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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Lure of Montmartre, 1880–1900

“In this bizarre land swarmed a host of colorful artists, writers, painters, musicians, sculptors, architects, a few with their own places but most in furnished lodgings, surrounded by the workers of Montmartre, the starchy ladies of the rue Bréda, the retired folk of Batignolles, sprouting up all over the place, like weeds. Montmartre was home to every kind of artist.” Penned in 1882 by the writer Félicien Champsaur, these words describe the diverse audience of the Chat Noir, a cabaret that epitomized the raucous and irreverent popular entertainment for which the Parisian neighborhood of Montmartre was known. Artists, intellectuals, and writers flocked to this bohemian district, frequenting its vibrant performance halls and celebrating them in their paintings, literature, and poems. But while Montmartre’s popularity as a brash amusement district reached dizzying heights in the 1890s, the area itself had rather humble beginnings.

Perched atop a hill to the north of Paris’s city center, Montmartre was initially a rural village dotted with vineyards and windmills. The area’s picturesque appearance and its views of the metropolis below had long been popular with artists, such as the landscape painter Georges Michel (1763–1843), who captured the area’s rustic beauty around 1820 in The Mill of Montmartre (25.110.8). Forty years later, Montmartre would lose its agrarian nature when it was officially annexed into Paris’ rapidly expanding city limits. Despite its eventual urbanization, the neighborhood retained its distinct characteristics, such as the old buildings, steep and narrow streets, and rustic windmills, some of which are still in existence today.

Montmartre’s remote location and inexpensive lodgings contributed to its transformation into a primarily working-class neighborhood in the second half of the nineteenth century. Known for its revolutionary politics and underground culture, its liberal reputation lured students, writers, musicians, and artists to the area in the early 1880s. The more affluent lower slopes, which Vincent van Gogh referred to as the “grands boulevards,” housed the apartments and studios of established painters such as Edgar Degas (1834–1917), Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), and Gustave Moreau (1826–1898). This locale was also home to art supply vendors and several important art dealers and galleries, such as Georges Petit, Paul Durand-Ruel, and Goupil et Cie.

Rents dropped steadily as one mounted the precarious streets to the top of the hill, called the “butte,” and the population became increasingly working class. It was in this area—Van Gogh’s “petits boulevards”—that young avant-garde artists such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864–1901), Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890), Émile Bernard (1868–1941), and Louis Anquetin (1861–1932) lived and worked. A long-established center of local amusement, the “butte” featured working-class dance halls such as the Moulin de la Galette, whose iconic double windmills became the first architectural symbol of Montmartre’s bohemian culture. The Moulin de la Galette became a popular subject at the fin-de-siècle and was painted by, among others, Renoir and the visiting Catalan painters Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), Santiago Rusinõl (1861–1931), and Ramón Casas (1866–1932).

Replacing the Latin Quarter as the locus of the city’s intellectual and artistic community, Montmartre boasted a thriving bohemian culture that was driven by its critique of decadent society. Its raucous café-concerts and cabarets featured satires and crude, often subversive, performances that mocked the Third Republic’s bourgeois morality and increasingly corrupt politics. Cabarets and café-concerts were favorite spots for avant-garde artists such as Degas, who sought to capture their celebrated performers, hazy atmospheres, and artificial stage lighting in his paintings, pastels, and prints (61.101.7; 19.29.3).

By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the appeal of the cabarets and café-concerts extended well beyond the borders of Montmartre. Its performance halls provided a rare opportunity for the mixing of social classes, particularly between bourgeois men and working-class women, whose interactions were often based on prostitution. The blurring of class boundaries contributed to Montmartre’s reputation as a place for escape, pleasure, entertainment, and sexual freedom. Nowhere was this more evident than in its numerous dance halls, whose popularity reached a zenith with the opening of the Moulin Rouge in 1889.

Strategically located on the class divide at the bottom of the “butte,” the Moulin Rouge offered a wide range of entertainments to attract a more upscale clientele, from clowns (49.55.50), acrobats, and tightrope walkers to singers and donkey rides in its outdoor garden. The dance floor featured local stars performing the latest crazes, such as the particularly erotic version of the popular cancan called le chahut. In the 1880s and 1890s, artists would immortalize this famous dance in works such as Georges Seurat’s Le Chahut (1889–90; Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo), in which his innovative pointillist technique expresses the modernity of his subject.

Toulouse-Lautrec was particularly drawn to the diversity of the dance hall’s audience, relying on recognizable Monmartrois types—the cancan dancer, the young working-class woman, the bourgeois man—to convey both the sexual freedom and the spectacle associated with the quarter. Combining commercial advertising techniques with avant-garde compositions characterized by cut-off angles, simplified silhouettes, and flat areas of pure color, he created bold and vivid lithographs of Montmartre’s most celebrated performers (32.88.17; 32.88.15).

His first commercial poster, Moulin Rouge: La Goulue (1891; 32.88.12), contrasts the seductive performance of La Goulue (The Glutton), one of the dance hall’s most famous stars, with an anonymous, predominantly male audience identifiable as middle class by the ubiquitous top hat. Such sexually suggestive images—a direct result of the loosening of censorship laws in 1881—created a sensation with the Parisian public as they both assaulted bourgeois morals and transformed Montmartre’s working-class performers into overnight celebrities.

Toulouse-Lautrec’s interest in Montmartre culture was not limited to advertisements, however, and he became the first artist to dedicate large-scale canvases to the seedier aspects of its nightlife. Employing methods of caricature with a rapid execution, he exposed the artificiality, anxiety, and social tension that characterized fin-de-siècle Parisian society in paintings such as At the Moulin Rouge (1892/95; Art Institute of Chicago) and The Englishman at the Moulin Rouge (1892; 67.187.108).

The 1880s and 1890s also witnessed the rise in popularity of the circus, which was considered to be a form of artistic expression. Like the dance hall, the circus offered its audience both visual and physical spectacles, and its performers became favored subjects among modern artists, for example Seurat’s Circus Sideshow (1887–88; 61.101.17) and the Seated Harlequin by Pablo Picasso (1901; 60.87). The connection between the entertainments offered in both the dance hall and the circus tent is underscored by Toulouse-Lautrec’s Equestrienne (At the Cirque Fernando) (1887–88; Art Institute of Chicago), a sexually charged image that was purchased to decorate the Moulin Rouge.

By the time of the World’s Fair held in Paris in 1900, Montmartre had developed into a veritable entertainment industry, boasting over forty venues comprised of cabarets, café-concerts, dance halls, music halls, theaters, and circuses. The area’s underground bohemian culture had become a part of mainstream bourgeois entertainment through the rapid commercialization and marketing of its venues and performers. As a result, Toulouse-Lautrec and his avant-garde contemporaries lost interest in Montmartre’s nightlife and sought their modern subjects elsewhere. What had begun as a critique of decadent society had become a symbol of decadence itself.