open for public viewing. Every two years, however, Horta aficionados can look forward to the Art Nouveau and Art Deco festival.

There are also a number of buildings from his later period that have become an essential part of the cityscape. The Centre for Fine Arts (Bozar – Palais des Beaux Arts) is one such example, a building world-renowned for its cutting-edge exhibitions and acoustically excellent concert hall. Horta also sketched the initial plans for the Central Station, which would be completed by Maxime Brunfaut after his death in 1947.

Architectural pearls

Old England MIM Brussels © Eddy Van 3000

Although Horta was by far the most important figure of the movement, he was by no means the only architect or artist making interesting work in this period. Even today, their collective legacy speaks vividly to the imagination. It's not without reason that the Belgian capital is known across the globe as the Art Nouveau city. Horta's buildings aside, the Old England building by architect Paul Saintenoy is doubtless one of the finest examples of the period. It now houses the Musical Instrument Museum and offers a breathtaking view of the city.

A visit to the new Fin-de-Siècle Museum is a must for anyone wishing to learn more about this fascinating period in history. There you will gain an overview of Art Nouveau in Brussels and the role played by Brussels as a cultural crossroads in Europe. The museum boasts paintings by Léon Spillaert and James Ensor, as well as poems by Emile Verhaeren and Maurice Maeterlinck. The latter is a national literary hero who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1911.

The Cinquantenaire Museum, one of the Royal Museums for Art and History, house an extensive collection, which can be found in the Wolfers hall. This is where the créme de la crème of the collection is kept, such as the Henry Van de Velde candlesticks. These are on display in vitrines designed by Horta and made by the Wolfers Frères company, respected across the globe at the turn of the 20th century for its jewellery.

A handy mini-guide is available from Visit Brussels for people on the trail of this fascinating period in the city's history. Pick up a copy for just 50 euro cent from the Visitor Information Centre at VisitFlanders and at other tourist information points.

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