The Bateau Lavoir Montmartre where Picasso was ‘born’
The Bateau Lavoir cheap artists’ studios in Montmartre
You now climb up some steps away from the café, (point 1 Pere Azon/le Relais de la Butte) and arrive at Place Emile Goudeau; this square features a Wallace fountain. At the top of the stairs, straight ahead, you will see the site of the Bateau Lavoir artists’ workshops.
The building you see today is a reconstruction after the fire of 1970. The site is still used as artists’ studios but cannot be visited. Outside the studios you will see a metal Paris Mayor’s Office historical information panel (in French) and a window display. Here is my own translation of what the metal sign says:
The information panel put up by the Mayor of Paris reads:
The Bateau Lavoir.
‘ “ We will all go back to the Bateau Lavoir (washing or laundry boat) the only place where we were really happy”…Right up to his death, Picasso (1881 – 1973) remained nostalgic for the rural Montmartre of his youth with its farms, orchards, and colourful cabarets.
Having arrived on the (Montmartre) hill (in 1900) when he was 19, in 1904 (aged 23), Picasso rented a studio here where he painted the last works of his “Blue Period”. His “Rose Period”, which was inspired by his love for (his then partner) Fernande Olivier and Les Demoilselles d’Avignon (The Young Ladies of Avignon (1907)) prelude to Cubism were all executed here.
Previously better known as the “Trapper’s House”, the old piano workshop which was divided up into artists workshops and studios around 1889 was renamed by Max Jacob. The entire site: the sprawling camp of huts and sheds, the labyrinth of gangways and stairs was reduced to ashes in the fire of the 12th of May 1970.’
Picasso visits Paris for the World Fair of 1900
Picasso came to Paris to visit the World Fair of 1900 with fellow artist and friend Casagemas. He was one of 50 million visitors for the event which also featured the opening of the first Paris Métro line, some enormous Art Nouveau and Baroque style temporary national pavilions and a fantastic Palace of Electricity which powered a moving pavement.
This was an impressive event to usher in the 20th century. The 10 000 lamps of the Palace of Electricity looked as though they were illuminating a new age full of technological possibility. A new medium for artistic expression, the cinema, was developing; surely painting too would rise to the challenge and visually reinterpret the modern world.
Casagemas committed suicide in 1901 after the woman he was in love with rejected him. This event was the cause of much turmoil for Picasso. From 1900 to 1904 he split his time between Paris and Spain without settling. His first studio in Paris was very close to here. These were the ‘Blue Period’ years.
1904 Picasso moves in to the Bateau Lavoir
Whilst property prices and rents in Montmartre are today sky-high in the early years of the 20th century they were very cheap. By 1904 Picasso managed to get a studio in this building. This site suggests that its location was at the back of the building.
Fernande Olivier joins Picasso in the Bateau Lavoir
Pablo Picasso was soon joined there by the artist’s model Fernande Olivier. She became his muse and subject of many paintings of this period. The beginning of his relationship with Olivier was surely an influence in Picasso’s change of style. He now started what would later be categorised as the ‘Rose Period‘ (1904 – 06).
The Rose Period is often characterised by itinerant figures such as harlequins, clowns or acrobats. Fernande Olivier wrote about her life with Picasso and the Bateau Lavoir during these years in her memoir ‘Picasso and his Friends’.
Just how poor Picasso was remains a little controversial. He was able to travel frequently between Spain and Paris in his early Paris years and later would regularly take off to the French countryside or Spain in order to escape from Paris in the summer.
Fernande Olivier, when invited to visit Picasso’s working and living space for the first time, uses a long list to convey neatly how her keen eye skips around the disorder of Picasso’s studio. Here, (my translation), is how Fernande Olivier recalls her first impressions in her 1933 book ‘Picasso et ses amis’ (‘Picasso and his Friends’):
“…The base of a bed on four legs in one corner. A rusty little cast iron stove on which was placed an earthenware wash bowl…A wicker chair, easels, canvases of every size, tubes of paint scattered on the floor, paintbrushes, jerrycans (for the petrol lamps), a bowl of etching acid, no curtains…
…It was the end of the ‘Blue Period’. Large unfinished paintings were standing upright in the workshop; everything bore witness to work but work in one hell of a mess…”
The Montmartre laundry boat
Le Bateau Lavoir in French means the laundry boat. The building is thought to have got its name either because its profile resembled the public washing boats moored on the Seine in those days; or because it moved and groaned when it was windy on Montmartre (just like the laundry boats); or because of the permanent display of artists’ drying clothes.
By the early 1900s it had been cheaply and hastily converted into studios by simply dividing the space with wood and plaster partitions. The result was a bewildering conglomerate structure. Contemporary accounts speak of a confusing warren of corridors, creaking stairs and damp walls.
There was one principal entrance from which stairs led down to the main body of the building. There were also a number of secondary entrances. Because the building was set on a steep slope accounts differ about how many floors it actually contained, some said two, others three.
None of the studios had electricity or gas at this time. For heating in winter there was a stove – if there was money to buy fuel. Sweltering in summer, cold and damp in winter, there was one source of (cold) running water for the whole building. Paraffin or petrol lamps and candles provided the light.
HQ of modern art and its network of amplifiers and influencers
Among the other resident artists in the Bateau Lavoir were: Juan Gris, Kees van Dongen and Amedeo Modigliani.
The poets, writers, essayists and critics who helped amplify Picasso’s reputation and influence avant-garde opinion among gallery owners and private buyers were chiefly Max Jacob, André Salmon and Guillaume Apollinaire.
The most important buyers were the American brother and sister Leo and Gertrude Stein. Both had an eye for new art and could spot originality and quality. They lived in Paris.
According to Olivier Renault (whose book – in French ‘Montmarte: Les Lieux de Legende‘ (‘Legendary Places in Montmartre’) is one of the primary sources for this walk), the first gallery owner to buy Picasso was Berthe Weil in 1901. It was she who bought and sold Picasso’s early work Le Moulin de la Galette. Picasso’s paintings could later be seen at the Ambroise Vollard Gallery and also at the antiquarian Clovis Sagot from around 1903.
The Steins get interested
It was Leo Stein who first noticed work by Picasso. It was not long before Leo and Gertrude Stein found their way up the hill to Montmartre and were regular visitors and buyers at Picasso’s home and workplace.
Gertrude Stein had her portrait painted by Picasso at the Bateau Lavoir; Picasso finished it in 1906. The painting can now be seen in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Gertrude Stein and Picasso became friendly and Picasso was regularly invited to Gertrude Stein’s artistic soirées in her apartment at 27 Rue de Fleurus on the Left Bank not far from the Luxembourg Gardens. It was here that he first saw works by Henri Matisse bought by his host.
Le Bateau Lavoir and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon
It was in his studio in the Bateau Lavoir in 1907 that Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (The Young Ladies of Avignon). The picture is generally considered by art historians to be modern art’s first painting. It remains one of his most famous and greatest works.
The main idea of this tour is to help you discover and better understand Montmartre. I’m trying to evoke a little of the spirit of the place by associating artists, paintings, workshops and studios.
If you are interested in finding out some more about Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and the painters, paintings and artistic movements that influenced its conception and final form then please look at the Demoiselles d’Avignon influences page.
You can find out much more about Picasso’s life and works at the Paris Picasso Museum.
For wheelchair users, please return to point 9 Bateau Lavoir.
Bonus for energetic Picasso enthusiasts only
Energetic Picasso enthusiasts among you looking to approach the rear of the building might, at this point, want to take a short detour.
You may wish to go back down the steps behind you, turn right into Rue Garreau and drop down the hill a bit. You then take the first street on the right which is a dead-end and is called Rue Burq. Halfway up Rue Burq turn right into the Jardin Burq (Burq Garden).
You continue to the far end and by a children’s play area you will see a high fence and a thick cypress and bamboo hedge; through this can be glimpsed partial views of the rear of the Bateau Lavoir building and thus the site of where Picasso’s studio would have been in 1907.
You get a better idea of what to expect from this picture and I leave the decision of whether to go or not up to you.
Note, this detour is only for those who might find some reward in approaching and glimpsing the back of the building where Picasso’s workshop was before being destroyed by fire in 1970. There is in fact very little to see as the fence and hedge do as they are supposed to do, which is keep you out and preserve privacy. You now retrace your steps to get back up to the better known front side of the Bateau Lavoir.