Visitors to the Portland Art Museum (PAM) this summer are greeted, before ever entering the door, by a fashionable Parisian woman, whose vast likeness fills up much of the building’s front wall. From the 1901 painting “Allegory of the City of Paris,” by Louise Abbéma, she stands at the prow of a boat in a smartly tailored pink gown, strewing roses with one hand and holding a laurel wreath in the other. Behind her, we see the Seine and the rooftops of Paris, under an elegantly moody lavender-and-gray sky.
“Paris 1900: City of Entertainment,” a special exhibit at PAM until Sept. 8, is as chic and optimistic as that allegorical lady; capturing the feeling of a bustling city during what’s been termed “La Belle Époque” — a time before World War I, when Paris’ International Exhibition captured the attention of the world and showcased a vibrant, creative community. Curated by the Petit Palais Museum of Fine Arts in Paris, and coordinated for Portland by Mary Weaver Chapin, PAM’s curator of prints and drawings, it’s a quiet pleasure; a haven, on a recent weekend trip to Portland, of color and texture and art.
Though it’s hard to make a museum seem like anything but a museum, PAM’s given the experience of attending “Paris 1900” a bit of French flair: In the inside atrium, you can sit on cafe chairs and sip coffee under a vast photomural of the Eiffel Tower, pretending you’re on the Champs-Élysées. And before you enter the exhibit, you can stroll into a small theater to watch Georges Méliès’ 1902 silent film “A Trip to the Moon,” screening in a restored, hand-colored version, tinted in a rainbow of greens and pinks and purples. There’s a sense of wonder on the screen, with its jittery motion; a reminder that film was, then, a miracle.
“City of Light” is Paris’ nickname — the exhibit title plays on that — and many of the paintings chosen for “Paris 1900” capture that magical light in which, in our imaginations, Paris always seems wrapped. A William Samuel Horton painting, of a group of well-dressed Parisians at an outdoor festival in a park, seems bathed in a magic evening’s golden light; nearby, Georges Roux’s “Night Party at the Universal Exhibition in 1889, under the Eiffel Tower” takes place in dark-gray moonlight, with the tower glowing like a magical stage. In a Georges Paul Leroux poster advertising the Palace of Optics, an elegantly stooping female figure holds an orb that seems to create its own light, pulling the eye to it.
Much of the art in the exhibit comes from names most of us won’t recognize (no Monet water lilies here); the idea is to give a sense of what was happening in the city, even though many of the artists may now be forgotten. But there are soft-hued portraits from Impressionists Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Berthe Morisot, and the familiarly dark-inked poster art of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec turns up, like an old friend from abroad. Other familiar names are represented not with work but with faces; I paused for a long time before a Jacques-Emile Blanche portrait of the painter Mary Cassatt, perched on a stool in sensible traveling clothes and looking, irresistibly, like she wishes the artist would get on with it.
Though mainly a portrait of a fashionable, artistic city, not everyone depicted in the exhibit is from high society. One haunting work by Fernand Pelez, “A Martyr: The Violet Seller” shows a street child, with dirty feet bare, leaning against a wall, holding a tray of small bouquets to sell. He (or she?) has eyes closed and mouth open, looking bone-weary and heartbreakingly old. And a large photomural on the staircase shows a middle-class French family standing outside a Metro stop, with their two little girls — dressed up in hats and petticoated dresses — gazing at the camera with disdain mixed with curiosity.
While the paintings and posters are a pleasure, what gives “Paris 1900” its texture is the range of decorative objects in the exhibit; it’s like a trunk in the attic of a very wealthy and adventurous grandmother, filled with unexpected treasures. Souvenirs from the Exhibition, including keepsake fans printed with images (a handy way for women attending the Exhibition to keep a map handy at all times) and a scarf depicting the city of Paris, seem as bright as if they were made yesterday. Furniture and accessories take up much of one room, including what may be the world’s most gorgeous Art Nouveau door knocker (it was all I could do not to steal it) and a set of elegantly languid pinewood chairs from the Hôtel Guimard.
Next door, in a room devoted to the Parisian Woman, I was able to fulfill a long-held dream of finally seeing a dress by Paris designer Jacques Doucet. (Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart wore Doucet dresses, or at least did before her fortunes turned; this one was black silk-and-lace and quite the thing to wear to a posh tryst.) Also drawing the eye: a smart navy-and-black walking suit; a fan so ethereal the flowers on it seemed to be levitating; and a high-collared black opera cape, clearly intended to be worn with a lorgnette and an above-it-all attitude. Nearby, a gown once worn by Sarah Bernhardt — glittering with gold embroidery and blood-colored gems — lies dramatically in a case; it’s as if we’re attending its wake.
After an assortment of bright theatrical posters — with a black-cat-on-a-crescent-moon sculpture, the sign from the cabaret Le Chat Noir, hanging rakishly above — we leave “Paris 1900” on a gentle note: the Henri Gervex painting “An Evening at the Pré-Catelan,” depicting well-dressed Parisians eating within, and lingering outside, a chandelier-lit restaurant, as an inky twilight falls.
Real-life people are depicted in the work, a card tells us: the artist’s wife, a posh duke, a Folies Bergère showgirl. The painting’s so large you almost feel you’re inside it, breathing in the air of a summer’s night, in a city where — at least for a moment — anything seemed possible.
“Paris 1900: City of Entertainment,” through Sept. 8 at Portland Art Museum, 1219 S.W. Park Ave., Portland, Ore.; $20; 503-226-2811, portlandartmuseum.org