Montmartre History and Culture

The history and culture of Montmartre

Map of Montmartre for the self-guided walk which guides you to artists’ studios, paintings and canteens. The walk is around the upper Montmartre area including the hill of Montmartre.
Walk 1, map of upper Montmartre; route and points of interest of the Montmartre walking tour Montmartre Artists’ Studios © OpenStreetMap contributors, the Open Database Licence (ODbL).

What does Montmartre mean?

The name Montmartre is usually understood to mean the martyr’s hill.  It was in Montmartre that Denis, Bishop of Paris was martyred by the Romans. He became St Denis. Montmartre was also associated with temples to the Roman gods Mars and Mercury.

Montmartre is also known as ‘La Butte’, which is French for a mound or small hill.

Montmartre is situated 3.2 kilometres (about two miles) to the north of the centre of Paris. Its position, on the city’s outskirts and its steep slopes meant that it never fully became a part of Paris.

What is Montmartre famous for?

Montmartre is famous for its artistic heritage and a distinctive village atmosphere characterised by steep, winding, cobbled streets. It is crowned by the white Sacré Coeur church which sits on its highest point. The area in front of the Sacré Coeur offers extensive views of Paris.

Visiting Montmartre is now often seen as one of the top ten things to do on the Paris tourist trail. The best way to see it is on foot.

Martyrs, religious orders and boundaries

Mercury was the Roman god of travellers, boundaries and commerce. Making an offering to the god helped the voyager negotiate the perils of the road beyond the city limits.

In the Middle Ages a religious order of Benedictine Nuns, the Abbaye Royale de Montmartre, was established. The site where the Abbey was built was said to have been where St Denis had been martyred. Whilst the Abbey was destroyed during the French Revolution and the ground mined for gypsum, the order’s memory lingers in the name of the Place des Abbesses.

Up to about the mid-nineteenth century Montmartre formed the northern periphery of Paris, beyond lay the countryside.

People climbing steep stairs, the Sacré Coeur dome can de seen in the background. Mature trees line the stairs, a traditional gas type street light can be seen in the middleground.
Steep Montmartre stairs leading to the Sacré Coeur.

Montmartre before the artists

Plaster of Paris and windmills

Plaster, the famous plaster of Paris, which is extracted from processed gypsum, has been mined from this hill for centuries. The nearby Place Blanche (White Square) and the Rue Blanche (White Street) are reminders of the chalky dust and debris as the loaded carts bumped and ground their way down the hill.

Many of the mines were filled in from the debris of the rebuilding of Paris in the mid 19th century. When you walk around the steep parts of Montmartre, you will still see buttressed walls. These protect buildings and streets against the unstable ground caused by the traditional mining activity below.

The other more visible traditional activity on Montmartre was milling. Windmills used to fan out on the crest of the hill catching the wind. Two survive and can still be seen on this walk.

The Radet windmill framed against a clear blue sky over the entrance to the Moulin de la Galette restaurant Rue Lepic Paris 75018
The restored ‘Radet’ windmill now serves as a triumphal entrance to the Moulin de la Galette restaurant.

Montmartre avoids systematic 19th century redevelopment

Those abrupt slopes, and the fact that it was on the very limits of Paris, helped protect Montmartre from the extensive urban planning and redevelopment of mid-nineteenth century Paris.

Whilst you could get a donkey to take you up the hill, the steep winding streets of Montmartre defied most horse-drawn transport increasing its sense of removal in time and space from the remodelled city at its feet. Montmartre to this day is still difficult to access by public transport.

The property speculators who helped Baron Haussmann and Napoleon III to systematically reduce swathes of old Paris to piles of debris saw, for the moment, little opportunity in rural Montmartre. Here hens scratched in kitchen gardens, goats wandered between the shacks, the sails of the windmills caught the wind and the wisteria quietly spread.

Vines and the Maquis

The Maquis was a self-built community of wooden huts. It sprung up on the north-western flank of Montmartre at around the same time as Baron Haussmann was redefining Paris as a model city. The organic spread of the shanty town on Montmartre represented the polar opposite of the irresistible geometrical urban reorganisation that the Emperor Napoleon III had ordered.

‘Maquis’ in French means land of little value, scrub or moorland. According to context it can also mean hiding or going underground. The French Resistance fighters of World War II went to the maquis in order to carry out covert operations.

Some displaced people from the redevelopment of Paris would have found refuge here; most of the occupants lived by recuperating, recycling and reselling used fabrics and metal. Before organised rubbish collection this in fact was a common and widespread occupation.  This site (in French) has some interesting photographs of the Montmartre Maquis

On the northern slopes vines were still cultivated as they had been in the Paris region since at least the Middle Ages and probably Roman times.

