‘Stalwart Blackamoors’ in the Moulin Rouge

      1909 Bal des Quat'z'Arts Poster

Over at Obscene Desserts, the indefatigable JC Wood shares a mind-breaking historical tidbit which washed up on the shores of his Serious Academic Research. I thought I'd join the fun. While I was researching my upcoming book in the Fondren Library in Houston a week or so ago, my attention was distracted by a bright, shiny object having nothing to do with my researches. In my case, it was the book On Bohemia: Code of the Self-Exiled by Cesar and Marigay Grana, an engrossing collection of essays and articles tracing the concept of Bohemia through the past couple of centuries.

On pp. 374-379, we find a piece by one F. Berkeley Smith describing the 1893 Bal des Quat'z'Arts, or "Ball of the Four Arts." Until 1966, this ball was held yearly in Montmarte by students of the Ecole National des Beaux Arts in Paris. The Ball, reportedly the venue of the world's first striptease, started every year at 10, lasted until the next morning, and was pretty goddamned exciting:

A huge float comes along, depicting the stone age and the primitive man, every detail carefully studied from the museums. Another represents the last day of Babylon. One sees a nude captive, her golden hair, and white flesh in contrast with the black velvet litter on which she is bound, being carried by a dozen stalwart blackamoors, followed by camels bearing nude slaves and the spoils of a captured city.

As the baIl continues until daylight, it resembles a bacchanalian fete in the days of the Romans. But all through it, one is impressed by its artistic completeness, its studied splendor, and permissible license, so long as a costume (or the lack of it) produces an artistic result.

Here is the invitation to the 1899 ball, as reported by Smith

BAL DES QUAT'Z' ARTS

Moulin Rouge, 21 April, 1899

Doors open at 10 P.M. and closed at midnight.

The card of admission is absolutely personal, to be taken

by the committee before the opening of the ball.

The committee will be masked, and comrades without their personal card will be refused at the door. The cards must carry the name and quality of the artist, and bear the stamp of his atelier.

Costumes are absolutely necessary. The soldier-the dress suit, black or in color-the monk-the blouse-the domino-kitchen boy-loafer-bicyclist, and other nauseous types, are absolutely prohibited.

Should the weather be bad, comrades are asked to wait in their carriages, as the committee in control cannot, under any pretext, neglect guarding the artistic effect of the ball during any confusion that might ensue.

A great "feed" will take place in the grand hall; the buffet will serve as usual individual suppers and baskets for two persons.

The committee wish especially to bring the attention of their comrades to the question of women, whose cards of admission must be delivered as soon as possible, so as to enlarge their attendance-always insufficient.

Prizes (champagne) will be distributed to the ateliers who may distinguish themselves by the artistic merit and beauty of their female display.

All the women who compete for these prizes will be assembled on the grand staircase before the orchestra. The nude, as always, is PROHIBITED!?!

The question of music at the head of the procession is of the greatest importance, and those comrades who are musical will please give their names to the delegates of the ateliers. Your good-will in this line is asked for-any great worthless capacity in this line will do, as they always play the same tune, "Les Pompiers!"

THE COMMITTEE — 1899

For exciting reports of the doings surrounding the ball in 1914, visit the New York Times' archives here (pdf). Brassai pictures of ballgoers here.

6 thoughts on “‘Stalwart Blackamoors’ in the Moulin Rouge

  1. If I understand well – but I’m not an architect – while the photograph shows an invitation for the bal of June 9th 1909, the translation quoted here refers to another invitation, from April 1899.
    And since it’s French klugsh*tting time: Both the novel and the film “Jules & Jim” open with a brief scene at the Bal des Quat’z’ arts.
    Véronique, Mädchen für alles, GERMANY.

    Like

  2. If I understand well – but I’m not an architect – while the photograph shows an invitation for the bal of June 9th 1909, the translation quoted here refers to another invitation, from April 1899.
    And since it’s French klugsh*tting time: Both the novel and the film “Jules & Jim” open with a brief scene at the Bal des Quat’z’ arts.
    Véronique, Mädchen für alles, GERMANY.

    Like

  3. I’m also not an architect, but I actually wrote the post so I would like to point out that nowhere in the post did I suggest that the illustration was actually for the specific ball whose invitation I reprinted.

    Andrew, homme de lettres, DAS VATERLAND.

    Like

  4. I’m also not an architect, but I actually wrote the post so I would like to point out that nowhere in the post did I suggest that the illustration was actually for the specific ball whose invitation I reprinted.

    Andrew, homme de lettres, DAS VATERLAND.

    Like

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