Fin de Siècle

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cultural modernities
perceived dangers and crises—and dangerous fantasies
shifting historical perspectives

The phrase fin de siècle began showing up in French writing in 1886, reflecting emergent interest in the nineteenth century's closing years (particularly its final decade) as a distinct historical period. In the 1890s "fin de siècle" became a popular catchphrase in France that spread to Britain, the United States, and to German-speaking countries. It designated either the modernity of that period or its identity as an autumnal phase of decline. It meant either up-to-date and fashionable or decadent and worn-out.

The fin de siècle brought an outpouring of historical assessments of the century. Paeans to "progress" were favorites of state officials and spokespersons for the middle and upper echelons of society. Buoyed by Darwinian theories of evolution, they focused on various evidence of civilization's movement to "higher" levels. For example, common people across Europe were enjoying more reliable and abundant food supplies, better home heating and lighting than ever before, and access to primary education. The last great European crises—the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871 and the Paris Commune—were decades in the past. Scientists were making great strides forward, gathering observable "facts" and "discovering" "natural laws," according to advocates of the scientific philosophy known as "positivism." "Progress" was perhaps most clearly demonstrable in the era's cascade of technological innovations—from the telephone to the automobile. Millions of Europeans saw such progress in profusion at the Paris Universal Expositions of 1889 and 1900, where they beheld dazzling displays of electric lighting, the latest armaments and powerful machines, a moving sidewalk, the world's largest Ferris wheel (La Grande Roue), and examples of the recently invented motion picture. Fairgoers also saw a gathered world of colonial pavilions, testaments to the unprecedented reach of European power. From that vantage point, the century was ending on a triumphant note.

But outside the mainstream, a host of hard-to-ignore voices—from Bohemian artists to early social scientists—took a pessimistic view. Among them were some of the most important and influential figures of that time. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906), the Irish writer Oscar Wilde (1854–1900), and the English illustrator Aubrey Beardsley (1872–1898), to name only a few, assailed the repressive conventions and hypocrisy of middle-class societies. Other critical observers poured their anxieties and fears into jeremiads about the decline of almost everything—nation and empire, race, religion, morality, the family, women, and the arts. A sense of crisis was heightened in the 1890s by international anarchist attacks on modern civilization, using dynamite and guns to assassinate presidents and kings and to sow terror, all in the hope of bringing down the corrupt old order and ushering in a communitarian world of justice and equality.

cultural modernities

The sense of decline was particularly strong in two capital cities that were cultural crucibles of the first order: Paris and Vienna. In both cities an old sense of primacy was being eroded by the new importance of Germany's power since its unification in 1871—military and economic power together with a huge population. At the same time bold newcomers and outsiders with extraordinary originality and talent were challenging the established cultural and political leaders and elites. In the Austrian capital, mounting political and social tensions were straining the fabric of a crazy-quilt empire led by an aging emperor, backward-looking nobles, and self-regarding bourgeois men. In the 1890s a younger generation rebelled creatively against the old order of religious and imperial dogmatism, moralistic and rationalist middle classes, and the cautious aesthetics of academies and official patrons. Gustav Klimt (1862–1918) gave graphic form to instinct, sexuality, and an uneasy sense of flux in his paintings for several university buildings in Vienna, outraging the upholders of tradition. In Paris in the 1890s a stream of artists and writers sharing a bohemian lifestyle brought wave after wave of artistic shocks to upholders of conventional taste and morality (Alfred Jarry in theater, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in painting, and Erik Satie in music, for example).

One of the emblematic aesthetic expressions of the 1890s was the style called Modern Style in Great Britain and France, where it was also known as Art Nouveau. Reviving rococo decorative motifs, French producers of the "new art" worked flowing, organic lines into architecture, ceramics, jewelry, posters, and furniture. The style's sinuous forms also appeared in the plantlike iron entryways for Paris's earliest subway stations (1900), designed by Hector-Germain Guimard (1867–1942). In Vienna, Berlin, Munich, and Prague, too, the new art found brilliant champions (Klimt among them), young talents who produced Jugendstil (youth style) masterpieces in opposition to the conventions favored by their elders. In Austria and France this movement of innovators, unlike others, received state support, because their program of reviving traditional arts and crafts in an industrial age seemed reassuring and socially unifying to those in power.

perceived dangers and crises—and dangerous fantasies

The view of the era as decadent came readily to old elites, whose political, moral, and cultural authority was under attack from artistic rebels, anarchists, socialists, trade unionists, champions of democracy, and advocates of women's rights. To them the century's close was bringing the barbarian masses to power and swamping the cultural scene with vulgar and immoral works pandering to the tastes of the vulgar plebians. Fears of "the lower orders" and the "other" in myriad guises were rampant among the middle and upper classes in the fin de siècle.

