Strolling the narrow cobblestone streets and leafy squares of Montmartre, the ancient Parisian village on the steep northern hill overlooking the city, you can imagine the bohemian world of artists, poets, cabarets and cathouses that flourished here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso, Modigliani and many other artists settled in the working-class district known for its rustic charm and raffish pleasures, splendid views and (then) cheap rents. Today, scores of contemporary Impressionists and sketch artists ply their trade in the tourist-crowded Place du Tertre, the medieval square near the towering white-domed Sacré-Coeur Basilica. But wandering along the curving backstreets, stone stairways and quaint alleys of Montmartre, you come across the places where some of the Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Cubist masters lived and worked.
Renoir created some of his greatest works while living at what’s now the Musée Montmartre on cool, cobblestoned rue Cortot. Here, in the quiet garden, Renoir painted his classic “The Swing,” created in the summer of 1876. During the same period, he’d carry his canvas and paints several blocks to the popular outdoor dance hall where he painted the joyous Impressionist masterpiece “Bal du Moulin de la Galette.”
The dance pavilion on the rue Lepic is long gone, but the windmill (moulin) around which it was centered is still there, one of two surviving windmills (both part of the Moulin de la Galette) on a hill where many once stood. Gazing up at that iconic wooden structure, you can picture Renoir painting his pleasure-filled image of the Moulin de la Galette on a sun-dappled Sunday afternoon; Van Gogh painting the windmill under the color-awakening spell of the Impressionists a decade later; and Toulouse-Lautrec’s darker vision of the dance-hall habitués painted in 1889.
Further down rue Lepic, you come across the apartment where Van Gogh lived with his saintly brother Theo. On the lovely little Allée des Brouillards, you see the white chateau where Renoir lived in the 1890s. His son Jean, the famed filmmaker, was born there in 1894, two years after the French state officially bought its first Renoir, “Young Girls at the Piano” (on view in this exhibition).
Then, there’s the rebuilt Le Bateau Lavoir in rue Ravignan, a warren of artists’ studios where Picasso and other struggling artists and writers lived without gas or electricity in the early 1900s. It’s where Picasso painted the shockingly bold “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” and where he and Georges Braque set off the Cubist revolution.
One of Picasso’s inspirations when he first arrived in Paris was Toulouse-Lautrec, the insightful chronicler of racy Montmartre nightlife. The small, deformed man with the bowler hat and razor wit lived for many years at the corner of rue Tourlaque and rue Calincourt. His fifth-floor studio was the scene of much art-making, discussion and absinthe-fueled partying. He created many of his groundbreaking posters and brothel paintings here.
Those lithographic posters include the classic images
Toulouse-Lautrec made of singer-songwriter Aristide Bruant, with his trademark black hat, coat and red scarf. One of them hangs on the wall of Au Lapin Agile, the fabled Montmartre cabaret where generations of artists hung out. Bruant bought the place in 1903, carrying on the tradition begun in 1860.
Picasso portrayed himself as a harlequin in his famed 1905 picture “Au Lapin Agile,” a copy of which hangs in the dark little boite where not much has changed in a century. The original hung in the cabaret until 1912, when the owner, the guitar-playing Frédé, who’s pictured in the painting, sold it for $20. It was auctioned for $41 million in 1989 and now hangs at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The Picasso may be a copy, but everything else is authentic at Au Lapin Agile (The Agile Rabbit), a pink cottage with green shutters on steep rue des Saules. You sit on old benches at old wood tables carved with initials, sipping the house specialty — a Bordeaux with pitted cherries — listening to first-rate performers singing in French for mostly French audiences.
Lit up by the wine and the bracing music, it’s not hard to imagine Toulouse-Lautrec sketching at a corner table, or Picasso and his poet friends singing along with a lusty French tune.