Imagine the scene in 1896 when sixteen artists known as the Circle Coecilia decided to trek from windy Ostend, Belgium to Paris, France on a Club Crawl. Among them was the iconoclastic James Ensor. As the story goes, the men enjoyed a scandalous night of merrymaking in the Montmartre district. In the wee hours of the morning, they stumbled into the famed venue, Le Rat Mort. Only a lone pianist and a few party girls remained, but the festivities were unforgettable. In 1898, the group held their first official Bal Rat Mort. The annual philanthropic masquerade continues to be held in the Kursaal, Ostend casino to this day.
Montmartre was a place where great food, drink and entertainment met hedonistic excess. In 1900, Bohemian Paris of Today, by W. C. Morrow and Edouard Cucuel: “Here at last we should find all absence of restraint, posing, sordidness, self-consciousness, and appeals to abnormal appetites.”
Belle Époque (1871 to 1914) was a time of profound optimism with extraordinary developments in the arts and technology. It was also a great time to go out on the town. According to the MetMuseum.org, Montmartre was the center of Parisian nightlife, teaming with irreverent venues like the Clubs of Heaven and Hell, the Moulin Rouge, Folies-Bergere and the Rat Mort.
Artists, writers, intellectuals and students all flocked to the area for its nightlife. Famous courtesans known as the “grandes horizontales” rubbed elbows with common prostitutes, club performers and dancers. It was the place where “the respectable” could meet in the underworld of Parisian nightlife.
The renowned Rat Mort was a popular café-restaurant situated in the Place Pigalle. It was known as a place were champagne flowed behind the curtains of private alcoves where sex, music, absinthe and art met.
In his painting In the Private Room at the Rat Mort (1899), Lautrec depicts Lucy Jourdain, a celebrated cocotte who is enjoying dinner at the renowned venue. Her escort’s identity is concealed, which no doubt suited him.
Nineteenth-century Paris was famous for its highly formalized system of prostitution. The élite of this demimonde were fashionable courtesans who entertained aristocrats. Many lived relatively independent lives of wealth compared to “proper” women of their day. As with most of Lautrec’s studies, this subject is clearly enjoying her night on the town. Just beneath her “mask” lurks a sense of desperation.
One of the most famous participants that night in 1896 was James Ensor. Considered avant-garde for his time, Ensor’s work influenced 20th-century artists including Paul Klee.
In the 1880s and 1890s was a time of great social, political and cultural unrest in Belgium. Ensor was a defiant innovator. Many of his painting from this time featured grotesque masks that are similar to the ones his mother sold in her gift shop for the local Carnival.
According to the official Bal Rat Mort website:
“The motto is ” Art and Charity”, the goal, to carry help to the widows
and orphan of fishers disappeared in sea, as well as to the families living in poverty. Funds were gathered at the time of spectacles, concerts and expositions.”
In 1912 the Circle became a Royal Society.
“The Confraternity limits itself to 133 knights: Belgians and foreigners having returned of eminent services in the domain of the tourism, folklore, gastronomy, the arts, of the beautiful letters and the journalism, in the goal to promote the renewal of the city of Ostend as well as the glitter of the “BAL RAT MORT®.”
“In spite of its respectable age, the Circle Coecilia is always hyperactive: there are the monthly game evenings, the yearly barbecue and the various excursions.”
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