Why you should care

Because Paris’ most prestigious art school was responsible for the city’s erotically charged nightlife.

On a spring evening in late-19th-century Paris, you might have heard, “To the Moulin Rouge! Onward! Long live the Four Arts!” Taxis filled with extravagantly costumed revelers would have been storming across town toward Montmartre.

It was the night of the Bal des Quat’z’Arts, the annual ball organized by and for the students of the École des Beaux-Arts, the most prestigious art school in France. All of artistic Paris emerged from its bohemian depths to revel in what Yale French professor Maurice Samuels calls “a wildly anarchic expression of subversive fervor.” By the end of the fete, partygoers typically found themselves stripped naked. In fact, the Quat’z’Arts was the setting for France’s first-ever striptease in 1893, which was led by the popular artists’ model Sarah Brown and eventually incited a dayslong street riot.

The students used the rhetoric of high art to justify the eroticism and decadence of their big night out.

The Bal des Quat’z’Arts began in 1892 and continued until 1966. It was named for the four major traditional arts — architecture, painting, sculpture and engraving — taught at the École (Quat’z’Arts being an abbreviated form of Quatre Arts, or “Four Arts”). The inaugural ball, a small affair held at the Élysée Montmartre, was a means for students to playfully stick it to their school’s conservative administration. The student-organizers created elaborate set pieces harking back to antiquity and invited female model friends as the only guests. Instead of being proxies for idealized mythological subjects within gilded frames, the models were at the forefront of the evening’s proceedings — real in-the-flesh, naked women. The students used the rhetoric of high art to justify the eroticism and decadence of their big night out.

The 1893 edition of the ball, held at the Moulin Rouge, was a much bigger deal, attended by students and models, dancers, musicians, theater and art critics and even members of France’s national art academy. During the main event, the grand cortege, artists and models paraded as various historical and mythological figures. The highlight, though, was unquestionably the redheaded model Sarah Brown. Carried in by men clad only in loincloths, she appeared as a modern-day Cleopatra and led other models in what would come to be considered France’s first modern striptease. The crowd was enraptured, and word spread quickly throughout Paris.

The titillating news soon reached René Bérenger, an anti-vice leader and founder of the League for the Prevention of Public Licentiousness. Bérenger insisted the state attorney investigate, which resulted in Brown, three other models and one of the organizers being prosecuted for public indecency. In her essay “The Art of Posing Nude: Models, Moralists and the 1893 Bal des Quat’z-Arts,” historian Lela Felter-Kerley explains that during the ensuing trial, the defendants and witnesses claimed “the Ball’s costumes and floats had been created with only the best artistic intentions in mind.” They argued there was “no difference between how the models presented themselves in the studio and at the Ball.” Still, the five defendants were found guilty and each fined 100 francs, with no jail time imposed.

Carte d'invitation au bal des quat'z'arts 1907

An invitation to the 1907 Bal des Quat’z’Arts.

Source Public Domain

The night after the verdict, a thousand students gathered in the Latin Quarter to protest the court’s perceived violation of their artistic liberties. They marched, chanting, through Paris to Bérenger’s house, where police were summoned to drive them away. Meanwhile, back on the Left Bank, a smaller number of Beaux-Arts sympathizers began shouting and throwing glasses at police officers. Someone flung a heavy ashtray at an officer, who hurled it back into the crowd, striking Antoine-Félix Nuger, a 23-year-old shop clerk who lost consciousness and died the next day.

With Nuger’s death, says Felter-Kerley, “what had started out as a relatively peaceful student protest” grew into the “revolt of an uncontrollable mob.” For four days, hordes joined the students in damaging property and attacking police. Many were injured, the Latin Quarter was left in shambles, and order was restored only after the police commissioner resigned and rioters gradually drifted back to their studios.

Bérenger’s morality crusade had not merely failed — he had succeeded in indirectly promoting support for debauchery. Indeed, the Bal des Quat’z’Arts would carry on, without interference from the authorities for fear of further disorder. As it flourished into the 20th century, the ball became an increasingly formal part of the students’ development at the Beaux-Arts. And by the time Paris’ other attractions followed suit by incorporating erotic elements into their after-hours spectacles, the Quat’z’Arts had become, according to Samuels, “an accepted part of France’s antic nightlife.”

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