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A Brief History of the Musée de Montmartre

What is the Musée de Montmartre?

Museé de Montmartre

ActuaLitté, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons


Musée de Montmartre is a charming art gallery and museum in Paris that captures the spirit of Montmartre with works by leading figures of the Belle Époque.


Musée de Montmartre History


Wandering through the cobbled streets of Montmartre, you will have noticed the traces of its rural past. The old windmills played a central role in the economy of what was until the mid-19th century a village. They were painted (from all angles) by one of Montmartre’s most famous inhabitants, Vincent Van Gogh. Another landmark is harder to spot: the crowded cemetery at Montmartre was fashioned out of an abandoned quarry, which supplied the city with the gypsum used to make plâtre de Paris (or Plaster of Paris).


Montmartre also boasts a small but charming vineyard, just round the corner from this museum. These vines were planted in the 1930s to prevent the land from being redeveloped: under French law vineyards are fiercely protected. But up until Montmartre’s absorption into Paris in the 19th century there had been vineyards here that dated from the Middle Ages. They rapidly disappeared when the area was incorporated into the city of Paris. The New York Times once described Montmartre wine as the ‘most expensive bad wine in the city’. You’ve been warned, but if you’re feeling flush you can decide for yourself.


When Montmartre lay outside Paris, it was exempt from the city’s exorbitant taxes. This made it affordable and attractive to cash-strapped artists and proprietors of bars and clubs. Artists were also drawn to Montmartre’s rustic scenery and the quality of the light (since it was above the smoke of the city). Their presence helped create the legend of Montmartre as a socialist, bohemian artistic haven. The Musée de Montmartre perfectly captures the charm and joie de vivre of the area, with its collection of vibrant works from a generation of local artists that embraced new and ambitious forms of art and expression.


The museum building, the elegant Maison du Bel Air, is over three centuries old and is one of the oldest in the area. It’s closely associated with the artists of the Belle Époque. In the 1870s, it was occupied by Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir. It was here that Renoir produced many of his masterpieces, including La Balançoire (or ‘The Swing’) and Bal du Moulin de la Galette (or ‘Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette’), both of which now live in the Musée d’Orsay.


In 1912, Suzanne Valadon moved into the apartment studio with her husband and son. Unlike her fellow artists, Valadon was a Montmartre native, having moved here as a child. Her mother was an unmarried laundress seeking a fresh start in Paris; she chose Montmartre because it reminded her of their provincial town outside Limoges.


Valadon was a free spirit: she kept two cats in her apartment, whom she described as ‘good Catholics’ and fed caviar on Fridays, as well as a goat, who ate any art that she wasn’t pleased with. She joined the circus as a trapeze artist at the age of 14, until she suffered a devastating back injury six months later. She then began working as an artist’s model and taught herself how to draw in pastels. Her drawings caught the eye of Edgar Degas, who encouraged her to paint in oils, and became a close friend and mentor. Valadon became a respected artist, her paintings providing a much-needed female perspective on the female body within modernist art. Valadon died as she had lived - she suffered a stroke while painting at her easel, in 1938.


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