Pioneering scholars in the new social sciences lent weighty support to worries about waxing dangers and looming crises. Experts in psychology, sexology, eugenics, and sociology defined and described the pathological and the abnormal expansively, overlaying old moralism with a new scientific authority. The German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840–1902), who was famous in the 1890s (when Sigmund Freud was not), graphically described a plethora of "psychopathological" behaviors or "perversions" (homosexuality, masturbation, sadism, masochism, fetishism, among others) in his tome Psychopathia Sexualis (1886). His alarming conclusion was that sexual crimes were widespread and on the increase. The Viennese physician Max Nordau (1849–1923) made an even more sweeping diagnosis of the era in his influential book Degeneration (published in German in 1893, English trans. in 1895). He highlighted not only the alarming increase of mental and physical degeneration, crime and suicide, but also the rise of "degenerate" "tendencies and fashions" in the arts (Nietzsche, Ibsen, Émile Zola, Richard Wagner, and others).

In the pessimistic commentaries, the growth of big cities loomed large as a cause of the ills of modern society. Fast-paced, hyper-stimulating urban life reputedly wore people out, and the constant nervous strain resulted in an epidemic of mental diseases (especially neurasthenia and the catchall diagnosis "hysteria"). Further, the urban "masses" were irrational and dangerous: they erupted all too frequently as mad, destructive "crowds" (the thesis of Gustave Le Bon's La psychologie des foules, published in 1895). Cities generated syphilis, prostitution, alcoholism, suicide, and crime. They were also hotbeds of a burgeoning, demoralizing mass culture—tasteless tabloids, detective stories, spy novels, science fiction, and mindless films.

Caught in the maelstrom of transformations, most fin-de-siècle men were on the defensive, fearing loss of control at every turn—in the home, workplace, marketplace, politics, and culture. Among the multiple menaces to tradition were women who pressed for greater economic and educational opportunities, rejecting the ideal of feminine domesticity and patriarchy. Their demands for rights and the small-but-important advances for women (for example, laws allowing them control of property, and the entry of an early few into higher education and the medical profession) were enough to stir an antifeminist reaction—denunciations of women who dared go against "nature." Women prostitutes represented another direct challenge to conventional gender codes as well as a threat to bourgeois morality, public health, and society's control of women's sexuality, especially as it became clear that the state systems of medical exams and licensed brothels were not effective or satisfactory to anyone. Fears and misogyny also manifested themselves in a surge of "fantasies of feminine evil," expressed in innumerable paintings of castrating, murderous femmes fatales (works by Edvard Munch and a host of others). Homosexuals, increasingly visible and vocal, also aroused fears of the feminine and anxiety about the stability of masculine identity, for they were widely viewed as unmanly and feminized (or "inverted"). Along with "dangerous" women and sexual "inverts," Jews were prime targets for those disturbed by economic and social changes. Anti-Semitism found a new support in cobbled-together racist theories about "Aryans" and the (allegedly inferior) other "races," and it took new form as a mass-political program in demagogic electioneering in Vienna (Karl Lueger, mayor of Vienna, 1895–1910), Paris (the anti-Dreyfusards), and Germany.

shifting historical perspectives

In the late 1890s a debate raged (as it did in 1999) about exactly when the old century ended. Some, including Germany's emperor, opted for the turn of the calendar to 1900, but most people celebrated the turn to 1901. Historians have taken more liberty, choosing symbolic events such as the conviction (1895) or death (1900) of Oscar Wilde, the death of Queen Victoria (1901), or the military defeat suffered by the tsar's empire in the Russo-Japanese war (1904–1905).

The period called "fin de siècle" was not followed by an analogous one called "beginning of the century": no historical term for the early 1900s emerged. After World War I with its unexpected carnage and postwar hardships, Europeans began to look back on the years around 1900 not as a century's end, but as the era before the war—a vanished time of peace and economic stability. The period labels "l'avant-guerre" (before the war), "1900" (as an era), and "turn of the century" entered the vernacular. During and after World War II, the last decades of the nineteenth century and the prewar years became known in France as the "belle époque" (the beautiful period), a phrase that eclipsed the label "fin de siècle" for several decades, especially in popular usage. But in the twentieth century's last years, as the approach of the new century and new millennium stirred anticipation and anxiety, the phrase "fin de siècle" returned in force as a subject of historical reflection in scholarly studies and the media.

See alsoArt Nouveau; Decadence; Eiffel Tower; LeBon, Gustave; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Paris; Vienna; Wagner, Richard.


Dijkstra, Bram. Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-siècle Culture. New York, 1986.

Pick, Daniel. Faces of Degeneration: A European Disorder, c. 1848–c. 1918. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1989.

Rearick, Charles. Pleasures of the Belle Epoque: Entertainment and Festivity in Turn-of-the-Century France. New Haven, Conn., 1985.

Schorske, Carl E. Fin de siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture. 1979. New York, 1981.

Schwartz, Hillel. Century's End: A Cultural History of the Fin de siècle—from the 990s through the 1990s. New York, 1990.

Seigel, Jerrold E. Bohemian Paris: Culture, Politics, and the Boundaries of Bourgeois Life, 1830–1930. New York, 1986.

Silverman, Debora L. Art Nouveau in Fin-de-siècle France: Politics, Psychology, and Style. Berkeley, Calif., 1989.

Weber, Eugen. France, Fin de siècle. Cambridge, Mass., 1986.

Charles Rearick