What did artists in turn-of-the-century France imagine life would look like in the year 2000? A series of illustrations by the artist Jean-Marc Côté gives us one clue—and it involves winged fire fighters and scuba divers riding giant seahorses, among other hilariously improbable visions of our current millennium.
Copies of these charming (but less-than-prescient) works are currently for sale at Type Punch Matrix, a rare book dealer in Silver Spring, Maryland, for $10,000 a set. The 78 separate drawings are being billed as the largest-known set of “France En L’An 2000 (France in the Year 2000)” illustrations.
“They are brilliantly executed: Each card is itself a miniature story. The tone maintains a striking balance between optimism and tongue-in-cheek self awareness,” Type Punch Matrix cofounder Rebecca Romney told Artnet News in an email. “And the artistic style is a superb example of the kind of 19th-century imagery that has influenced steampunk aesthetics today.”
The colored engravings were commissioned by toy manufacturer Armand Gervais et Cie for the 1900 Paris Exposition. (Côté was a freelance commercial artist who was regularly employed on projects for the company.) The cards were produced but never sold because the company abruptly shuttered when its founder died in 1899.
For decades, the illustrations, with their retro-futuristic depictions of everyday life—think elaborate mechanical devices for everything from haircuts to brooms—lay forgotten.
Thankfully, their delightful visions of the new millennium were saved for posterity by none other that the great science fiction novelist Isaac Asimov, author of such classics as the “Foundation” trilogy and I, Robot. In the 1920s, a Parisian antiques dealer purchased the cards from the forgotten Gervais inventory. Novelist Christopher Hyde stumbled upon them in Paris 50 years later, purchasing them from a shop called Editions Renaud on the Left Bank in 1978, and sharing the cards with Asimov.
The illustrations became the inspiration for the science writer’s 1986 book Futuredays: A Nineteenth Century Vision of the Year 2000. In addition to publishing the images for the first time, Asimov offered commentary about which drawings remained implausibly farfetched, which ones were more representative of the realities of modern life, and the difficulties of making such predictions.
So while Côté’s vision of an underwater school bus towed by a whale still falls firmly in the realm of fantasy, the classroom of students learning via headphones hews surprisingly close to the way students learn in 2021—albeit without the textbooks being ground up in mill and pumped into their heads.
The illustrations have been widely reproduced on the internet in recent years, with conflicting reports about how exactly Gervais meant Ito distribute them.
“I do not think they were postcards. Their size is far too small for a postcard of that era, and there is nothing printed on the versos (which is not always required, but by this period there are often at least guide lines printed),” Romney said. “They do mimic the size and style of the advertising trade cards found in cigarette boxes of this era, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they were distributed with cigars or cigarettes—these kinds of trade cards were distributed for many different products, from coffee to pianos.”
In any case, 21st-century audiences continue to marvel at Côté’s attempts to predict the future.
“They remain relevant, and become increasingly more so as time passes,” Romney said. “One of the cards depicts a scientist interacting with microbes; another shows something very akin to a Zoom session. There’s even a contraption that appears to do what modern Roombas do. Looking at these cards is a bit like catching up with a friend you haven’t seen since high school—that contraction of time in which it feels as if you experience two time periods at once, thinking of all that was different in the past, and how much has changed now.”
See more images from “France En L’An 2000 (France in the Year 2000)” below.
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