Travel

Feeling the Force of Montmartre's Brilliant Bohemians

05/16/2016 03:06pm ET | Updated May 17, 2017

Montmartre is in many ways the Paris cliché -- red and white checkered tablecloths, artists and easels filling petite squares, bohemian night spots. Imagine the storm of artistic creativity from 1870 to 1910 that put Paris' little mountain on the map for most of us. I like to think of cities that hosted storms of artistic creativity: Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael all rubbing paint-stained elbows 500 years ago in Florence...or Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, and Haydn practicing their pianos late into the night in Vienna 200 years ago. And, just over a century ago, Montmartre was the gathering place for struggling artists whose canvases now sell for millions of dollars (Renoir, Degas, Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Maurice Utrillo). It was a neighborhood where nonconformists and misfits would sit around drinking absinthe, wondering who their fathers were. And the museum that re-creates that age is tucked away on the far side of that hill overlooking the only vineyard in Paris. Here's an excerpt from the write-up for the 2017 edition of our Rick Steves Paris guidebook:

The Montmartre Museum's collection of paintings, posters, old photos, music, and memorabilia is split between two creaky 17th-century manor houses. You'll see artifacts from the butte's 2,000-year history: a headless St. Denis from the hill's religious origins to photos of the gypsum quarries and flour-grinding windmills of the Industrial Age. Learn how Sacré-Cœur's construction was an act of national penitence resulting from the Prussian invasion of 1870. And you'll see the gorgeously lit studio of Maurice Utrillo looking as if he had just stepped out for coffee.

Utrillo grew up on Montmartre's streets. He fought, broke street lamps, and haunted the cafés and bars, paying for drinks with yet-to-be-recognized masterpieces. His simple scenes of streets, squares, and cafés in a vaguely Impressionist style became popular with commoners and scholars alike. Utrillo's mom, Suzanne Valadon, was a former trapeze performer and artist's model who posed for Toulouse-Lautrec, slept with Renoir, studied under Degas, and went on to become a notable painter in her own right.

This is Day 33 of my 100 Days in Europe series. As I research my guidebooks and make new TV shows, I'm reporting on my experiences and lessons learned in Portugal, Spain, Italy, France, Bulgaria, Romania, and beyond. Find more at blog.ricksteves.com.

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