Montmartre History and Entertainment 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 is Montmartre famous for?

Montmartre is famous for its artistic heritage. It has a distinctive village atmosphere characterised by steep, winding, cobbled streets which makes it feel different from the rest of Paris. The white Sacré Coeur church crowns its highest point. The area in front of the church offers extensive views of the city.

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.

What does Montmartre mean?

Montmartre means the martyr’s hill.

The Romans executed Denis, Bishop of Paris, somewhere on the hill of Montmartre in the early Christian era. He was remembered as a martyr and became St Denis. In the Roman Empire temples to Mars and Mercury were built.

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

Montmartre was on the boundary of Paris

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

Up to the mid-nineteenth century Montmartre was a village on the outskirts of Paris, beyond lay the countryside.

Plaster of Paris and windmills

Gypsum had been mined from the Montmartre hill for centuries. Place Blanche (White Square) and the Rue Blanche (White Street) recall the chalky dust as the loaded carts unsteadily ground their way downhill.

The mines were later filled but the buttressed walls still to be seen in Montmartre are a legacy of the unsure foundations.

Another 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

Napoleon III—the more famous Napoleon’s nephew—seized power in France in 1851. He maintained the family tradition by proclaiming himself Emperor. Being Emperor gave him the freedom to put his ideas into action without having to worry about the inconveniences of political opposition or social impact.

His Imperial Majesty wished to modernise France. He turned his attention to Paris first. Napoleon III’s vision, shared by his highest administrative official Baron Haussmann who was his right-hand-man in the project, was to destroy the medieval heart of old Paris and to rebuild a modern capital worthy of the new Napoleonic-era.

Instead of the piecemeal, chaotic, medieval squalor of the old city, modern Paris should be clean, airy and full of light. There was to be modern regular classically-inspired architecture and a series of prestigious railway stations. These used the latest building techniques of wrought iron and glass. They would bring France to Paris. Wide, straight, tree-lined highways would open up vistas to Paris’s monuments, there would be squares and parks where people could stroll, watch and be seen.

It was to be the most awe-inspiring, modern, model city on earth, a planned scaled-up masterpiece, a fitting imperial capital worthy of the prestige of the Emperor’s famous family name.

The property speculators who helped Baron Haussmann and Napoleon III to systematically reduce swathes of old Paris to piles of rubble saw, for the moment, little opportunity in rural Montmartre.

Montmartre lay outside the scope of the Emperor’s masterplan; it sat aloof on the top of its hill, semi-rural, outside the city walls, on the edge of things. That remoteness and geographically hilly awkwardness helped protect it from the wholescale demolition going on in the city at its feet. It meant that it remained radically removed in time and space from the modern geometrical city taking shape at its feet.

A donkey would take you up to Montmartre but the steep streets still defied most horse-drawn transport.

In Paris tumultuous change was afoot as great processional avenues and prestigious boulevards relentlessly and ruthlessly pierced the old city. In Montmartre hens scratched in kitchen gardens, goats wandered between the shacks, mules brayed, painters perched by easels, the sails of the windmills stiffened in the breeze, the sun set, the moon rose, the cafés filled, absinthe encountered stomach and brain and the wisteria silently spread over house and through garden.

Vines and the Maquis

The Maquis was a self-built community of wooden huts. Essentially a squat, it It sprung up on the north-western flank of Montmartre at around the same time as the Emperor and Baron Haussmann was reconstructing Paris. In Montmartre a shanty town spread like a vine. In Paris the monotonous architecture of a designed city whose every detail was set by imperial decree.

Maquis in French means land of little value, scrub or moorland. According to context it can also mean hiding or going underground. Displaced people from the redevelopment of Paris found refuge there.

This site (in French) has some interesting photographs of the Montmartre Maquis.

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

The vineyard is enclosed by a high fence, the vines themselves are protected by netting. The site on the northern side of Montmartre hill descends steeply from left to right. In the background is a large white house. It is the site of the Montmarte Museum. In the foreground is the steep Rue des Saules.
The Montmartre Vineyard set on the northern aspect of the Montmartre hill from the Rue des Saules

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

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 1871.

The Commune was a civil war between leftist revolutionary Parisians and the rest of the French state. It took place during a period of extreme turmoil when France was at war with Prussia. The Franco-Prussian conflict of 1870 toppled Napoleon III’s imperial regime.

Montmartre was one of the Paris Commune’s strongholds. After the uprising’s bloody suppression, the Church seized the occasion to construct a huge edifice right on summit of Montmartre.

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

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 entertainment culture of Montmartre

In 1860 Montmartre became part of Paris

In 1860 the wall which had been built just before the French Revolution to collect taxes on all goods coming into Paris was demolished. This was part of a larger civic plan of expansion to bring Montmartre into the 18th district of Paris.

The nightlife district in the duty-free area

The customs 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 meant that food and drink on the Montmartre side of the wall was effectively duty-free. Cheaper prices encouraged people out to Montmartre and soon the cafés were joined by cabarets and dance halls.