By the mid-nineteenth century the local population was made up of the growing industrial workforce and a few artists looking for cheap lodging and good light.

Opposing traditions in the development of French political life

French society by the late 19th century was quite clearly polarised. Events such as the Dreyfus Affair threw the fracture into stark relief.

The republican ideal

On the one hand there was the republican liberal democratic ideal. This was informed by ideas originating in the Enlightenment and the French Revolution such as reason, progress and the optimistic belief that man has the capacity and vision to choose and invent his own destiny.

The republican ideal in France eventually found a concrete expression in parliamentary democracy, underpinned by universal (male) suffrage and a supposedly impartial legal system that ensured the individual citizen’s rights.

The hierarchical traditional view

Opposed to this there were those who held more conservative ideas and who took a more pessimistic view of man’s capacities. The natural order for them was hierarchical and limited, with the King and the Church at the apex of the pyramid.  Royalists, Bonapartists and the Church looked to tradition and appealed instead to more restrictive and authoritarian forms of society.

The aftermath of the Paris Commune was seen by the Church as a prime occasion to construct a huge edifice right on top of one of the strongholds of the red, independent, revolutionary Parisians who supported the Commune.

Why was the Sacré Coeur Basilica built on Montmartre?

The Sacré Coeur (Sacred Heart) Basilica sits on the crest of the hill dominating Paris. It is an attempt at national reconciliation and atonement for the terrible events of the Paris Commune of 1870-71.

This eccentric and overbearing construction is also a statement by the Catholic Church of possession of Montmartre, the traditional place of boundaries, resistance, marginals and freedom.

The white church looming over Paris

The domes of the Sacré Coeur may look like they are made out of plaster of Paris, flour or perhaps even icing sugar. The basilica is in fact constructed with travertine limestone quarried in Château-Landon, a town some 100 km to the south-east of Paris.

A detail of the dome of the Sacré Coeur Basilica Montmartre. Bright blue sky in background.
The Sacré Coeur Basilica Montmartre Paris.

The Sacré Coeur is not featured in this walk. It is however, such an imposing, recognisable and famous structure in Montmartre that I have decided to feature a brief outline of the events of the Paris Commune so that its construction can be placed in a historical context.

The Commune impacted Montmartre and helped to reinforce its image as a sanctuary for radicals and free spirits. One of the key events, the attempted seizure of the Paris National Guard’s cannon situated on Montmartre, actually on the site where the Sacré Coeur is built today, was the spark that led to the explosion. The brief episode of the Paris Commune is not very well known internationally but remains important for some Parisians, especially those who lean to the left politically.

(For wheelchair route users: please return to top of Montmartre Funicular.)

The entertainment culture of Montmartre

In 1860 Montmartre becomes part of Paris

In 1860 the wall which had been built just before the French Revolution in the 1780s as a means of collecting taxes on all goods coming into Paris was being demolished. This was part of a larger civic plan of expansion. It was at this time that Montmartre was brought into the 18th arrondissement (district) of Paris.

The nightlife district in the duty free area

The wall, which originally encircled the whole of Paris, ran along what is now Boulevard de Clichy and Boulevard de Rochechouart forming the southern boundary of Montmartre. Being outside the walls, which Montmartre and the northern side of Boulevards de Clichy and de Rochechouart were, meant that food and drink on the Montmartre side of the wall was effectively duty free.

Rodolph Salis opens the Chat Noir in 1881

(1) Steinlen’s poster for the Rodolph Salis’ Chat Noir Cabaret tour. © Wikimedia Commons.
Théophile Steinlen

Rodolphe Salis, entrepreneur and raconteur, opened the Chat Noir in 1881. It was an artistic café/cabaret at 84 Boulevard de Rochechouart. The decor featured an enormous cat’s head surrounded by golden rays of sunshine by the sculptor Fremiet. On the outside there was a marvellous jagged sign cut out of sheet metal by Adolphe Wilette. It featured a startled shaggy street cat hanging on to the horns of a quarter moon by its tail. The latter sign can now be seen in the Carnavalet Museum in Paris.

New opportunities for upcoming artists and hydropathes

Salis’ establishment soon attracted the members of a literary drinking club known as the hydropathes; they were a loose collective of anti-academic artists, writers, pranksters, political idealists and poets. Their presence set the bohemian tone of the establishment.

