Samuel Joshua Beckett, [Loïe Fuller Dancing], ca. 1900. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Fifty million people flocked to the Exposition Universelle in 1900, crowding into massive temporary pavilions constructed throughout Paris to marvel at such cutting-edge innovations as the escalator, talking pictures, and the diesel engine.
Among these spectacles was Loïe Fuller, an American dancer from Illinois and the only female entertainer to have her own pavilion. “I have only one vibrant image from the Exposition Universelle…Mme Loïe Fuller,” French writer Jean Cocteau recalled. “Let us all hail this dancer who created the phantom of an era.”
The Exposition Universelle of 1900 marked the height of Art Nouveau and its flowing, feminine subjects inspired by nature. Fuller herself personified the movement, with performances that incorporated swirling yards of silk attached to bamboo wands sewn into her sleeves. Colored lights were projected onto the flowing fabric, and as she twirled, she seemed to metamorphose into elements from the natural world: a flower, a butterfly, a tongue of flame.
Portrait of Loïe Fuller. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
These displays were works of art unto themselves, and by the turn of the century, Fuller had directly inspired many of the great artists of her time. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec featured her in a number of prints; Auguste Rodin commissioned a series of photographs of the dancer with plans to sculpt her; and the Lumière brothers released a film about her in 1897. “Miss Fuller’s impression upon the world will not have been a transient one,” wrote Architectural Record in March 1903. “She has contributed towards the creation of a new style; she has come upon the scene at the right moment.”
Today, however, very little remains to recall Fuller’s memory—with the exception of the art that she inspired. “I can ask someone about Loïe Fuller and they won’t know who she is, but I can show them a poster of her from the 1890s and it’s familiar,” says Ann Cooper Albright, author of the 2007 book Traces of Light: Absence and Presence in the Work of Loie Fuller and professor and chair of Oberlin College’s department of dance.
Born Marie Louise Fuller in 1862 in what is now Hinsdale, Illinois, Fuller first pursued acting as a teenager in Chicago. Eventually, she moved to New York City and found initial success with the Serpentine Dance, an act she developed from her role as a skirt dancer. In these initial performances, she appeared to be hypnotized, as if under the influence of a snake charmer, while she waved a gauze robe onto which colored lights were projected.
In 1892, she took the act to Paris and started performing at the Folies Bergère, a music hall that mainly featured vaudeville acts. She became an instant sensation, revered for her mesmerizing choreography and groundbreaking lighting techniques. Within a year, she was billed as the headliner.
Fuller’s universal appeal owed itself in part to the rising popularity of Art Nouveau, which her performances so readily embodied. But she also seemed to have the unique ability to interest audiences from all walks of life. Although the Folies Bergère typically attracted working class patrons, in 1893, a journalist for L’Echo de Paris wrote: “One now sees black dress coats…carriages decorated with coats of arms; the aristocracy is lining up to applaud Loïe Fuller.”
During those early years in Paris, Toulouse-Lautrec produced a series of about 60 lithographs inspired by Fuller’s performance at the Folies Bergère. The young dancer also caught the eye of Roger Marx, an art critic whose praise further contributed to her success—and who introduced her to Gabrielle Bloch, a Jewish-French banking heiress who wore men’s suits and became Fuller’s lifelong live-in partner. “To be clear, Loie Fuller was not part of an early 20th century gay movement,” says Albright. “She was gay, and that was part of her identity, but it was more complicated than that. As a professional, she crossed over the feminized world of dancing on stage and into the masculinized world of being a manager, a producer, and a lighting designer.”
Fuller held over a dozen patents related to her costumes and innovations in stage lighting, including the use of glass plates, large lantern projectors, and colored gelatins. She was so interested in the science of lighting that when she read about the development of radium and its luminous properties in a newspaper, she befriended its discoverers, Pierre and Marie Curie, who had a home in Paris.
Following her 1900 World’s Fair success, Fuller crossed paths with Isadora Duncan, a then-unknown American dancer who had traveled to Paris for the fair, and invited her to join her traveling company. (Duncan famously abandoned the dance troupe several years later.) The younger dancer no doubt benefited from being in Fuller’s orbit. By 1908, the two women had both shifted their focus to “natural dancing”—dance inspired by nature, which was the forerunner of modern dance. From then on, their work would be compared. It was Duncan who would eventually be known as the “Mother of Modern Dance”; Albright notes that Fuller “was way more interested in making things happen than creating a name for herself.”
Fuller maintained her fame even as Art Nouveau declined. In 1924, the Louvre mounted a retrospective of her work that included costumes on loan from Baron de Rothschild’s private collection. She even served as Rodin’s unofficial agent in the United States (the Cleveland Museum of Art owes much of its Rodin collection to her). Although Fuller rarely performed in her later years, she continued to inspire artists and designers until her death in 1928.
But as famous as she was in her time, Fuller’s persona was—and remains—elusive. Very few images of Fuller reflect her true likeness. Perhaps, more accurately, they capture her ability to transcend herself. It seems Cocteau was correct when he called her the “dancer who created the phantom of an era,” for she was something of a phantom herself.