Van Gogh’s Montmartre: a guest post by Sheramy Bundrick
When people think about Van Gogh, they might think about the Netherlands, his birthplace and locus of his earliest artworks, or they might think about Provence, where his most famous paintings were created.
But Paris, key to Van Gogh’s artistic development, should not be ignored. As a fledging art dealer in his youth — yes, he spent nearly seven years in art dealing — Vincent lived in Paris for a total of twelve months during two separate stays. Then in early March 1886, now a full-time artist, he impulsively appeared in Paris to join his art dealer brother Theo.
Over the next two years, Vincent experimented with the latest artistic styles (such as pointillism), brightened his color palette compared to his heavily neutral Dutch works, and met a variety of fellow avant-garde painters, among them Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Signac, Émile Bernard, and of course, Paul Gauguin.
Van Gogh’s time in Paris largely revolved around the northern neighborhood of Montmartre. The quartier was peppered with cafés and cabarets that catered to the working classes and self-declared bohemians, and rent was cheap. Montmartre had only been annexed into Paris in 1860, and even after the ill-fated Commune of 1871, the Montmartrois maintained their fierce sense of independence.
Van Gogh visited the notorious cabaret Le Mirliton with Toulouse-Lautrec, and he painted the famous dance-hall, Le Moulin de la Galette… but unlike his predecessor Renoir, he only depicted its exterior. Montmartre’s three surviving windmills stand on the horizon in many a painting or drawing, and Vincent took special pleasure in depicting the scrappy kitchen-gardens that to him gave the area a lingering rural flavor (above.)
When Vincent arrived in Paris, Theo lived on the Rue Laval (now the Rue Victor Massé), just south of Montmartre proper. The need for a larger apartment led the brothers to the heart of the district and 54 Rue Lepic in the early summer of 1886; there Theo continued to live after Vincent left for Arles in February 1888.
Today their building remains private, a plaque beside the door commemorating Vincent and Theo’s time there. Not surprisingly, Van Gogh painted a view from the apartment window (left) in which one can make out the Cimetière de Montmartre — but not the Tour Eiffel, which wouldn’t be built until 1889. From 54 Rue Lepic, Theo made his way easily down the butte to the gallery on Boulevard Montmartre where he worked as manager, and Vincent roamed across and over the hill to the industrial suburbs of Asnières and Clichy.
My novel Sunflowers is largely set in Provence, where Vincent spent most of the last two years of his life. But my deep love for Paris inspired a plot twist, and my heroine Rachel makes her way north in the last chapters.
When writing the book, I knew she needed to stay on what I think is one of the prettiest squares in Paris: the Place Émile Goudeau, a short walk from Vincent’s old apartment in Montmartre. A walking-tour had brought me there in May 2006 — during the same trip that inspired the book itself — and I could not forget it. The Place Émile Goudeau is famous to art history as the home of the Bateau Lavoir, the studios occupied by Amedeo Modigliani and Pablo Picasso in the early twentieth century; here Picasso painted his famous “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” in 1907.
I planned to create a fictional auberge for Rachel, but as I researched the square’s past history, I discovered there was an auberge on the then-Place Ravignan, exactly where I wanted to place one! Artists and writers had filled its rooms in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including Modigliani himself and Albert Camus. So Rachel took up residence in the Hôtel du Poirier, and I rejoiced in the happy coincidence.
Visitors today have to ignore the bric-a-brac and bustle of the Place du Tertre and streets around the Sacré-Coeur if they want to experience Van Gogh’s Montmartre. On the Rue Cortot stands the excellent Musée de Montmartre, which preserves artworks and artifacts from the neighborhood’s glory days. The western part of the quartier, between the Place Émile Goudeau (below) and Cimetière de Montmartre, maintains an intimate feel and is a pleasant place to wander. Skip the multilingual-menued tourist restaurants in favor of a backstreet café, sip a strong coffee or glass of vin rouge, and think of Vincent.