In the Chat Noir artists would present their own material inspired by contemporary Parisian life. Salis recognised the need for marketing, advertising and self-promotion and so harnessed the diverse talents of his regulars to produce a newspaper. It proved popular and as circulation grew more and more people came. The newspaper was an opening for new artists.

When Salis moved into bigger premises in 1885 the popular singer Aristide Bruant took over the venue. Bruant then gave wall space to Toulouse-Lautrec.

Shadow play in the second Chat Noir

The second Chat Noir from 1885 in rue Victor Massé, (the site of which features at point 18 in walk 2 lower Montmartre – Pigalle), included a sophisticated animated shadow theatre cast by specially designed zinc figures featuring elaborate coloured scenarios. The effect was said to have been cinematic and enthralling. Eric Satie the musician was among the regulars here.

Other café concerts and Montmarte venues

Other café concerts included the Tabourin in Boulevard de Clichy which gave wall space to van Gogh and where Gauguin was a regular; the Cabaret des Quat’z’Arts (which also had its own dedicated newspaper) and the Café des Incohérents/Décadents in Rue Fontaine where Toulouse-Lautrec painted the performers.

Some thirty years later, in the 1920s, this latter address became the famous Zelli’s, an all-night jazz club where the international set came to dance and drink the night away in prohibition free Paris. See the Paris Jazz Age section in walk 2 lower Montmartre – Pigalle for much more on this.

Because of stiff competition between venues, owners were forced to create evermore elaborate and exotic decors. The Cabaret des Quat’z’Arts featured a fine stained glass window by the artist Louis Abel-Truchet which we can glimpse, to the left of the picture, in this sweeping view of 63 Boulevard de Clichy, probably from the turn of the 20th century.

(2) A sweeping view from about 1900 of Boulevard de Clichy Montmartre and the facade of the Cabaret des Quat’z’Arts. © Wikimedia Commons.

Dance halls in Montmartre

The best known dance venues in Montmartre were the Moulin de la Galette and the Elysée Montmartre the latter having its own newspaper. It was in the Elysée Montmartre that the Quadrille Naturaliste aka French Cancan was born. The most famous of them all, the Moulin Rouge, opened in 1889.

Many of these venues, as we have seen, had their own dedicated promotion channels, they organised publicity parades, created and printed posters and published songbooks. Both Steinlein (who designed the famous Chat Noir poster) and Toulouse-Lautrec illustrated songbooks. It was a cut-throat business and the advances in printing techniques meant that new writers, poets, satirists, engravers and artists were in demand in the fast paced entertainment sector in Montmartre.

Venues like the Moulin de la Galette and the Lapin Agile in Montmartre or the Elysée Montmartre, Chat Noir cabaret or Moulin Rouge on the Boulevards helped to forge the area’s reputation as the best place to go for a night out.

The Montmartre mix

Montmartre was the perfect environment for the young artist; there was cheap lodging and work aplenty in a geographically compact area.

Artistic cafés  such as the Nouvelle Athènes (New Athens) or the Rat Mort (Dead Rat) were great places to network.

Bourgeois customer’s money helped power the creative flywheel. Working class Parisians and provincials danced and sang, the middle class people watched and consumed whilst the artists set and recorded the scene.

The spectacle of Montmartre

In the circus, the dance halls, the cabarets or artistic cafés the professionals providing the entertainment were mostly from humble origins whilst the spectators, consumers and clients from the growing Parisian and international bourgeoisie. Please see the bourgeois men and working women page for more on social status and the rigid class barriers of the time.

In all of these venues there was prostitution which the respectable bourgeois considered part of the attraction of Montmartre.

This is the world Toulouse-Lautrec was able to observe, capture and condense in the 1890s. Everyday moral boundaries may have been obscured by smoke and alcohol, the carnival atmosphere, the novelty of electric illumination, the uproar of music and dance but social hierarchies remained rigidly in place.

The idea of boundaries and the overturning of everyday social constraint in an atmosphere of carnival is worth bearing in mind when thinking about Montmartre. It is also worth noting that the carnival of Montmartre, like any period of holiday licence because of its temporary, excessive, artificial and cathartic nature actually served the existing social order well.

All photographs © David Macmillan except:

(1) © Théophile Steinlen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. All photographic attribution courtesy of the Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons Attribution generator :


Théophile Steinlen creator QS:P170,Q706041
 Details of artist on Google Art Project, Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen - Tournée du Chat Noir de Rodolphe Salis (Tour of Rodolphe Salis' Chat Noir) - Google Art Project, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons

(2) © Unknown author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. All photographic attribution courtesy of the Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons Attribution generator :


AnonymousUnknown author,Cabaret des Quat'z'Arts.., marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons