A year in pictures: 1894

As the 19th century drew to a close, innovations in technology, art and entertainment reflected the sense of fin de siècle. Richard Overy introduces the characters and key events of a year in which change was in the air

Day of the God, painted by Paul Gaugin. (Image by Alamy)

Click the top right corner of each image to expand and view in a gallery

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(AKG-Images)
Norwegian botanist and expedition doctor Henrik Greve Blessing fishes for algae alongside the icebound schooner Fram in July 1894. (AKG-Images)

Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen and his hand-picked crew had set out a year earlier on the purpose-built ship to try to reach the uncharted North Pole. He planned to sail to a northerly latitude where the ship would become icebound and drift with currents across the Arctic. After nearly 18 months locked in ice, Nansen realised the ship would not drift far enough north, so he set off on dog sleds towards the pole. He failed to reach 90° north, but returned to Norway a hero, having collected a wealth of new scientific information.


(Bridgeman)
Japanese troops defeat Chinese forces at the battle of Seonghwan on 29 July 1894, the first major land clash of the First Sino-Japanese War. (Bridgeman)

This Japanese print also shows war reporters and artists observing from a nearby tree. Over the previous two decades the newly modernised Japan had begun to extend its influence in Korea, a Chinese protectorate. In June 1894, China had sent troops into Korea to help suppress the peasant Donghak rebellion; Japan responded by sending forces to protect its interests on the peninsula. According to the treaty that confirmed Japanese victory the following April, Korea became nominally independent, but in reality was dominated by the Japanese presence. In 1910, Japan annexed Korea as a colony.


French army captain Alfred Dreyfus defends himself against charges of treason
French army captain Alfred Dreyfus defends himself against charges of treason at a military court in December 1894, as depicted in an illustration in ‘Le Petit Journal’. (Alamy)

On 22 December Alfred Dreyfus was found guilty of passing secrets to the Germans, and was sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island off French Guiana. However, the evidence against Dreyfus had been fabricated, and the head of French counterespionage soon discovered that the true culprit was another French officer, Ferdinand Walsin-Esterhazy. The ‘Dreyfus Affair’ divided French public opinion, exposing widespread anti-Semitism, particularly in the military and in sections of the media. The debate about the case continued for a dozen years until 1906, when Dreyfus was fully exonerated.


Traffic crosses London’s Tower Bridge in 1894
Traffic crosses London’s Tower Bridge shortly after its official opening by the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) on 30 June 1894. (Bridgeman)

First planned in the late 1870s, work began on Tower Bridge in 1886 but construction of such a complex design – two suspension bridges flanking a central roadway that lifted to allow ships to pass through – took eight years to complete. It soon became a London icon, akin to the Eiffel Tower in Paris, and remains so today.


Firemen tackle a blaze engulfing 600 Pullman freight cars in Chicago
Firemen tackle a blaze engulfing 600 Pullman freight cars in Chicago started by rioters on 6 July during the national railroad strike in the United States, and depicted in a contemporary illustration. (AKG-Images)

The railroad strike, which ran May–July 1894, was called in protest against wage cuts imposed by the Pullman Company. It was supported by the American Railway Union, formed the year before by Eugene Debs to give a voice to workers. Railway traffic was halted or disrupted across the western and central states, and strikers were responsible for widespread violence and arson. President Grover Cleveland ordered the army to break the strike, and by July it had petered out – but not before the railroads had suffered $80 million of damage and 30 people had died.


'Day of the God', painted by Paul Gauguin
‘Day of the God’, painted by Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) in 1894 after his return to France from Tahiti. (Alamy)

The painting Day of the God, notable for Gauguin’s hallmark use of contrasting colour, flat surfaces and semi-abstract images, possibly depicts Ta’aroa, supreme deity in the pantheon of gods in French Polynesia, who created the Earth. The three naked figures symbolise birth, life and death. Gauguin’s work had an immense impact on the modernist art movements of the following decades, particularly influencing the fin-de-siècle symbolism and escapism that permeated much of the culture of the 1890s.


A row of machines in a Kinetoscope parlour in San Francisco
A row of machines in a Kinetoscope parlour in San Francisco, opened in 1894. (Alamy)

The Kinetoscope, patented by the Thomas Edison laboratory, played the first motion pictures, albeit without sound. Each contained a celluloid roll printed with images passed rapidly across a lightbulb and viewed through a peephole at the top of the apparatus; the viewer paid 25 cents to watch ten short movies. The machines became an instant hit, helping to launch the age of the movies that dominated American culture in the century that followed.


A poster advertises the German strongman Eugen Sandow
A poster advertises the German strongman Eugen Sandow (born Friedrich Wilhelm Müller, 1867–1925). (Bridgeman)

Sandow wowed American audiences in 1894 during a nationwide tour staged by the impresario Florenz Ziegfeld. He pioneered the idea of what he called ‘bodybuilding’, employing weight training and a proper diet to develop a strong, healthy body. He organised the first bodybuilding competition at the Royal Albert Hall in London, and later founded the first fitness centres, forerunners of modern gyms.


Russian tsar Nicholas II is crowned
Russian tsar Nicholas II is crowned in the splendour of the Uspensky (Dormition or Assumption) Cathedral in Moscow’s Kremlin, as painted by French artist Henri Gervex. (AKG-Images)

Nicholas acceded to the throne on 1 November 1894 following the death of his father, Alexander III. He was little prepared for his new responsibilities, but stated from the outset that he believed profoundly in the necessity of autocratic rule and would not yield to popular demands for constitutional reform. His unbending attitude contributed to the revolt against the monarchy and the revolution that ended his reign 23 years later.


A replica of the first radio transmitter built by Guglielmo Marconi
A replica of the first radio transmitter built by Guglielmo Marconi – then just 20 years old – in 1894 in his attic room near Bologna. (Bridgeman)

Marconi was the first to recognise the possibilities of wireless telegraphy using recent discoveries in the detection and transmission of radio waves, initially demonstrating his transmitter to his mother. He later developed intercontinental wireless telegraphy and founded a successful telecommunications and engineering company.


Tennis player Blanche Bingley Hillyard
Tennis player Blanche Bingley Hillyard (1863–1946). (Getty Images)

Hillyard is pictured here in 1894 – the year she won the third of her six Wimbledon ladies’ singles titles, beating Edith Austin (later Greville) in straight sets 6–1, 6–1. Among the most successful British tennis players of all time, she also played in seven other Wimbledon finals, a record that still stands today. Hillyard won her final title in 1900, aged 36, playing in the customary long, awkward tennis dress reaching down to the ankle.

1894 in context

The 1890s was a decade of inventions, scientific breakthroughs and cultural innovations. In hindsight, it seems as if the fin-de-siècle era was imbued with a sense of ending; it’s remembered (in Europe, at least) for both cultural decadence and ideas of new beginnings.

In 1894, precocious young Italian engineer Guglielmo Marconi developed the radio transmitter; Karl Benz patented the first petrol-driven large-scale-production automobile; moving pictures were presented commercially for the first time through the new Kinetoscope; John Harvey Kellogg produced his first flaked cereals; and Coca-Cola was sold in bottles for the first time. The art world, meanwhile, was challenged by the avant-garde style of French artist Paul Gauguin and the Norwegian Edvard Munch, and by the emergence of the art nouveau movement.

In international politics, imperial expansion continued without serious friction, radical nationalism not yet posing a threat to the dominant global position enjoyed by the major European empires. The French and Russian governments signed an alliance, ostensibly to counterbalance the alliance between Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire – an event that had a delayed but dramatic impact 20 years later as a major factor in the start of the First World War.

For most governments in the western world, the chief threat was internal political conflict, notably with the rise of organised labour movements. In the summer, the United States railroad system was almost brought to a halt by a nationwide strike. In Europe, socialist parties played an increasingly important part in national politics, challenging the existing liberal and monarchical orders. Late in the year, Nicholas II acceded to the throne of the Russian empire, determined that radical political change should be kept firmly at bay. This year marked the start of tsardom’s own fin de siècle.

Richard Overy is professor of history at the University of Exeter, and editor of The Times Complete History of the World (William Collins, 2015)

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This article was taken from issue 11 of BBC World Histories magazine, published in August 2018