Two famous cafés for the Montmartre artistic community
With your back to the fountain in Place Pigalle, you will see a building painted blue called LCL. It is now a bank but used to be one of the two famous artistic cafés situated opposite each other in Place Pigalle.
The café where the bank now is was called the Rat Mort (Dead Rat). Why dead rat? At the opening accounts say a dead rat was found in a beer pump or was it because the owners thought the name an intriguing and popular contrast to the Nouvelle Athènes (New Athens) café opposite? However it got its name the place soon became the recognised meeting point for artists seeking models.
The clientele consisted of a bohemian set of artists, writers and journalists. Anarchists talked about anarchist ideals and, later in the evening, the lesbian community also met here.
The place has become associated with a famous Toulouse-Lautrec painting In a Private Booth at The Rat Mort (in the Courtauld Institute, London) painted in 1899. The painting would have been executed in Toulouse Lautrec’s studio in 15 Avenue Frochot, just a stone’s throw from here, where he had a studio at this time.
In a Private Booth at the Rat Mort
Whilst the woman grins at the painter her male companion turns away.
Toulouse-Lautrec adds to the sense of intrusion by cropping him out of the frame; we only see the side of his head, his hair and his right cheek.
The lurid red of the velvet bench seat is echoed in the model’s heavy lipstick. There is an over large fruit arrangement in the left foreground which captures and reflects the absinthe greens that haunts and stains the glass and mirrors.
The gaudy colours and glowing tones all portray the artificial and excessive quality of a gentleman’s night out in Pigalle in 1899. The painting portrays the parallel private activities that were a socially accepted part of family life for the more prosperous man of substance. It is the ‘quality’ end of the sex trade.
Nouvelle Athènes (New Athens) café
Now look to the right of the bank building across Rue Frochot to the opposite pavement. What you see now is a modern building housing a health food shop.
This is the site of the Nouvelle Athènes (New Athens) café. It was Montmartre’s most famous artistic Impressionist-era café. Two of its most regular customers Degas and Manet have a fair claim to being among the period’s very best and most original painters. Other well known faces here included Zola the writer, Sisley, Pissarro, Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, Seurat and of course Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
Degas’ In A Café set in the Nouvelle Athènes
People now come to the supermarket to buy organic food; Degas in 1875 showed people, in the same spot, seeking escape, release or oblivion in a glass of absinthe. You can see In a Café (aka Absinthe) in the Orsay Museum in Paris.
In the painting, which is set in the Nouvelle Athènes but in fact was painted in Degas’ studio, (point 7 see Degas section), two figures are seen drinking. Both stare into space and have forgotten the presence of the other, their shadows loom spectre-like in the bar’s decorative mirror behind them.
To underline the strangeness of the mood the café’s marble tables, (as the information panel in the Orsay Museum points out), appear to hover without supporting legs. Time and gravity have slipped into neutral. Unlike the organic food of today, in Degas’ time absinthe was powerful stuff and not good for your health.
Glancing at the tired regulars
Degas, who has framed the picture as though he was glancing briefly at the couple from his table whilst reading a newspaper, (we see a couple of newspaper holders on his table), has, in fact, staged the whole scene. The woman is an actress and artists’ model and the man an engraver colleague of his.
The painting was so powerful and realistic in its depiction of alcoholic absence that it cast a shadow on the life of the two participants. The fiction of the painting and the boozy roles it cast for its recognisable participants was compelling.
Degas had to subsequently defend the reputation of his real life subjects, formally stating that they were merely posing for a painting.
The Nouvelle Athènes area
The Nouvelle Athènes café takes its name from an area of speculative property development from the post-Napoleonic period (i.e. around 1820).
The speculators gave the development this name to encourage creative types to invest.
This was the Romantic era after all and just to prove it the speculators decorated the houses of the Nouvelle Athènes area with some foliage and cornucopia and other classical relief flourishes.
The café is in fact on the northern edge of the Nouvelle Athènes area. This site tells you more about the place, including where the composer Chopin and the (female) writer George Sand used to meet.
The development did not go as well as planned and instead of an influx of professional people, the developers had to make do with artists and courtesans.
Nouvelle Athens becomes SoPo (South Pigalle)
Nowadays Nouvelle Athens is better known as SoPo (South Pigalle). It is one of the many hipster colonies that look much the same wherever you see them. Here, in the cafés and boutiques that cater for the young professional community, it is all about style and similarity and convergence and comfort.
Nearly all the hostess bars are now themed cocktail bars which, in the interests of ‘authenticity’ have kept elements of the original décor.
You won’t meet the diversity of the people of the night here any more or get ripped-off for a bottle of fizzy wine masquerading as champagne, (though that will happen if you are unwise enough to wander into any of the places in Boulevard de Clichy). In SoPo, instead, you’ll be served a Pigalle themed cocktail by a man in an impeccably groomed beard.
This article, an insider’s opinion piece, explores the impact of the SoPo takeover.
Paris ignores aspects of its heritage, the demolition option
Paris sometimes forgets; the site of the historic Nouvelle Athènes café was demolished in the early 2000s. Attempts to save it were in vain.
Now, if you want to stay healthy, you can get your wholegrain, quinoa, and assorted organic fruit and vegetables on the spot where modern art was conceived; you can go to a bank instead of sipping an absinthe with the anarchists in the Rat Mort.
Now carefully cross over Place Pigalle and make for the health food shop/Nouvelle Athènes café site. To the right of this building is the Rue Jean-Baptiste Pigalle. Go down this street about 20 metres. To the rear of the health food shop, roughly where the goods delivery door is now, was Bricktop’s Jazz Club. This is point 5 on the map.
You can find out more about her and the Paris jazz scene of the 1920s in the jazz section.
All photographs © David Macmillan except: (1), (2).
All Wikipedia photographic attribution courtesy of the Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons Attribution generator :
(1) Unknown, Café de le Nouvelle Athènes. (before 1900), marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons
(2) Edgar Degas artist QS:P170,Q46373, Edgar Degas - In a Café - Google Art Project 2, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons