Sue Roe is the author of In Montmartre: Picasso, Matisse and the Birth of Modernist Art, a vivid history of Modernism and the group of artists who revolutionized the concept of art. Through their lives and the excitement surrounding this period of artistic experimentation, Roe brings together colorful and key moments in the movement.
Artists have always gathered in Montmartre. Renoir said the district smelled of lavender and lilacs. The reputation of Montmartre as the artistic cauldron of Paris dates back to the reign of Louis VI (a great supporter of the arts), when the Abbey of Montmartre attracted generous donations. And when Picasso arrived in Paris in 1900, artists flocked to Montmartre from all over the world, attracted by the light, clear air, views, cheap rents, and tax-free wine.
In those days the place was still a rural village with roses and vineyards. The whole of the northern flank was a waste ground where people (including Modigliani) lived in shacks and shanties. Today, you might imagine Montmartre has changed beyond recognition, with its cobbled streets, bustle of shops, cafés, and curious visitors. Well, it's no longer rural, but with very little imagination, the visitor can certainly relive the days when Matisse was a frequent visitor and Picasso lived in the Bateau-Lavoir. Montmartre is tiny—so take a mere six-stop wander, and the artistic history of the place will emerge right before your eyes.
Stop 1: The Bateau-Lavoir
A mere few-minutes walk from Abbesses metro station will take you to the Bateau-Lavoir (so named for its shape, like an old laundry boat) which flanks one side of Place Emile Goudeau, the quiet square that still slumbers in the shade of the old chestnut trees. The battered wooden building where Picasso lived and worked from 1904 to 1910 was burned down in the 1870s, but you are looking at an exact replica of the place. It's silent now, but in those days it was a cacophony, as people yelled and called to one another. Inside was a maze of grimy, weather-beaten artists' studios inhabited by painters, a farmer, and a puppeteer who practiced his act to the sound of drum-rolls. Friends who came to find Picasso went up creaking stairs and along splintered floors to his makeshift studio, where he showed them Blue Period paintings by the light of a sputtering candle. His studio was a chaos of paint tubes, bowls of water, piles of clothing, and his large dog. Gertrude Stein made her way here—by omnibus, then up the famous steps of the Butte—for Picasso to paint her portrait. His early paintings of Montmartre, pulsating with color and sensuality emerged from the Bateau-Lavoir. Here Picasso worked through the night on Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.
Stop 2: Le Musee du vieux Montmartre
Next stop is the rue Cortot and the charming Musée de Montmartre, the tall, old house with a view across the vineyards, where you can truly wander through the artistic past of Montmartre. The museum regularly changes its exhibitions: You might see the drawings of Suzanne Valadon, the tightrope-walker turned model whose own artistic talent was discovered by Degas; or the evocative paintings of Montmartre by her son, Maurice Utrillo, who mixed his pigments with cement and lime to get the feel of the crooked, broken-down houses of Montmartre. One room is set up as a simulated bar, with the old sink and tap and tables ready with absinthe glasses. In the garden of the museum, you'll stand on the exact spot where Renoir painted The Swing. Here, too, he stored the rolled canvas of Dancing at the Moulin de la Galette, collecting it each day on his way up the hillside to paint the couples dancing in the sunlight outside the Moulin de la Galette.
Stop 3: The site of the Moulin de la Galette
Sadly, the old windmill has long since disappeared, but you can stand on its spot and imagine Renoir's girls dancing in the sunlight. In Picasso's day there was an indoor dance hall with palm trees in the corner and a deafening band belting out Offenbach. Georges Braque, an expert waltzer, came here to whirl Marie Laurencin across the floor or to sit in the corner sketching with Van Dongen, Picasso, and Matisse. The most popular dance was the farandole, danced in a ring, which made a deep impression on Matisse. Years later he celebrated it in his dynamic work, La Danse. The little dance hall at the top of the hillside hummed with life and color. By gaslight the place took on a moody, mellow, and seductive atmosphere, vividly evoked by Picasso in Le Moulin de la Galette.
Stop 4: Au Lapin Agile
The Lapin Agile (at the corner of the rue des Saules) is still a lively working bar today, open to all in the later half of the evening. You can't miss the inn sign, depicting a rabbit in a cummerbund and conductor's cap, balancing a bottle of wine on its paw, or the old harlequin-colored windowpanes. In Picasso's day it was the most popular bar in Montmartre, where locals and artists gathered to talk until the small hours. Frede, the colorful proprietor, led the singing, and Picasso and friends livened up the interior with murals and paintings. In those days one of his harlequin paintings, probably Au Lapin Agile, in which the artist himself appears as a pierrot, adorned the far wall.
Stop 5: Le Villa des Arts
Don't miss the opportunity to check out the much grander Villa des Arts, on the lower western slope of the hillside, with its surprisingly imposing art deco interior and opulent staircase. The second, low building on the same plot housed studios for artists including Cezanne. Here he painted his famous portrait of the dealer Ambroise Vollard, whose gallery in the rue Laffitte showed works by Picasso, Derain, Vlaminck, and others. Vollard sat for his portrait a 115 times (sometimes nodding off, much to the irritation of the artist).
Stop 6: La Place du Tertre
Back in the Place du Tertre you'll find a profusion of cafés, souvenir shops, and reasonably priced restaurants where you'll doubtless want to sample the local specialty, the famous galette. On your return to the 21st century we can't, of course, promise a glimpse of Picasso or Matisse, but you can be sure you'll see plenty of artists at their easels. You might even want to get your portrait painted while you're here.
As you stroll back through the cobbled lanes of Montmartre, you can still enjoy the beauty of the trees, the flowers, the gardens, the gentle mauve-gray light, and the clear air. And yes, you can easily imagine them all still there, Picasso and friends talking until the small hours in the Lapin Agile, Gertrude Stein sitting for her portrait amongst the clutter of the Bateau-Lavoir, Derain and young Matisse sketching in the corners of the Moulin de la Galette, and Braque whirling Marie across the floor. It would take more than a few modern restaurants and present-day souvenir shops to halt the atmosphere of timeless artistry that still pervades the intoxicating air of Montmartre.
Sue Roe is the author of several books, including a New York Times bestselling collective biography of the Impressionists and a widely praised work on the artist Gwen John. She lives in Brighton, England.