Martyrs’ Mountain: Paintings of Montmartre 2

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Rue Tholozé (Montmartre in the Rain) (1897), oil on paper on wood, 70 x 95 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. The Athenaeum.

By the late 1880s, as shown in the first of these two articles, the hill of Montmartre on the edge of the city of Paris was being transformed with the construction of the huge domed edifice of the Basilica of the Sacré-Cœur. It was well-established as the place in the city for artists to live and work, where they and many other bohemian people frequented its cafés and cabarets.

Vincent van Gogh, Le Moulin de la Gallette (1887), oil on canvas, 46 x 38 cm, The Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh. WikiArt.
Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890), Le Moulin de la Gallette (1887), oil on canvas, 46 x 38 cm, The Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh. WikiArt.

Vincent van Gogh moved to Paris in 1886, staying with his brother Theo, who lived in Montmartre. He worked at Cormon’s studio and met painters including Émile Bernard, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Signac, for a while adopting the Divisionist style of ‘pointillism’. Here I show just four of his many paintings of the area, starting with the same Le Moulin de la Galette (1887) in whose gardens Renoir had painted his Bal du moulin de la Galette a decade earlier.

Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890), Montmartre: Behind the Moulin De La Galette (1887), oil on canvas, 81 x 100 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

Van Gogh’s Montmartre: Behind the Moulin De La Galette (1887) show the still rural view behind that windmill.

Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890), Montmartre: Mills and Vegetable Gardens (1887), oil on canvas, 44.8 x 81 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

Montmartre: Mills and Vegetable Gardens (1887) looks at the mills from slightly further back, revealing the smallholdings and gardens which still covered much of the area. I believe that the large cream-coloured building on the skyline to the left of the windmill is the Basilica under construction.

Vincent van Gogh, Square Saint-Pierre, Paris (1887), oil on canvas, 59.4 x 81.3 cm, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT. Wikimedia Commons.
Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890), Square Saint-Pierre, Paris (1887), oil on canvas, 59.4 x 81.3 cm, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT. Wikimedia Commons.

One of van Gogh’s most remarkable paintings of the area is this, believed to show Square Saint-Pierre, Paris (1887), with its overtly pointillist technique. This work has also been claimed to show a completely different location in Asnières.

In 1872, Ferdinand Beert (1835-1902), popularly known as Fernando, started a circus in Vierzon, France, which he moved to Paris the following year, and into purpose-built premises on the edge of Montmartre in 1875. Cirque Fernando became popular among artistic and literary circles, including the French Impressionists. Fernando’s wife encouraged this by allowing artists free access to both rehearsals and performances, so that they could sketch freely.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864–1901), The Rider at the Cirque Fernando (1888), oil on canvas, 98 x 161 cm, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL. Wikimedia Commons.

One of the artists who frequented the Cirque Fernando, and who lived in Montmartre for twenty years, was Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. In his The Rider at the Cirque Fernando of 1888, Fernando’s son Louis is the ringmaster looking at one of his equestrian performers, who is riding side-saddle in a typically skimpy costume. Toulouse-Lautrec visited his first prostitute in Montmartre, and drew and painted in several of the brothels there.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), View From Montmartre (c 1892), oil on canvas, 33.3 x 41.3 cm, Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia and Merion, PA. Wikimedia Commons.

By the 1890s, Renoir was prevented from painting outdoors by his rheumatoid arthritis, but in about 1892 it must have been warm enough to allow him to paint this wonderful plein air oil sketch of a View From Montmartre.

Montmartre had been popular with the more renegade artists in the late nineteenth century, particularly the Impressionists, but hadn’t featured in the work of Naturalists such as Jules Bastien-Lepage, which had its roots in the countryside and rural deprivation. Some of the later Naturalists did though take to the streets of Montmartre for their motifs.

Fernand Pelez (1848-1913), La Vachalcade (The Cow-valcade) (1896), media and dimensions not known, Musée du Petit Palais, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

La Vachalcade (The Cow-valcade) (1896) is Fernand Pelez’s reversal of a portrait of an affluent family by way of parody. Thirteen young revelers are taking part in a carnival procession, one of the Vachalcades which took place in Montmartre at the time. Some wear masks, others have the close-shorn hair characteristic of the poor, a measure against endemic parasites.

At the centre is a boy very similar to Pelez’s famous Little Lemon Vendor, wearing an adult’s jacket and a huge hat. Behind him is a Pierrot character, and in the background a banner bearing the word Misère – misery. Dangling on that is a dead rat, a reference to a well-known café on the Place Pigalle. The ‘vache’ (cow) in the title refers to the French phrase manger de la vache enragée, meaning to live in poverty.

Alongside Vincent van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec, the third great artist of Montmartre in the late nineteenth century was Pierre Bonnard, who painted its streets by day and by night. It was in Montmartre that he met a young woman, whose real name was Maria Boursin, but who called herself Marthe de Méligny. She was his first model, became his partner for life, and appears in hundreds of his paintings, drawings and photographs. Only in Montmartre…

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Rue Tholozé (Montmartre in the Rain) (1897), oil on paper on wood, 70 x 95 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. The Athenaeum.

Bonnard’s Rue Tholozé or Montmartre in the Rain from 1897 shows one of the streets at the heart of Montmartre. Seen from the third or fourth floor, it’s a grey and wet evening in which the lights of the windows provide a pervasive warm glow.

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Place Clichy (The Green Tram) (c 1906), oil on canvas, 121 x 150 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

Place Clichy (The Green Tram) (c 1906) shows this very busy intersection at the edge of Montmartre, more properly known as Place de Clichy, and one of Bonnard’s favourite locations at this time. The streets are crowded with a tram (which had only recently been electrified), several horse-drawn vehicles, and a market barrow in the foreground. There are also pedestrians almost everywhere, even some small dogs.

Montmartre has also had its moments of shame.

Maximilien Luce (1858–1941), The Execution of Varlin (1914-17), oil on canvas, 89 × 116 cm, Musee de l’Hotel-Dieu, Beaune, France.

Maximilien Luce’s The Execution of Varlin (1914-17) is a historical painting from the Paris Commune of 1871. Eugène Varlin was a political activist who had started his career as a bookbinder, and become a socialist revolutionary and pioneer trade unionist. During the seige of Paris by the Prussians in 1870, he had distributed aid from his co-operative restaurant.

In March 1871, he took part in the storming of the Place Vendôme, following which he was elected to the Council of the Paris Commune. In ‘Bloody Week’ in May, he fought against government troops. When the Commune was suppressed and broken, he was captured, taken to Montmartre, tortured and blinded by a mob, and finally shot, as shown here.

The final work of art which I show isn’t a painting, but a vast and breathtaking mosaic – among the largest in the world – in the ceiling above the apse of the Basilica of the Sacré-Cœur, which was designed by Luc-Olivier Merson: Christ in Majesty.

Luc-Olivier Merson (1846–1920), Christ in Majesty (date not known), mosaic, dimensions not known, Basilique du Sacré-Cœur de Montmartre, Paris. Image by Didier B, via Wikimedia Commons.

By a strange coincidence, Merson died a hundred years ago, and later this year I will look in more detail at his paintings. A better-known painter who died ten months before him was Amedeo Modigliani, another of Montmartre’s most famous artists.

There’s more information about Saint Denis and his basilica here, and an impressive list and maps of the royal tombs in that basilica here.