Vincent Van Gogh lived in Paris at 56 rue Lepic, from 1886 to 1888 with his brother Theo. He painted rooftop scenes from that room and also painted at a friend’s studio, 10 rue Constance.
Sink into the slightly seedy atmosphere of a bohemian artist’s bistro at Au Virage Lepic, 61 rue Lepic. This bar/restaurant is run with an off-hand nonchalance that suggests the boozy haunts of more than a long century ago that attracted Toulouse-Lautrec and other artists to Montmartre. Arrive after late for dinner, or in the morning for a wake-up glass of red. A group of Parisian mates and I dined there in the mid 1980s. I’m cheered to see the bistro continues to prosper.
Tattered posters cover walls dimmed yellow by clouds of cigarette smoke. Rules about smoking in Montmartre’s restaurants and bars may have changed during the 21st century. The chef at Au Virage Lepic relies on grilled meat and fried potatoes, timeless staples that no doubt nourished Vincent and Theo Van Gogh and their pals. Late in the evening a chanteuse drops by to pay homage to Edith Piaf.
While he lived in the Luxembourg quarter, James McNeill Whistler strolled rue Notre Dame des Champs and at sundown, modern pedestrians evoke his vague street scenes with daubs of colorful clothing on a grey dusk background. When he returned to Paris from London in 1892, Whistler painted in a studio on the sixth floor at 86 rue Notre Dame des Champs. The building cornerstone is dated 1880, so it was relatively new when Whistler leased space. The exterior is painted pale peach with white trim.
Whistler’s aura lives in the building where his British pals — dubbed the “Paris Gang” — had studios in the building at 53 Notre Dame des Champs and Jamie Whistler, the expat American, was a frequent visitor. Today, the building is called Lucernaire and serves as an arts center, with cinema, theaters, galleries and cafes. Lucernaire was founded by Christian Le Guillochet and Luce Berthomme for actors, writers and cinematographers during the 1960s to reanimate the French cafe-theater movement.
At 8 rue de la Grands-Chaumiere, off rue Notre Dame des Champs, a brass plate marks Atelier Modigliani, the artist’s last studio. “Modi”, as his colleagues called him, lived and worked there until friends transported him to the charity hospital at 47 rue Jacob where he died a couple of days later from tuberculosis January 24, 1920.
Gauguin also lived and worked in that building and next door, at number 6, a classic artist’s studio with wrought iron art nouveau windows in the style favored at the Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts.
Other remarkable people called this area their own. The literary critic and cultural historian Charles Sainte-Beuve lived at 19 rue Notre Dame des Champs while befriending Victor Hugo’s family who lived at number 11, decades before the Impressionists and their contemporaries arrived in the neighborhood. Dozens of other artists worked in the area which makes an interesting walk from Metro station Notre-Dame-des-Champs.
Though only 137 meters long, rue Grands Chaumiere was an artists’ street throughout the 19th century and retains its reputation for its fine art schools, student residences, studios and painter’s supply stores. Restaurant Wadja, next to Atelier Modigliani exudes arty atmosphere.
Both Gauguin and Rousseau painted at studios in the Montparnasse neighborhood, but few vestiges of the artistic life endure. A meagerly stocked art supply store that I noted in 1988 at 26 rue Vercingetorix, not far from Paul Gauguin’s studio at number 6, is a decorator’s shop in the shadow of high rise towers like most of the neighborhood. Nearby at number 2 rue Penrel, Henri Rousseau lived for years, but street widening swept away his cottage and the lane is now part of a children’s playground.
In the shadows of these pale post-modern office buildings is a unique church, Notre Dame du Travail de Plaisance at 59 rue Vercingetorix. Exposed iron girders like those used by Gustave Eiffel for his tower, replace the masonry buttresses one expects in a gothic style church. Instead of the usual painted images of saints on the chapel walls, the inspirational figures are white washed and decorated with art nouveau borders, like the edges of a page.
Artists have long been associated with the left bank and Latin Quarter near the Sorbonne and l’École des Beaux-Arts. Picasso lived and worked at 7 rue Grands-Augustins from 1936 until 1955. He painted his mural “Guernica” there. A plaque on the wall proclaims his tenancy. The house is within a minutes’ walk of rue Christine where Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas lived at number 5 where ivy covers the square pillar at the base of the stairs, obscuring the house number. When my father studied and worked in Paris after the Liberation of France in 1945, he and other Army chaps paid homage at the Stein-Toklas house.
Picasso’s Barcelona heritage is reflected in the Catalan bookstore that anchored rue des Grands Augustins where it intersects rue St. Andre des Arts for decades. As the neighborhood has experienced an influx of upmarket tenants, the bookstore faced closure with a brave face. Picasso is said to have enjoyed the fare at the restaurant Jacques Cogna, 14 Grandes Augustins, which is still in business in the 21st century. Browse the used bookstores along rue St. Andre des Arts.
Todays posers and painters may drink at Bar Mazet, 61 Rue St. Andre des Arts, which was a rough and tumble cafe and beer-hall in the early 1990s and is now an Irish sports pub. Or, head around the corner to 23 rue de l’Ancienne Comedie which was once the Relais Odeon, but in its 21st century incarnation is a fancy bakery.
In the heart of the busy, golden Blvd. Saint Germain, Café de Flore was Picasso’s hangout, along with distinguished writers and intellectuals of the late 1920s and 30s. Sartre and de Beauvoir wrote and played footsie there. One can assume that Picasso doodled on menus or matchbooks and Hemingway plotted conquests. The waiters are consummate professionals; show your sophistication with humility for the grand tradition.
Also on the left bank, the rue de l’École de Medecine still exists, but a textbook store and part of the medical school claim the space that was once Brasserie Andler at 24-30 rue de l’École de Medecine, where during the last two decades of the 19th century, Courbet, Baudelaire, Corot and the older impressionist painters and symbolist writers congregated and traded toasts. Painter Rosa Bonheur lived at number 24 from 1864 to 1866.
Though not part of the Impressionist Movement, Eugene Delicroix developed a painting style that evoked light and movement through innovative brushwork and a complex color palette. The Delicroix Museum at 6 rue de Furstenberg facing a calm residential courtyard, is a gem of a small museum preserved by the Musees Nationaux. The painter’s house and studio are open for view and an array of his works are displayed.
In the posh area near the Champs Elysee, the American painter Mary Cassatt lived on the fifth floor at 10 rue de Marignan, a quiet side street. The fifth floor is at the top level of the building. Twentieth century tenants include a life insurance company and a gynecologist’s office.
In the fashionable 16th arrondissement, painter Berthe Morisot and her husband Eugene Manet, brother of painter Edouard Manet, built the house at 40 rue Paul Valery, known as rue de Villejust before 1945. In her diary, their daughter Julie Manet records the frequent visits of other impressionist artists — Degas, Claude Monet, Renoir and others.
The public dance halls and outdoor dancing parks such as Bal Mabille provided artists their choice of comely models. They picked up dancers to be pose for them, and some became their companions. For 2 francs entrance fee, people could dance the waltz, quadrilles, mazurkas and polkas. Toulouse-Lautrec was fond of painting the dance hall girls and singers at Thermes Saint Honore, which, alas, was destroyed.
In the Odeon neighborhood, Cafe Voltaire is history. In Montmartre, the country lanes Renoir, Gauguin and Van Gogh strolled are trimmed and paved. Montmarte Cemetery is a peaceful reminder of the past. But elsewhere artist’s garrets rent for a fortune and gallery owners want to see a deep resume before considering paintings. Paris has changed in at least one aspect as hometown for the world’s artists; it costs more.
Walking where the famous artists did, seeing their rooms and studios (or whatever has replaced those structures) or visiting their graves, nurtures deeper understanding of their lives and work. Following their footsteps and imagining their daily lives, where they created, drank and talked transposes time and stretches one’s own vision.
Artist’s Cafes — Almost any cafe or bar near an art school has “artists-in-residence”. Be aware that not all restaurants, bars or cafes are open on Sunday and in Paris many establishments lock their doors during August. The places listed below may well offer menus far more expensive than students or emerging artists could afford.
Café de Flore, 172 Blvd. St. Germain. Metro: St. Germain des Près.
La Palette, 43 rue de Seine. Metro: Mabillon.
Le Petit Zinc, 11 rue Saint-Benoit. Metro: St. Germain des Près
Restaurant Wadja, 10 rue de la Grande-Chaumiere. Metro: Vavin.