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Montmartre History – Its Artistic Past

Montmartre was the place to be for any budding artist in the 19th century. Painters, dancers, writers, actors and musicians flocked to Montmartre from near & afar to make their mark in the art world. Nearly every European artist came to Montmartre at one time or another.

By the end of the 19th century, creative people from all walks of life swarmed to this neighborhood. Montmartre was known as the artistic mecca and center for intellectual life in Paris.

Streets of Montmartre
Streets of Montmartre / Image by edmondlafoto from Pixabay 

Why Montmartre?

Montmartre of the 19th Century was an old and poor village perched on a hill. The buildings were old and dilapidated. It was also considered far away from the city center of Paris. There wasn’t much glamour in Montmartre in those times!

Rent was cheap & budding artists with barely a penny to their name were able to rent cheap painting studios & tiny sleeping quarters. Today, those places have been long replaced with trendy, luxury apartments.

Montmartre History – Alcohol, Nightclubs & Brothels

Montmartre in the late 19th century was a village and not part of Paris. This meant that alcohol was not subject to Parisian taxes. Unsurprisingly, the alcohol industry sky-rocketed here. Montmartre was surrounded by vineyards and even the local nuns made wine.

Toulouse-Lautrec Poster advertising Absinthe / Montmartre history
Toulouse-Lautrec Poster advertising Absinthe / Montmartre history

Bars opened everywhere, serving alcohol both day and night. Here the artists drank and shared ideas. Cabarets and nightclubs also served alcohol and offered lively and raunchy entertainment. To complete the decadence, brothels opened up all over the place. Not before long, this village attracted both the rich and poor from all over Paris day and night.

The Stomping Ground of Some Very Famous Artists

Montmartre is proud of its rich historical past. The list of painters who lived here is long. It includes many of the avant garde impressionism and post-impressionism painters such as Degas, Matisse, Modigliani, Picasso, Pissarro, Renoir, Steinlen, Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh, Cassatt, Valadon, Utrillo & many more. Here in Montmartre, they shared ideas, developed new painting styles, started avant garde art movements & made invaluable artistic contacts.

Terrace of a Cafe in Montmartre / Van Gogh Painting
Terrace of a Cafe in Montmartre / Van Gogh Painting [Public Domain]

The Bateau-Lavoir

This building was a run-down, flimsy and very cheap block of small apartments. It was a place where many artists lived and rented studios. The Bateau-Lavoir was also a meeting place for impoverished painters, writers, actors and art dealers to share ideas.

In April 1904, the Spaniard Pablo Picasso rented a studio here. He stayed at the Bateau-Lavoir until 1910. He painted while living here the “Demoiselles d’Avignon” in 1907. This was the beginnings of his cubism period.

The fauvist André Derain lived in the Bateau-Lavoir in 1907, Amadeo Modigliani in 1908, Juan Gris in 1908, Max Jacob in 1911, Pierre Reverdy in 1912. Paul Gauguin, the Douanier Rousseau, Georges Braque, Henri Matisse, Guillaume Apollinaire and Jean Cocteau came as friends.

The Le Bateau-Lavoir, Montmartre
The Le Bateau-Lavoir, Montmartre

Today you can go the location of the Bateau-Lavoir (no. 13 place Emile Goudeau). However, there isn’t much to see anymore. Only the facade of the original building remains. The rest of the building complex was destroyed by a fire in 1970. Look for the window display with old photographs and an information panel.

Montmartre’s Decadent Nightlife

By the beginning of the 20th century, Montmartre was famous all over for its lively, raunchy, decadent nightlife that lasted into the wee hours of the night. These venues attracted people from all over looking for entertainment, alcohol and women! 

Le Chat Noir

Rodolphe Salis established in 1881 Le Chat Noir (the Black Cat), the first modern cabaret. The composer, Satie even played piano there!

The Moulin Rouge

The Moulin Rouge is one of the most famous cabarets in the world. The raunchy can-can dancers attracted the masses from everywhere. Toulouse-Lautrec magnificently depicted the dancers and the nightlife of the Moulin Rouge in many of his paintings and posters.

Dancing in the Moulin Rouge / Toulouse Lautrec Painting / Montmartre history
Dancing in the Moulin Rouge / Toulouse Lautrec Painting [Public Domain]
Can Can dancer at the Moulin Rouge - Toulouse Lautrec poster
Can Can dancer at the Moulin Rouge – Toulouse Lautrec poster

The Moulin de la Galette

The Moulin de la Galette on Rue Lepic is another famous Montmartre cabaret. The painters Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir and others painted the lively nightlife of this cabaret in their paintings. Today this building is a beautiful restaurant. Van Gogh lived in building no. 54 on this same street!!

Dance at Moulin de la Galette -
Pierre-Auguste Renoir Painting
Dance at Moulin de la Galette by Pierre-Auguste Renoir [Public Domain]
Moulin de la Galette / Maurice Utrillo Painting
Moulin de la Galette / Maurice Utrillo Painting [Public Domain]

Musée de Montmartre

No place tells the story of fascinating Montmartre history better than Musee de Montmartre. Here you will learn about the famous people who lived here and what life was like.

Surrounding the museum are the beautiful Renoir gardens. These gardens are named after the impressionist painter Pierre Auguste Renoir who lived in this building & painted these very gardens. From the gardens, you get the best views of Montmartre’s remaining vineyard (the Clos Montmartre) and the northern part of Paris.

The Swing - Pierre Auguste Renoir Painting
The Swing – Pierre Auguste Renoir Painting [Public Domain]
Painted in the gardens now called the Renoir Gardens in Musee Montmartre

The Museum and gardens are open every day. For more information, press here.

Find the Tombstones of the Famous Artists in the Local Cemeteries

Montmartre Cemetery

Cimetiere de Montmartre is a pretty & quiet cemetery nestled below the main road, in the lower section of the neighborhood. Here you can find a few graves of the famous impressionism painters Edgar Degas and Eva Gonzales. Other notables include Dalida, Jacques Offenbach & Maxime du Camp. Fame aside, some of the tombstones in this cemetery are sculptured works of art. Check them out! For more information, press here.

Beautiful sculptured Tombstone at Montmartre Cemetery
Beautiful sculptured Tombstone at Montmartre Cemetery
Photo by Anna Fox (CC BY 2.0)

Saint-Vincent Cemetery

Cimetière Saint-Vincent is a small, hidden cemetery located at the bottom of Montmartre hill. While the Montmartre cemetery gets most of the visitors, Saint-Vincent Cemetery is often overlooked . Those who do visit Saint-Vincent Cemetery, arrive mostly by chance.

Saint-Vincent Cemetery is a lovely cemetery to visit. There are quite a few famous graves here as well. The graves of painters buried here include Théophile Steinlen , Maurice Utrillo and Eugene Boudin. For a full list of notables buried here, press here.

Maurice Utrillo's Grave -  Saint-Vincent Cemetery
Maurice Utrillo’s Grave – Saint-Vincent Cemetery / Photo by Evan Bench (CC BY 2.0)

Are you looking for an organized walking tour of Montmartre in the footsteps of the Impressionists? Check out some great options below.

(For the links below, I receive a small commission when you purchase. However, you don’t pay more when you buy through my site.)

Montmartre has a different feel to the rest of Paris. It still captures the avant-garde crowd but today is far more trendy. It is a wonderful place to base yourself while traveling around Paris.

Check out accommodation options below: