The Montmartre Myth and The Epitome of Success

Metro Abbesses Montmartre 
Photo  Ann James Massey
Metro Abbesses Montmartre
Photo Ann James Massey
Sacre Coeur de Montmartre

How memories linger.

In the mid 19th century, Montmartre was a hamlet on a butte outside of Paris. The slopes were dotted with windmills and a few houses of the vintners nestled among their vineyards, creating a picturesque setting much admired by painters and the later lure of inexpensive wine, food, housing and an abundance of models from the working class population did not discourage their presence. Add the increase in the bohemian atmosphere with cafes and nightclubs et viola: It was a place for people to enjoy a glass of wine and to dance; a world immortalized in Renoirls “Bal du moulin de la Galette. “

Bal du moulin de la Galette 1876 Auguste Renoir  Musée d'Orsay
Bal du moulin de la Galette 1876 Auguste Renoir Musée d’Orsay

But dear Renoir would not recognize the Montmartre of today.

IMAGO / Becker&Bredel Montmarte

With the artists’ successes came the price of fame: the arrival of the tourist and over building by developers. By WW l, most of those artists (except Utrillo) had fled Montmartre for the Montparnasse area, thus creating a new artists’ haven between the two world wars.

And where are the artists in Paris today? Partout! Everywhere! No distinct quartier has taken up the mantle that envelopes the imagination. Nor could it, because the spirit of Montmartre belongs to last century. That ghost cannot become tangible again.

Still, tourists go to Montmartre expecting to find the aura intact, though now it exists only in their minds and in travel brochures. They tread in the footsteps of the painters and read with reverence the lists posted outside two taverns bragging of the now famous artists they once served. Could you imagine those artists sitting within those walls now? The visitors battle through the gauntlet of desperate portrait artists to reach Place du Tertre expecting to find budding Monets. There is some decent art among the morass, but the square is mostly crammed full of mediocre work created only to satisfy the tourists’ expectations.

IMAGO / viennaslide
Montmartre, Place du Tertre
IMAGO / blickwinkel

Though the residents, including artists who do live in the area, have won their battle to ban tour buses from their streets, the flow of escorted groups and proliferation of souvenir shops has not abated.

This is not to say that one should not visit Montmartre to catch a whiff of the past from the few precious remnants…and who can forget the view!

Paris skyline aerial from Montmartre in France xFotosearchxLBRFx xlunamarinax ESY-046818122

But do not believe that this tourist fueled show is the Montmartre of Toulouse-Lautrec or that it reflects anything of the real Paris today. It is the patrons who have shaped the character of the butte that is connected to the name… and the patrons are no longer the artists that created it.

The Epitome of Success?

Whenever I meet American tourists in Paris, they are intrigued by my living here and always ask what I do. I reply that I am quite unique in Paris: that is one of about 50,000 artists. The inevitable question that follows? You guessed it. Do I show in Montmartre? I always shake my head and reply with a drawn out “noooooo” dripping with irony. I’ll never forget the woman who looked at me with compassion, reached over to pat my hand, and said, “Don’t worry, dear, someday you will.”

Originally printed in the “Massey Fine Arts” newsletter Vol. 8 No. 1, Winter ©2000 – 2001, 2022 by Ann James Massey, SWA, CPSA, UKCPS, AAPL

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