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The Montparnasse Tower, which at 209m was the tallest building in Western Europe when it was built.
The Montparnasse Tower, which at 209m was the tallest building in Western Europe when it was built.

Montparnasse is an area of Paris, in France, on the left bank of the river Seine, centered on the intersection of the Boulevard de Montparnasse and the Boulevard Raspail . It is part of the Censored page, having been absorbed into Paris along with other districts and villages in 1860.

The area also gives its name to:

The Pasteur Institute is located in the area. Beneath the ground are tunnels of the Catacombs of Paris.

There are a number of Breton restaurants specializing in crêpes (thin pancakes) in the heart of Montparnasse, a few blocks from the Gare Montparnasse, because some Bretons who arrived in Paris from Brittany located themselves in the neighborhood

The name Montparnasse stems from the nickname "Mount Parnassus" (In Greek mythology, home to the nine Greek goddesses (the Muses) of the arts and sciences) given to the hilly neighborhood in the 17th century by students who came there to recite poetry.

The hill was levelled to construct the Boulevard Montparnasse in the 18th century, and during the French Revolution many dance halls and cabarets opened their doors.

Artistic Montparnasse

Like its counterpart, Montmartre, the neighborhood of Montparnasse became famous at the beginning of the 20th century, referred to as the Années Folles (the Crazy Years), when it was the heart of intellectual and artistic life in Paris with its legendary cafés. Between 1921 and 1924, the number of Americans in Paris swelled from 6,000 to 30,000. In the years between 1910 and 1940, the gist of Paris' artistic circles gradually moved from Montmartre to Montparnasse.

Turn-of-the-century Montparnasse defined the term "starving artist" as virtually penniless painters, sculptors, writers, poets and composers came from around the world to thrive in the creative atmosphere and for the cheap rent at artist communes such as La Ruche. Living without running water, in damp, unheated "studios" often as not overrun by rats, many sold their works for a few francs just to buy food. Jean Cocteau once said that poverty was a luxury in Montparnasse. First promoted by art dealers such as Henry Kahnweiler, today, works by those desperately poor artists sell in the millions of dollars.

They came to Montparnasse from all over the globe. Many arrived by train, even a few on foot, from across Europe, including Russia and Ukraine. And they sailed from the United States, Canada, Mexico, and as far away as Japan. Manuel Ortiz de Zárate, Camilo Mori and others made their way from Chile where the profound innovations in art spawned the formation of the Grupo Montparnasse in Santiago. A few of the other great minds who gathered in Montparnasse were Pablo Picasso, Guillaume Apollinaire, Ossip Zadkine, Moise Kisling, Marc Chagall, Nina Hamnett, Fernand Leger, Jacques Lipchitz, Max Jacob, Blaise Cendrars, Chaim Soutine, Michel Kikoine, Pinchus Kremegne, Amedeo Modigliani, Ford Madox Ford, Ezra Pound, Marcel Duchamp, Suzanne Duchamp-Crotti, Constantin Brancusi, Paul Fort, Juan Gris, Diego Rivera, Tsuguharu Foujita, Marie Vassilieff, Léon-Paul Fargue, Alberto Giacometti, Andre Breton, Pascin, Salvador Dalí, Jean-Paul Sartre, Henry Miller, Samuel Beckett, Joan Miró and in his declining years, Edgar Degas.

In the 1915 photograph in front of La Rotonde seen here, is (left to right): Manuel Ortiz de Zárate, Henri-Pierre Roché (in uniform), Marie Vassilieff, Max Jacob and Pablo Picasso.

Montparnasse was a community where creativity was embraced with all its oddities, each new arrival welcomed unreservedly by its existing members. When Tsuguharu Foujita arrived from Japan in 1913 not knowing a soul, he met Soutine, Modigliani, Pascin and Leger virtually the same night and within a week became friends with Juan Gris, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. In 1914, when the English painter Nina Hamnett arrived in Montparnasse, on her first evening the smiling man at the next table at La Rotonde graciously introduced himself as "Modigliani, painter and jew". They became good friends, Hamnett later recounting how she once borrowed a jersey and corduroy trousers from Modigliani, then went to La Rotonde and danced in the street all night.

While most of the artistic community gathered in Montparnasse were struggling to eke out an existence, well-heeled American socialites such as Peggy Guggenheim, and Edith Wharton from New York City, Harry Crosby from Boston and Beatrice Wood from San Francisco were caught in the fever of creativity. Robert McAlmon, and Maria and Eugene Jolas came to Paris and published their literary magazine transition. Harry Crosby and his wife Caresse would establish the Black Sun Press in Paris in 1927, publishing works by such future luminaries as D. H. Lawrence, Archibald MacLeish, James Joyce, Kay Boyle, Hart Crane, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, William Faulkner, Dorothy Parker and others. As well, Bill Bird published through his Three Mountains Press then British heiress Nancy Cunard took it over.

