By: Tara Bennett
Aurelie Levert was 25 years old when she first traveled from her plantation home in West Baton Rouge with her siblings and cousin to experience the Grand Tour of Europe, a trip of a lifetime that would leave an everlasting impression on her. Like so many young Americans at the time, Aurelie wrote excitedly about her three month journey in great detail, and for the first time ever, pages from her diary will be on display in the West Baton Rouge Museum.
“A Louisianian’s Grand Tour during the Belle Époque,” which runs through July 20, features not only excerpts from Aurelie’s diary, but many artifacts from the time period to offer a touchingly real look into what Aurelie experienced, and to make history come alive.
“I came across the journal and I thought just the story of her going to Europe during this interesting time period would make for a good exhibit,” said exhibit curator Lauren Davis. “That period I think was just such a fascinating time period for me, and I just kind of like to immerse myself in the history. So I’m hoping people will enjoy getting a chance to kind of immerse themselves in the time period of the Belle Époque and see some of the beautiful, intriguing things that came out during that time period.”
Aurelie’s trip was taken during the height of the Belle Époque, the turn-of-the-century years starting in the 1870’s and ending with World War 1 in 1914. It was a time period characterized by optimism, peace and new scientific and technological discoveries including items we still use today including telephones, airplanes and record players.
“It meant a beautiful era, which when World War I happened, and they looked back at the time period, they sure thought this was a much better time period than the war, so that’s why it got that name,” said Davis. “It was just a neat time to be in Europe because there were so many interesting things happening, so the fact that she got to be there right in the middle of the turn of the century was fun.”
The peace and prosperity in Paris in particular during this time period allowed the arts to flourish, creating a second Renaissance for the city.
“It was just a time of forward thinking and creating what we would consider now to be imperative items like telephones and airplanes,” said Davis. “It was a time of peace, but there was a lot of unrest, which eventually would lead to World War I.”
Davis had worked on the exhibit for two years after discovering Aurelie’s diary, which was copied into a genealogy book of the Levert family, and she collected items from the New Orleans Museum of Art, the LSU Museum of Art and the LSU Textile Museum in order to recreate what Aurelie would have seen on her trip during the time period.
Though she lived during 1900, people can still identify with Aurelie’s thoughts, and laugh at her sense of humor.
“As soon as we were well out, we all began to write postals,” Aurelie writes. “For awhile everybody was as busy as bees, but this was scarcely over when Julia and myself both took a great dislike to the motion of the ship and acquired quite a fondness for hanging over the railing.”
During the exhibit, visitors will get to see artifacts from the time period including pieces of high fashion from the era.
“We have different items on display that were invented during this time period,” said Davis. “When she was in Paris for a portion of the trip, they went to the World’s Fair. It was the biggest world’s fair of the time period. So we have a lot of images and video footage from that World’s Fair.”
Along with the main museum exhibit, there will be special events associated with the time period of Belle Époque.
On May 29, at noon there will be a lunchtime lecture, “Gorham Silver in the Belle Époque” hosted by Mel Buchanan, Curator of Decorative Arts & Design, from New Orleans Museum of Art.
On June 4, “About Perfume with the Bourbon French Parfum Company,” will be held. Two perfume workshops will be held at noon and 6 p.m. Attendees will mix samples of scents and listen to a brief history of perfumery from a New Orleans shop founded in 1843.
Other free events will take place June 26, July 13 and July 17.