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 (Black Cat) in 1881. It was an artistic café-cabaret at 84 Boulevard de Rochechouart. The interior decor featured an enormous cat’s head surrounded by golden rays of sunshine by the sculptor Fremiet.

On the outside there was a 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. Cats and their nocturnal prowling were in vogue at the time and symbolised the night time economy then developing in Montmartre.

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 place.

Rodolphe Salis recognised the need for marketing 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. Sketches and caricature in the newspaper provided opportunities 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 a promising artist called Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

Shadow play in the second Chat Noir

The second Chat Noir in rue Victor Massé, (which features at point 18 in walk 2 lower Montmartre – Pigalle,) included a sophisticated animated shadow theatre cast by specially designed zinc figures. It featured elaborate coloured scenarios. The effect was said to have been enthralling. The shadow play in the Chat Noir preceded the cinema by about a decade. Some of the original templates can be seen in the Montmartre Museum.

The novelty and peculiar effects of the projected shadows playing against a coloured backdrop may have set some of the artists in the audience thinking: How to present the spectacle of modern Paris? Which reality should art portray? Could new techniques in painting be found?

Café concerts and Montmartre venues

Among the other venues frequented by the artists were: the Tabourin in Boulevard de Clichy which gave wall space to Vincent van Gogh and where Paul Gauguin was a regular; the Cabaret des Quat’z’Arts and the Café des Incohérents in Rue Pierre Fontaine where Toulouse-Lautrec painted the performers in the 1890s.

Some thirty years later, in the 1920s, the Rue Pierre Fontaine address became Zelli’s, an all-night jazz club where the international set came to dance and drink the night away in prohibition-free Paris.

Because of stiff competition, venue 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. We can glimpse it to the left of the picture in this sweeping view of 63 Boulevard de Clichy where the Quat’z’Arts was located and which dates 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 Quadrille Naturaliste aka chahut aka French Cancan—where the female dancers did a series of high kicks and loud shrieks—was born in the Elysée Montmartre.

The most famous of them all, the Moulin Rouge, opened in 1889.

The Montmartre entertainment sector was competitive and everyone shouted for attention. The demand for new promotional material and advances in printing techniques meant that writers, poets, satirists, engravers and artists were drawn into the fast-paced song and dance world of Montmartre.

Venues like the Moulin de la Galette, the Lapin Agile, the Elysée Montmartre, the Chat Noir cabaret or Moulin Rouge 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.

Belle-Epoque carnival

As Napoleon III’s new city of Paris took shape, the poor people who had lived in the centre there were cleared to the margins. The Parisian social classes were now geographically and culturally more distanced than ever.

The conservatism of French society and its hierarchical nature, made it difficult for people of different social status to meet. Because people encountered each other less and had little in common there was—from the bourgeois side at least—ignorance of and curiosity about working class culture.

For the bourgeois man, going to Montmartre, on the very limits of Paris, was an adventure; something of a risky step into the unknown. Luckily help was at hand.

It was in the entertainment venues of Montmartre and especially at the Moulin Rouge that impresario entrepreneurs saw the opportunity to exploit the encounter between the two social groupings.

They seized the commercial potential of theatricalizing one class—the working class performers—so they became acceptable and consumable by the other class—the bourgeois elite paying customers.

This was the scene that Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was able to observe, capture and caricature in the 1890s with his Moulin Rouge paintings and posters.

Toulouse-Lautrec’s At The Moulin Rouge. Five identifiable Moulin Rouge regulars are sitting around a table with drinks in the Moulin Rouge. There are three bourgeois men and two dancers. None are communicating and they seem to avoid eye contact. In the foreground a large thick brown balustrade appears and to the right of the balustrade a woman whose face is cast in a sickly green shadow stares out at the viewer as though challenging us and protecting the rest of the picture. In the background we see Toulouse-Lautrec himself and his cousin. Also in the background, La Goulue is adjusting her hair in a mirror. The palette is sombre brown and sickly yellow.
Toulouse-Lautrec’s At The Moulin Rouge; the show is over, the illusion evaporates.

A comfortable commercial scene

It was Bourgeois money that powered the creative flywheel that kept the spectacle of Montmartre spinning. This was a commercial scene with money to be made and so the mainstream entertainment on offer there never seriously criticised or ridiculised the bourgeois-dominated existing social order.

Everyday moral boundaries may have been temporarily obscured by smoke, alcohol, the uproar of music and dance and the novelty of electric illumination. But the showbiz illusion of Montmartre with its exuberant high-kicking female performers and its top-hatted male audience simply confirmed the stereotypes that people from different social standings had about each other.

All photographs © David Macmillan except: (1), (2), (3).

(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

(3) Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec artist QS:P170,Q82445 Details of artist on Google Art Project, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec - At the Moulin Rouge - Google Art Project, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons