Throughout the Belle Epoque, Pigalle, the neighborhood at the foot of Montmarte hill,
was the place to go for cheap nightlife. Pigalle and Montmartre still have a reputation for providing any kind of excitement for hire.
Back then the village was a mix of local folks and artists, writers and noisy upstarts who wrote poetry or music or manifestos. The lot of them were anarchists to the bourgeois. Down on the streets of Pigalle or high up on Montmartre, the artists’ eccentric behavior, erratic hours and street parties were tolerated, even encouraged. Who was to stop them, anyway?
Gaining definition after the Revolution, Montmartre was created a jurisdiction in 1790 with 400 residents. By 1857 there were 36,000 citizens in the village and it was annexed by Paris three years later, in 1860. Baron Haussmann’s grand boulevards opened the densely populated urban areas of the city below and made public transit feasible. But the steep hill of Montmartre remained relatively untouched until construction on Sacre-Coeur Basilica began in 1875. The economic constraints and political disarray left after the Franco-Prussion War and the Paris Commune in 1871 played a role in slowing down the hell-bent passions of artists lured to Montmartre. Later in the 20th century, after World War II, visitors to the massive Basilica with the striking mosque-like towers and bulbous white dome spilled into the artist’s quarter of Montmarte, bringing the by-products of tourism with them.
The streets were narrow and twisting, lined with worker’s houses and small shops. Even today, Montmarte’s alleys and streets defy a grid system, curving to fit topography or the clusters of former farm houses. The neighborhood was changed radically by the end of the first world war when the cathedral was completed.
Artists and budding photographers searched for village characters as subjects. Montmarte magnified the simple country life with the noble windmills and rustic villagers. Above the city, away from the bourgeoisie, Montmarte also embraced 19th century sexual libertine mores in the free-wheeling cabarets filled with comely jeune filles.
In Hippolyte Bayard’s photographs, the most extensive visual record of mid-19th century Montmarte available, the windmills dominate the horizon. Green patches are squeezed between rustic shuttered houses, shops and music halls. Laundry hangs out of upper windows. The white dust from the quarry covers the cobblestones.
To follow the footsteps of the 19th and early 20th century artists in Montmarte, start at the vineyard, rue des Saules and rue St. Vincent. The same vines were there when Vincent Van Gogh trudged up the hill to his favorite dance hall in the rue Rustique. And when the dwarf legged Toulouse-Lautrec stumbled along, tapping his cane on the paving stones, ears filled with brassy cabaret notes of the Moulin de la Galette or the Moulin Rouge, the scent of the sweating can-can girls in his nose. A plaque in the vineyard honors Poulbot (1879-1946) who painted the children who tended the vines.
Push open the door at 22, rue de Saules. Imagine the racket at the Lapin Agile a hundred years ago! Glasses clink, palms slap wooden tables, hoots of laughter, songs born in a surfeit of drink and rebellion. And what a mix of languages – French, Italian, English, German, Catalan, Dutch, Russian.
Inside, Andre Gill decorated the walls with paintings and posters about the crimes of Troppman, a Second Empire renegade, who became a popular hero. Outside, the old sign of an amusing rabbit jumping into a cookpot and holding a bottle of wine has endured till this day. With so many writers and artists, some of whom called themselves the Apaches in sympathy with Native Americans, with brilliant wordsmiths like Verlaine and Rimbaud hanging out there, we can assume jokes and stories flew fast. Huddled at a corner table, they might kid the barmaid: Was the owner Madame Adele, Monsieur Gill’s agile rabbit, or he, her’s?
Aristide Bruant, the innovative singer, journalist, publisher and activist, bought the cabaret in 1903. Not long afterwards, customers flocked to Lapin Agile from Cabaret Zut in neighboring Place Emile Goudeau, Bruant also persuaded the famous Frede away from Zut to work at the Lapin Agile. The artists frequented places where they knew they could speak freely and run a line of credit.
The Bateau-Lavoir, which burned in 1970, but has been restored, contained several artists’ studios. Picasso, Brraque, Gris and others worked there and the site is considered the birthplace of Cubism. Picasso and his Spanish friends and anarchists carried on the boho tradition in Montmartre until WWI with a cast of characters that included the writers Max Jacob and Apollinaire. Early in his career, Picasso painted on the walls of Lapin Agile; did he talk the owner into settling a bar bill with a mural?
Artists met their models through their friends and congregated in the guinguettes and cafes. An enterprising young lady in need of employment might plant herself in a cafe and ‘interview’ prospective employers.
One such mademoiselle was Suzanne Valadon, a part time model beginning to try her hand at painting. Suzanne cut a unique path through the established method of learning to paint; she did not hunch over a palate in the Louvre copying the canvases of great painters past. Following her instincts, she developed a strong individual hand. Degas admired her early drawings and the two artists became life-long friends.
Valadon had been an acrobatic dancer, but a fall that injured her back cut short that career. Her first serious modeling assignment was for Puvis de Chavannes. Work with Renoir followed. Both met her at the Cabaret des Assassins (later, the Lapin Agile).
Valadon herself was a child of Montmartre and grew up on Blvd. Rochechouart. Crossing Montmartre to see friends, visit her studio, buy food and supplies, sometimes she took the quickest route and cut through the small Cemetery of St. Vincent where her artist son Maurice Utrillo would be buried in 1955.
Montmartre’s church of St. Peter, at Place du Tertre, founded as a monastery during the Middle Ages, has a cornerstone laid in 1133 by Dame Adelaide of Savoie, Queen of France and wife of King Louis VI. Over the centuries, the church has been a Benedictine Abbey and a parish church. Architectural enrichments include Roman columns, remnants from a temple that likely once graced the site, vaulting from the 1400’s and Romanesque walls with stained glass windows. St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, is believed to have vowed to create the order while in this church. A tile plaque near the entrance honors “Notre Dame de Montmartre, Notre Dame de Beaute, patronne des artistes.”
The church holds much of Suzanne Valadon’s history. Like many French women of her time and class, she was seriously devout and attended mass daily during the last decades of her life. Her funeral procession left from St. Peter’s.
Whatever her early indiscretions, Valadon drank deeply of life’s pleasures and used her talents wisely. Through the early years of the 20th century, mother and son lived in rue Tourlaque where Toulouse-Lautrec had a studio for some time. Some say the Toulouse-Lautrec and Valadon were lovers, more likely they were devoted friends.
By the mid 1920’s, Utrillo, Suzanne Valadon, and the rest of their family lived at 12 rue Cortot, now the Museum of Montmartre. Paintings and memorabilia in the museum show the life of an artist in the quarter and especially as it played out in cafes and cabarets.
Many artists lived or worked at 12 rue Cortot over the decades, including Renoir and Emile Bernard and later, the fauvist painter Raoul Dufy. Emile Bernard never achieved the popularity or fame of his colleagues, though he started painting under Fernand Cormon’s direction and befriended Gauguin and Van Gogh. Emile Bernard painted with Gauguin during the summer of 1886 in Pont-Aven, Brittany and with Van Gogh the following year at Asnieres where Van Gogh took a studio.
By the early decades of the 1900’s, the artists and writers had expanded their turf, and many shifted to Montparnasse. Bohemian Montmarte of the 1920’s continued the libertine tradition. Artists still worked there because even into the 1960’s, Montmarte rooms were cheap, an artist’s urban paradise. Radical innovators from all over the globe flocked to Paris, every artist’s hometown.
Behind this simacrulum of artists at work there are remnants of the history of artists who once lived in Montmarte. The rents are far too steep for artists to live or work there now. And the vendors at the easles in Place du Tetre are mostly just window-dressing to create an artistic atmosphere to please the tourists.
Walking Resources – Map of Montmartre