Discover the Beauty of Beaux Arts

Exuberant and Classical Architecture Inspired by France

Marble lion in front of the Main Branch of the New York Public Library, 1911, Beaux Arts Architecture
Main Branch of the New York Public Library, 1911, Beaux-Arts Architecture. Photo by Robert Alexander / Archive Photos / Getty Images

Beaux Arts is an opulent subset of the Neoclassical and Greek Revival architectural styles. A dominant design during the Gilded Age, Beaux Arts was a popular but short-lived movement in the United States, lasting from roughly 1885 to 1925.

Also known as Beaux-Arts Classicism, Academic Classicism, or Classical Revival, Beaux Arts is a late and eclectic form of Neoclassicism. It combines classical architecture from ancient Greece and Rome with Renaissance ideas. Beaux-Arts architecture became part of the late 19th century American Renaissance movement.

Beaux Arts is characterized by order, symmetry, formal design, grandiosity, and elaborate ornamentation. Architectural characteristics include balustrades, balconies, columns, cornices, pilasters, and triangular pediments. Stone exteriors are massive and grandiose in their symmetry; interiors are typically polished and lavishly decorated with sculptures, swags, medallions, flowers, and shields. Interiors will often have a grand stairway and opulent ballroom. Large arches rival the ancient Roman arches. According to the Louisiana Division of Historic Preservation, "It is the showy, almost operatic, manner in which these elements are composed that gives the style its characteristic flavor."

In the United States, the Beaux-Arts style led to planned neighborhoods with large, ostentatious houses, wide boulevards, and vast parks. Because of the size and grandiosity of the buildings, the Beaux-Arts style is most commonly used for public buildings like museums, railway stations, libraries, banks, courthouses, and government buildings.

Examples and Architects

In the U.S., Beaux Arts was used in some of the public architecture in Washington, D.C., most notably Union Station by architect Daniel H. Burnham and the Library of Congress (LOC) Thomas Jefferson building on Capitol Hill. In Newport, Rhode Island, the Vanderbilt Marble House and Rosecliff Mansion stand out as grand Beaux-Arts cottages. In New York City, Grand Central Terminal, Carnegie Hall, the Waldorf, and the New York Public Library all express Beaux-Arts grandeur. In San Francisco, the Palace of Fine Arts and the former home of the Main Library (now housing the Asian Art Museum) were built with wealth from the California Gold Rush.

Besides Burnham, other architects associated with the style include Richard Morris Hunt (1827–1895), Henry Hobson Richardson (1838–1886), Charles Follen McKim (1847–1909), Raymond Hood (1881–1934), and George B. Post (1837–1913).

The popularity of the Beaux-Arts style waned in the 1920s, and within 25 years the buildings were considered to be gaudy.

Today the phrase beaux arts is used by English-speaking people to attach a dignity or sometimes a frivolity to the ordinary, such as the volunteer fundraising group named Beaux Arts in Miami, Florida. It's been used to suggest luxury and sophistication, as the Marriott hotel chain expresses with its Hotel Beaux Arts Miami.

French in Origin

In French, the term beaux arts (pronounced BOZE-ar) means fine arts or beautiful arts. The Beaux-Arts "style" emanated from France, based on ideas taught at the legendary L'École des Beaux Arts (The School of Fine Arts), one of the oldest and most esteemed schools of architecture and design in Paris.

The period spanning the late 19th century and turn of the 20th century was a time of great industrial growth throughout the world. During this period, which followed the American Civil War, the United States became a world power. It was in this period, too, that architecture in the U.S. was becoming a licensed profession requiring schooling. French ideas of beauty were brought to the United States by American architects fortunate enough to have studied at the only internationally known school of architecture, L’École des Beaux Arts.

European aesthetics spread to the newly wealthy areas around the world. It is found mostly in urban areas, where it can make a more public statement of prosperity or an embarrassment of riches.

In France, Beaux-Arts design was most popular during what became known as the Belle Époque, or "the beautiful age." Perhaps the most important and best-known example of this French opulence within a logical design is the Paris Opéra house by the French architect Charles Garnier.

To Hyphenate or Not

Generally, if beaux arts is used alone, the words are not hyphenated. When used together as an adjective to describe a style or architecture, the words are often hyphenated. Some English dictionaries always hyphenate these non-English words.

Sources

  • Drexler, Arthur. The Architecture of the Ecole Des Beaux-Arts. Museum of Modern Art,1977
  • Fricker, Jonathan and Donna. "The Beaux Arts Style." Document prepared for the Louisiana Division of Historic Preservation, 2010, (PDF).
  • Hunt, Richard Morris. Beaux-Arts Architectural Drawings, the Octagon Museum (Eight High-Quality, Full-Color, Reproductions). Pomegranate Publications, 1996.