The history and culture of Montmartre
What is Montmartre famous for?
Montmartre is famous for its artistic heritage. It has a distinctive village atmosphere characterised by steep, winding, cobbled streets. The white Sacré Coeur church crowns its highest point. The area in front of the church 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.
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. 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.
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. 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 (Abbesses’ Square – an area in Montmartre.)
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—the raw material from which plaster of Paris is extracted—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 debris from the demolition of old Paris helped fill the mines and stabilise the worked ground.
The buttressed walls still to be seen in Montmartre are a legacy of the unsure foundations.
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.
Montmartre avoids systematic 19th century redevelopment
In the middle of the nineteenth century Montmartre sat on a hill outside the city walls of Paris. Its remoteness helped protect it from the extensive redevelopment of the time which so radically transformed Paris from a medieval settlement to the model city we see now.
A donkey would take you up to Montmartre but the steep streets defied most horse-drawn transport. Montmartre’s semi-rural atmosphere increased its sense of removal in time and space from the modern geometrical city taking shape at its feet. Montmartre to this day is still difficult to access by public transport.
Whilst in Paris great processional avenues and prestigious boulevards pierced the city, in Montmartre hens scratched in kitchen gardens, goats wandered between the shacks, mules brayed, painters sat by easels, the sails of the windmills stiffened in the breeze and the wisteria quietly spread over house and through garden.
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 reconstructing Paris.
Once again Montmartre proved to be different: here a shanty town spread like a vine there, in Paris, endless vistas opened on 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. The French Resistance fighters of World War II went to the maquis in order to carry out covert operations.
Displaced people from the redevelopment of Paris would have found refuge here; some 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 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.
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.
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 had 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. An impartial legal system was supposed to ensure the individual citizen’s rights.
Radical republicans and socialists considered the republican system to be a self-serving bourgeois institution and called for dramatic reform such as an income tax.
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 closed, 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.
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.
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 precipitated the collapse of Napoleon III’s imperial regime.
After the Commune the Church seized the occasion to construct a huge edifice right on top of one of the strongholds of the red, independent, revolutionary Parisians who supported the Commune.
The eccentric and overbearing construction is 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.
The Sacré Coeur does not feature in this walk. It is however, such an imposing, recognisable and famous structure in Montmartre that I have decided to give a brief outline of the events of the Paris Commune so that its construction can be placed in a historical context.
The Commune helped to reinforce Montmartre’s image as a sanctuary for radicals and free spirits.
One of the key events, the attempted seizure by the French army 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.
(For wheelchair route users: please return to top of Montmartre Funicular.)
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 arrondissement (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, which Montmartre and the northern side of the Boulevards 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
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 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.
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 best to represent the new city? How to show the uniformity of the light that reflected back from the new urban fabric? How to present the spectacle of modern Paris?
Eric Satie the musician was also among the regulars here.
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/Décadents 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. See the Paris Jazz Age section in walk 2 lower Montmartre – Pigalle for much more on this.
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.
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 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.
Many of these places, as we saw with the Chat Noir, had dedicated promotion channels: they had newspapers, organised publicity parades, held themed soirees, created and printed posters and published songbooks.
Both Steinlein (who designed the famous Chat Noir poster) and Toulouse-Lautrec illustrated songbooks.
It was a competitive business where everyone shouted for attention. The demand for new material and advances in printing techniques meant that new writers, poets, satirists, engravers and artists were drawn into the fast paced entertainment sector in Montmartre.
Venues like the Moulin de la Galette and the Lapin Agile or the Elysée Montmartre, 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.
The Bourgeois male needed distraction, his money helped power the creative flywheel.
The spectacle of Montmartre
As the new city of Paris took shape, the poor people who had lived there were cleared to the margins. In the new Paris the classes were now geographically, socially and culturally more separated 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—curiosity about working class culture.
For the bourgeois man, going to Montmartre, on the very limits of Paris, was an adventure; something of a 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.
Identifying this mutual ignorance helped the impresarios to seize on the commercial potential of theatricalizing one class—the working class performers—so they became acceptable and consumable by the other class—the bourgeois elite.
Everyday moral boundaries may have been obscured by smoke, alcohol, the novelty of electric illumination, the uproar of music and dance and the carnival atmosphere, but the illusion of Montmartre simply confirmed the stereotypes that people from different social standings had about each other. Montmartre did little to bring them together.
This is the scene that Toulouse-Lautrec—with his Moulin Rouge paintings and posters—was able to observe, capture and condense in the 1890s.
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