Why Montmartre?

🇫🇷 The Great France Art Tour of 2017

Why Montmartre? This neighborhood is on most “must see” lists for Paris—often with little explanation. Even on my first trip to Paris, at age sixteen, I remember our Foreign Service League guide suggesting an optional trip to Montmartre on one of our “free” days, explaining that it was a funky, “artsy” area of narrow streets and open shops and stands. I imagined bearded men in berets, sitting on wooden stools, with their charcoal and drawing pads, easels, and thumb-tacked examples of reasonably accurate portraits and funny caricatures. (Actually, you will find those, even today in Montmartre and along the Seine.) I assume, more than I remember, that as a young man I was that day distracted by a young woman named Maritchu, who had her own plans, and she was not on her way to that part of Paris. I didn’t enlist for that side trip. I didn’t go to see Jim Morrison’s grave either. As I’ve mentioned, as is the case with any grand and ancient city, you can’t see it ALL!

And even on the Great Art Tour, I didn’t know much about the Impressionist connection. In my mind, I was thinking that the steps where Gil (Owen Wilson) is first picked up by T.S. Eliot in a Peugeot in “Midnight in Paris” had to be somewhere in Montmartre. I kept looking for those steps, but I never found them. (Probably because that first trip into the past occurs on the steps of the cathedral of Église Saint-Étienne du Mont on the Left Bank, definitely on the other side of Paris far from Montmartre.)

Bal du moulin de la Galette

“Bal du moulin de la Galette” by August Renoir

Nevertheless, the Moulin Rouge and Moulin de la Galette, are (or were, in their glory) located in Montmartre. If  someone mentions those names, somewhere in the back of my mind I conjure the memory of slides on a screen with vague colorful absinthe-blurred bar and club scenes by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Edgar Degas.  These are fairly accurate recollections. Renoir painted the festive, “Bal du moulin de la Galette” here. (Remember the men in their straw hats and the woman in the foreground in the blue and white striped dress?) And Degas painted “L’Absinthe” at café Nouvelle Athènes in the Place Pigalle at the foot of Montmartre in 1876. In the same year Vincent Van Gogh’s brother, Theo, brought him to Paris. Here he was neighbors with Georges Seurat and met Paul Gauguin, Lautrec, and others, and through their influence, and the influence of Paris scenes, his style became much more impressionistic.

"Windmills on Montmartre", 1886, Vincent van Gogh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Windmills on Montmartre”, 1886, Vincent van Gogh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Van Gogh painted many images of Montmartre, Paris, and the windmill and surroundings of the Moulin de la Galette, (the tall windmill, you can still see, although you can’t get very close). Without his paintings, it’s hard to imagine the hills of that district with a quarry, open fields and gardens. From the clock window of the Musée D’Orsay you can make out Montmartre, and Sacre Couer at the top, and the hill appears, like much of Paris, to be covered with buildings. Which it essentially is.

🚇A brief aside: Usually at the Metro station there is someone of some official capacity in attendance, usually in some kind of a booth, and usually that FRENCH person is there to provide assistance to travelers. Despite the reputation that Parisians are by nature hostile to Americans, I found this to be largely untrue. Although the difference in languages can be an obstacle, usually by pointing at maps, images, and familiar geographic names, and the patience of these attendants, you will get to the information needed to board the right train. I was most impressed one morning when we were leaving Bercy and I was asking the attendant for help, as I pointed on the map to the tiny image of the Musée Marmottan Monet. At least, that’s what I thought I was pointing at, and thought I was saying in my feeble French. We slid the map back and forth across the counter a few times, and as he was tapping on a blur that I think was the Metro Station that he thought should be our destination, I said, “Excuse me”, unfolded my glasses and put them on. At the same time, he pushed my map back at me, with neither a word nor a grumble, pulled another from a rack, unfolded it, and flattened it out in front of us. I smiled. The scale of his map was about four times larger than mine, and soooo much easier to read. He quickly marked it, and confident then that I knew where to go, I said, “Merci!”

Still more to come…

— Christo

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