Beaux Arts Movement

What is the Beaux Arts movement?

Updated March 9, 2022

Known as one of the most ornate styles of architecture, the Beaux Arts movement gets its moniker from the French school of architecture known as the École des Beaux-Arts based in Paris. The school taught drawing, painting, sculpture and engraving, as well as a style of architecture that was incredibly ornamental yet rooted in classical design. The Beaux Arts style was first introduced to the U.S. in the late 19th century by American architects, including Richard Morris Hunt, who was the first American admitted to the French institution in 1846. The style reached the height of its popularity between 1880 and 1930, after the industrial revolution, when wealth in America was at an all-time high.

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In France, Beaux Arts design was most popular during what became known as the Belle Époque, or “the beautiful age,” which lasted from 1871 to 1914. One of the most exquisite examples of this style is the Paris Opera house, which was built by French architect Charles Garnier in 1874.

Part of the late 19th-century American Renaissance movement, Beaux Arts-style made its debut at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, also known as the Columbian Exhibition (a celebration to mark the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ voyage). Here, opulent edifices, reflecting the wealth of the Gilded Age, were built in this new Beaux Arts-style, rendered in white plaster and set amid the city, which was nicknamed the “White City.”  

The Beaux Arts style was first introduced to the U.S. in the late 19th century by American architectsCredit: islandworks/Pixabay

Extravagant in nature, the style largely takes its cues from classical Greek and Roman principles and incorporates decorative French and Italian Renaissance and Baroque influences. Inspiration for the design was born from the grand French and Italian palaces of the Renaissance, as well as the English-Georgian style. The resulting buildings were monumental constructions designed with ideal Renaissance forms, Greek and Roman proportions and baroque embellishments. 

Buildings in this style were most often crafted from masonry, including light-hued, smooth-surfaced limestone, marble or cast stone (a stone and cement composite) and occasionally brick, with decorative elements made from materials such as terra cotta or pressed tin. Hallmarks included such features as columns, pediments and balustrades. Balconies, terraces, porches and porticoes were also common additions. Grandiose entryways gave way to even more elaborate interiors showcasing details such as pilasters, archways, grand staircases, opulent ballrooms and ceilings that were coffered or crafted with decorative plaster or frescoes. 

Beaux Arts also emphasized a style of architecture known as parlante, or “speaking architecture,” which encouraged a dialogue between the building and the person looking at it, so that they would understand its function. Decorative elements such as words or names of artists or musicians and symbolic motifs were carved into the building, whether in steps or panels.  

The architectural style was most commonly favored for public buildings such as museums, train stations, libraries, university buildings and courthouses (Grand Central Terminal in New York City and the San Francisco Opera House are two iconic examples). However, the country’s wealthiest tycoons at the time adopted the look for their private mansions, particularly those in Newport, Rhode Island, a summering community for America’s most affluent. One such example is “The Breakers,” the Newport manse of Cornelius Vanderbilt completed in 1892 by Richard Morris Hunt. It’s considered the grandest of Newport’s summer dwellings.