L’art de la bohème in Turn-of-the-Century Montmartre


Now what many Parisians consider an arrondissement almost wholly belonging to tourists, Montmartre was once a bucolic village on a hill where artists flocked to escape from the city. Something about this cross between city and country inspired the beautiful and, often, the absurd.

Picasso got his start in Montmartre before gaining popularity, Van Gogh created an entire series of works on the area, and famed composer Erik Satie created his hauntingly beautiful Gymnopédies upon moving to the town. It was a meeting place for the avant-garde, the Paris-rejects, the burgeoning artistic movements not yet accepted by the majority.

A circa 1820s oil painting of once pastoral Montmartre in breathtaking chiaroscuro, by French artist Georges Michel. Windmills become more or less a symbol of the arrondissement over the years. Source: Wikipedia.

Montmartre’s name comes from the Latin Mons Martis, meaning “Mount Mars”; perhaps this had to do with the Roman conquest of the Gallic land, including Parisii (Paris), with Mars–the god of war–as the most popular deity to the conquering army. It could also be that Montmartre, an agriculturally rich area, gained its name from Mars’ less violent side as the god of farmers. For some reason or another, writers of the early centuries AD also referred to the town as mons Mercori–the Latin for Mount Mercury; Mercury was supposedly the god the newly conquered Gauls revered the most out of the myriad deities in the Roman pantheon.

The Eglise de Saint-Pierre and the ruins of the abbey, circa 1820, by Jacques Auguste Régnier. Source: Wikipedia.

The town grew out of its pagan roots in the late first century, with the dissemination of a text called the Miracles of Saint Denis, which tells the story of Saint Denis‘ decapitation by the Romans for spreading the Gospel to Montmartre. After his decapitation, Saint Denis supposedly picked up his head and walked down the hill, where he died. The Church of Saint Pierre was later built on the legendary site, and became a popular pilgrimage destination, as well as the purported church where the Jesuits (including Saint Ignatius of Loyola) first established themselves as a holy order. The restored church–largely destroyed during the French Revolution–now lives in the shadow of the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur.

A postcard from 1900 showing a gypsum quarry in Montmartre. Source: Wikipedia.
A view of the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur. Source: Wikipedia.

With the advent of the Revolution, the town became an official “commune” of nearby Paris and abandoned its religious notoriety for commercial success through mining the gypsum-rich area–a practice that had taken place on a smaller scale since the Roman conquest. Over time, overzealous mining of Montmartre’s quarries led to unstable ground, making it difficult to later build and support the commune’s massive basilica in the late 19th-century. The basilica’s beginnings coincided with Montmartre’s development as an epicenter of artistic, and counterculture, activity.

A barricade in Montmartre during the Paris Commune–a radical socialist government that ruled over Paris for just over two months in 1871 during the weak first year of the Third Republic. Source: Wikipedia.

As the initial site of the Paris Commune‘s uprising, the butte (a nickname for Montmartre meaning “little hill”) seemed the perfect place for the Belle Epoque‘s non-comformists. And indeed it attracted all kinds of art and entertainment. Also part of the 18th arrondissement, Pigalle and its red-light district grew up alongside bohemian Montmartre. Thus began the Moulin Rouge with its famous can-can dancers, who artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec so famously depicted.

A poster for the Moulin Rouge by Toulouse-Lautrec, 1891. “La Goulue” was a famous dancer of the Moulin Rouge during that time. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
At the Moulin Rouge: The Dance, Toulouse-Lautrec, 1890. At the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
At the Moulin Rouge, Toulouse-Lautrec, 1892/95. At the Art Institute of Chicago.

Along a similar vein of fringe entertainment, the 1890s brought absurdist plays to Pigalle in the form of the Grand Guignol theater. Such increasingly popular spaces as the Moulin Rouge and Grand Guignol may have sprung up in reaction to a morally restrictive Victorian era, which came to an end at the turn of the 20th century. To make such an idea even more chillingly evident, the Grand Guignol was formerly a chapel, so spectators sat in pews as they watched the stage equivalents of slasher films. With spaces such as this, it seems little wonder that surrealists like Salvador Dalí and André Breton spent considerable time in the Pigalle area. The theater closed not long after World War II, as its last director stated, “We could never equal Buchenwald. Before the war, everyone felt that what was happening onstage was impossible. Now we know that these things, and worse, are possible in reality.”

The Grand Guignol at night. Hans Wild–Time & Life pictures/Getty Images.
Source: Wikipedia.

