One of my favorite neighborhoods in Paris is in the 18th arrondissement, perched on a hill and called Montmartre. Primarily known for the white-domed Basilica of the Sacré Cœur on its summit and as a nightclub district, I love the history of this unique Paris arrondissement, as well as the intriguing stories of the many artists who called the Butte home.
You certainly get a great workout when visiting Montmartre, as there are numerous staircases to traverse as you wander through the beautiful historic buildings, wonderful cafés, and even a hillside vineyard, smack dab in the middle.
As an art mecca, you will certainly find, rain or shine, local artists sketching or painting in Place Du Tertre. You will no doubt also find excited tourists, sitting for a portrait by a “real” French artist.
In the mid-19th century, artists such as Johan Jongkind and Camille Pissarro came to inhabit Montmartre. But only at the end of the century did the district become the artistic heart of Paris and the center of free-wheeling and decadent entertainment. Artists, singers and performers regularly appeared in the popular cabarets Moulin Rouge, Lapin Agile and at Le Chat Noir.
One of my favorites is Lapin Agile, at 22 Rue des Saules. It was originally called “Cabaret des Assassins”. Folklore conveys that the cabaret received this name because a band of assassins broke in and killed the owner’s son.
However, in 1875, the artist André Gill painted the sign that was to suggest its permanent name. It was a picture of a rabbit jumping out of a saucepan, and residents began calling their neighborhood night-club “Le Lapin à Gill”, meaning “Gill’s rabbit”.
At the turn of the twentieth century, Au Lapin Agile was a favorite spot for struggling artists and writers, including Picasso, Modigliani, Apollinaire, and Utrillo. It was also popular with questionable characters including pimps, eccentrics, simple down-and-outers, a contingent of local anarchists, as well as with students from the Latin Quarter, all mixed with a sprinkling of well-heeled bourgeois out on a lark.
Pablo Picasso’s 1905 oil painting “At the Lapin Agile” helped to make this cabaret world-famous. The cabaret was often captured on canvas by another Montmartre artist, Maurice Utrillo. In 1993, American comedian and entertainer, Steve Martin, wrote a play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile, which had a successful run in Chicago, Los Angeles, and elsewhere. The play depicted an imagined meeting between Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein at the Lapin Agile.
Today, you too can visit the Lapin Agile, and sit at the wooden tables where initials have been carved into the surfaces for decades. Located on the steep and cobbled Rue des Saules, the cabaret presents visitors with French songs dating back as far as the fifteenth century.
More on Montmartre to come…