The History of Montmartre

Friday, 08 April 2016 15:05 Written by
Rate this item
(7 votes)

Montmartre History


A French saying, “monter à Paris” means heading up to Paris. Whether hailing from the north or the south, you go “up” to the capitol of the Country. And Montmartre is the highest point of the City of Lights. Up the Sacré Coeur stairs is where you will find its best vantage point of view: on top of this mount, world-renowned painters as well as unknown found their inspiration.  Indeed, “picturesque” is the best adjective for Montmartre. The dictionary defines it as such: “visually charming or quaint, as if resembling or suitable for a painting”. Between the countryside and the modern city, this is where Monet, Van Gogh or Toulouse-Lautrec found a treasure of inspiration.


Montmartre History


In 250 AD, Saint Denis, a roman missionary was martyred on the top of this hill. After being beheaded, the first bishop of Paris picked up his head and walked six miles next to the city of Saint Denis. In this town you will find the oldest gothic cathedral of the country. (Do take some time if you can to visit this masterpiece of the French architecture).

The first mention of a church dedicated to this miracle in Montmartre dates back from the 8th century. In the early 12th century, King Louis VI built the still standing church Saint Pierre de Montmartre and a nunnery close by. The vineyards that you can still see on the North Slope were first grown by the nuns of the time. Until the 1789 revolution, the life of the hill was centered around the farming activities of the convent.

The cheap “Clos Bertrand” and later the boozer le “piccolo” were quite popular wines, as was La “goutte d’or” or golden drop, a favorite of King Henri IV (grandfather to Louis XIV aka le Roi Soleil or the Sun King).

On top of being popular, these local wines were also exempt of charges since they were produced on the outskirts of the city. Paris was much smaller then than today and Montmartre was administratively considered “out of Paris” and a favorite outing for Parisians with bucolic aspirations. Before the revolution of 1789 Montmartre was really a rural isolated village covered with fields, vineyards and windmills. Nuns were soon replaced by farmers; windmills by cabarets and “guinguettes”. Parisians then started to visit the hill to enjoy the local productions in its taverns and cabarets.

With the nineteenth century, Montmartre started enjoying a world-wide popularity. With the 1860 administrative reform by Baron Haussmann, Paris finally welcomed Montmartre within its walls. Yet, faithful to its rural identity, Montmartre resisted for a long time the industrial urbanization; its neighborhood and “maquis” becoming a refuge for the underworld of the metropolis.

The revolutionary events of the Commune in 1871 confirmed the lurid and wild reputation of the district. The insurrection started on the hill, since many of its leaders hailed from the 18th arrondissement.

After those tragic events concluded by “la semaine sanglante” (the bloody week) the rebellious spirit of the neighborhood extended from beyond its borders to enjoy international fame. With the expansion of tourism impulsed by the British, followed by the German and the Prussian, Montmartre started to incarnate the revolutionary spirit of freedom that the world was coming to find in Paris.

In 1889, the Paris magnetism was at its peak. The main attraction of the Universal exhibition was the Eiffel Tower only rivaled, for the most reckless crowd, by the opening of Le Moulin Rouge cabaret. Joseph Oller, a notorious bookmaker, founded this temple of debauchery where the gentry and tourists mingled in search of sensations. Pimps, gangsters and prostitutes graciously welcomed visitors fascinated by the underground life: a new economy was born on the hill.

Yet for a while it was still possible to find cheap accommodations and a warm township atmosphere away from the expanding metropolis. Painters like Monet, Van Gogh or Renoir found in Montmartre an area of quietness where it was possible (and affordable) to develop their art.

When we talk about impressionism painting we think mostly picturesque landscapes. But many urban parties or industrial representations are to be found in this movement. Indeed Montmartre was the ideal workshop for those artists competing with the rising art of photography.

Many other artists will follow their footsteps in this bucolic village. Modern style painters and then cubists like Modigliani, Picasso or Brancusi shaped their arts shoulder to shoulder in the precarious studios of the Bateau-Lavoir and around.

Writers like Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald or Joyce later like the painters in search of cheaper rents progressively left the neighborhood for another hill in the south of Paris: Montparnasse.

Find out more about this amazing History in our tours:

Read 17526 times Last modified on Tuesday, 28 March 2017 12:44

Leave a comment

Make sure you enter all the required information, indicated by an asterisk (*). HTML code is not allowed.