Cafés rented tables to poor artists for hours at a stretch. Several, including La Closerie des Lilas, remain in business today.
Cafés rented tables to poor artists for hours at a stretch. Several, including La Closerie des Lilas, remain in business today.

The cafés and bars of Montparnasse were a vital meeting place where new ideas were hatched and mulled over. The cafés at the centre of Montparnasse's night-life were in the Carrefour Vavin, now renamed Place Pablo-Picasso. The cafés Le Dôme, La Closerie des Lilas, La Rotonde, Le Select, and La Coupole—all of which are still in business—were where, in Montparnasse's heyday (from 1910 to 1920), starving artists could occupy a table all evening for a few centimes. If they fell asleep, the waiters were instructed not to wake them. Arguments were common, some fueled by intellect, others by alcohol, and if there were fights, and there often were, the police were never summoned. If you couldn't pay your bill, people such as La Rotonde's proprietor, Victor Libion , would often accept a drawing, holding it until the artist could pay. As such, there were times when the café's walls were littered with a collection of artworks, that today would make the curators of the world's greatest museums drool with envy.

There were many areas where the great artists congregated, one of them being near Le Dôme at no. 10 rue Delambre called the Dingo Bar. It was the celebrated hang-out of artists and expatriate Americans and the place where Canadian writer Morley Callaghan came with his friend Ernest Hemingway, both still unpublished writers, and met the already established F. Scott Fitzgerald. When Man Ray's friend and Dadaist, Marcel Duchamp, left for New York, Man Ray set up his first studio at l'Hôtel des Ecoles at no. 15 rue Delambre. This is where his career as a photographer began, and where James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Jean Cocteau and the others filed in and posed for eternity in black and white.

The rue de la Gaité in Montparnasse was the site of many of the great music-hall theatres, in particular the famous "Bobino."

Great artists performed at the Bobino Nightclub.
Great artists performed at the Bobino Nightclub.

On their stages, the greats of the day, using then-popular single name pseudonyms or one birth name only, such as Damia, Kiki, Mayol and Georgius, sang and performed to packed houses. And here too, Les Six was formed, creating music based on the ideas of Erik Satie and Jean Cocteau.

The poet Max Jacob said he came to Montparnasse to "sin disgracefully," but Marc Chagall summed it up more elegantly when he explained why he had gone to Montparnasse: "I aspired to see with my own eyes what I had heard of from so far away: this revolution of the eye, this rotation of colors, which spontaneously and astutely merge with one another in a flow of conceived lines. That could not be seen in my town. The sun of Art then shone only on Paris."

While the area attracted people from all over the world who came to live and work in the creative and/or bohemian environment, it also became home for political exiles such as Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Porfirio Diaz, and Simon Petlyura. But, World War II forced the dispersal of the artistic society and after the war Montparnasse never regained its splendour. Wealthy socialites like Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979), who married artist Max Ernst, lived in the elegant section of Paris but frequented the studios of Montparnasse, acquiring what would become masterpieces that today hang in the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice, Italy.

The Musée du Montparnasse opened in 1998 at 21 Avenue du Maine. Although operating with a tiny city grant, the museum is a non-profit operation, pulled together by local Montparnasse fans and friends of art.

Further reading

  • La vie quotidienne à Montparnasse à la grande époque 1905-1930 written by Jean-Paul Crespelle, author-historian who specialized in the artistic life of Montmartre and Montparnasse;
  • Bohemian Paris: Picasso, Modigliani, Matisse, and the Birth of Modern Art - Dan Franck & Cynthia Liebow (2002)
  • Modigliani & the Artists of Montparnasse - Kenneth Wayne (2002)
  • Man Ray's Montparnasse- Herbert R. Lottman (2001)
  • This Must Be the Place: Memoirs of Montparnasse by Jimmie 'the Barman' Charters, As Told to Morrill Cody - Morrill Cody , et al (1989)
  • Women of the Left Bank: Paris 1900-1940 - Shari Benstock (1986)
  • Women of Montparnasse - Morrill Cody & Hugh Ford (1984)
  • Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation: A History of Literary Paris in the Twenties and Thirties - Noel Riley Fitch (1983)

Last updated: 02-08-2005 09:58:22
Last updated: 02-26-2005 13:12:49