But beyond these Pigalle spaces, Montmartre proper has an extremely rich artistic past just before and after the 20th century, with works often highly focused on a sense of place. Pierre-Auguste Renoir lived and worked in the village, creating some of his most highly acclaimed pieces from scenes observed in local “guinguettes“–watering holes for Parisians escaping the city to drink tax-free, dance, and eat cheaply in these Biergarten-like surrounds of the suburbs. Renoir often employed a fellow Montmartre artist, Suzanne Valadon, as a model. She was the first woman admitted to the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, mother of Maurice Utrillo (yet another Montmartre artist of acclaim), and Erik Satie‘s lover for a short time.

Le déjeuner des canotiers (Luncheon of the boating party) by Renoir, featuring a scene typical of a popular guinguette. At the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.
Bal du Moulin de la Galette (Dance at the Moulin de la Galette), Renoir, 1876. At the Musée d’Orsay.
Suzanne Valadon, Still Life with Basket of Apples Vase of Flowers, 1928.

Maurice Utrillo’s paintings have become those the most often associated with the butte. The reason why is rather easily discerned, since the greater part of his works depicted well-known sights of the quarter. The allure of Montmartre came from its atmosphere and its people, and so much of the great art that came out of this era aimed to capture both. Utrillo painted the hilly streets, the Basilica, the Lapin Agile cabaret, and the Moulin de la Galette–perhaps the most famous of the guinguettes with its trademark 17th-century windmill.

The Lapin Agile, as pictured by Utrillo.
The Moulin de la Galette, by Utrillo. Source: Flickr.

Van Gogh gained enough inspiration from the area and its sights to create an entire series of works on Montmartre while living with his brother Theo in the village. Many consider this group of pieces an illustrated compendium demonstrating his growth as an artist–from dark to the use of lighter tones, from unfocused style to impressionism and pointillism.

Blick auf die Dächer von Paris (Overlooking the rooftops of Paris), Van Gogh, 1886. At the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
Impasse des Deux Frères, Van Gogh, 1887. At the Van Gogh Museum.
Montmartre: behind the Moulin de la Galette, Van Gogh, 1887. At the Van Gogh Museum.
View of Montmartre Before a Storm, Van Gogh, 1886. Part of a private collection.

Oddly enough, or perhaps not, Renoir, Utrillo, and yet another renowned artist, Raoul Dufy, occupied the same residence at different times. It is now the Musée de Montmartre, which houses works by its former tenants. “Le Bateau-Lavoir”–literally the “boat washing house”–is a similar, more well-known example of a Montmartre abode passed down from artist to artist. For four years, this oddly-named space housed Kees van Dongen and Pablo Picasso, who painted his Les Demoiselles d’Avignon while there–ironically not in Avignon. Other notable residents included Max Jacob, Otto van Rees, and Juan Gris, among others. Le Bateau-Lavoir also became a type of club for the day’s leading creatives, with the likes of Gertrude Stein, Henri Matisse, Amedeo Modigliani, Guillaume Apollinaire, and others stopping in to inspire one another.

Source: Wikipedia.
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Picasso, 1907.
La Parisienne de Montmartre, by Fauvist Kees van Dongen, 1903.

Another place of considerable popularity, “Le Chat Noir” cabaret had a short life as a center for bohemian gatherings. Open for just under two decades, it closed three years before Picasso arrived, much to his disappointment. Théophile Steinlen‘s famous poster advertising the cabaret’s tour of European cities now hangs in the Musée de Montmartre.

Steinlen’s 1896 poster.

After the Bateau-Lavoir’s halcyon days of the early 20th-century, the Great War brought an end to much of the butte’s artistic activity. Perhaps feeling they could never return to the way things were prior to such a destructive conflict, much of what remained of the bohemian circle crossed the Seine, moving to Montparnasse in the 14th arrondissement. The last significant group to grace the winding lanes below the Basilica was known as R-26 (“R-vingt-six”). This “salon” took off in 1930 in the home of Parisian socialites. Josephine Baker, jazz musicians Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli, and architect Le Corbusier oft frequented the place. After the Second World War, Yves Klein showed some initial works there. R-26 continued to function as a place for burgeoning talent ranging from arts to politics up until the 2000s, though nothing could compare to its heydays of the 30s and 60s.

Reinhardt and Grappelli created a composition based on the group. Source: Wikipedia.
The “by-laws” of the society. Source: Wikipedia.
A New Year’s postcard from the salon’s patrons. Source: Wikipedia.

Montmartre may be “overrun” with tourists today, but for good reason. The beautiful village-on-a-hill offers unparalleled views of the city and an engrossing artistic history that ought not be overlooked. Paris will always have its neighborhood du jour (today’s might be le Marais), and Montmartre was an especially great one of days gone by. Touristy or not, it has yet to lose its considerable charm and can never break with such an intriguing past.


To experience the “bohemian” sound of Montmartre during this time period, take a listen to Erik Satie’s ambient compositions. The video below is of Gymnopédie no. 1; turn up the volume–it starts out quietly!



Sources: Not rich for this one; personal knowledge and Wikipedia.


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