What Is Beaux Arts and Where Can I See It?

Beautiful, Fine Arts

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 popular but short-lived in the United States from roughly 1885-1925.

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 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.

In the United States, the Beaux-Arts style led to planned neighborhoods with large, showy 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.

In the US, Beaux Arts was used in some of the public architecture in Washington, DC, most notably Union Station by architect Daniel H. Burnham and the Library of Congress (LOC) Thomas Jefferson building on Capitol Hill. The Architect of the Capitol describes the LOC as "theatrical and heavily ornamented," which is "perfectly suited to a young, wealthy and imperialistic nation in its Gilded Age." 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, California, the Palace of Fine Arts and the Asian Art Museum made the California Gold Rush a reality.

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 ostentatious.

Today the phrase beaux arts is used by English-speaking people to attach a dignity and even 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. It's also part of a famous poem, Musée des Beaux Arts, by W.H. Auden.

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 turn into the 20th century was a time of great growth throughout the world. It was a time after the American Civil War when the United States was truly becoming a country—and a world power. It was a time when architecture in the US was becoming a licensed profession requiring schooling. These French ideas of beauty were brought to America by American architects fortunate enough to have studied at the only internationally known school of architecture, L’Ecole des Beaux Arts. European aesthetics spread to wealthy areas of the world that had profited from industrialization. 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 if not best-known example of this French opulence within a logical design is the Paris Opéra house by the French architect Charles Garnier.

Definitions of Beaux-Arts Architecture:

"Historical and eclectic design on a monumental scale, as taught at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris in the 19th cent."—Dictionary of Architecture and Construction, Cyril M. Harris, ed., McGraw- Hill, 1975, p. 48
"The Beaux Arts is a classical style with the full range of Greco-Roman elements: the column, arch, vault and dome. It is the showy, almost operatic, manner in which these elements are composed that gives the style its characteristic flavor."—Louisiana Division of Historic Preservation

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.

About Musée des Beaux Arts:

The English poet W. H. Auden wrote a poem called Musée des Beaux Arts in 1938. In it, Auden describes a scene from a painting by the artist Peter Breughel, a piece of art that Auden observed while visiting the Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels, Belgium. The poem's theme of the commonplace of suffering and tragedy—"how it takes place / While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along"—is as relevant today as it ever was. Is it ironic or on purpose that the painting and the poem are paired with one of the most visibly ornate styles of architecture in an era of conspicuous consumption?

Learn More:

  • The Architecture of the Ecole Des Beaux-Arts by Arthur Drexler, 1977
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  • Richard Morris Hunt, Beaux-Arts Architectural Drawings
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Sources: "The Beaux Arts Style" by Jonathan and Donna Fricker, Fricker Historic Preservation Services, LLC, February 2010, Louisiana Division of Historic Preservation (PDF) [accessed July 26, 2016]; Beaux Arts Architecture on Capitol Hill, Architect of the Capitol [accessed April 13, 2017]