The Spirits of Montmartre: The Paris of the Impressionists

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The Spirits of Montmartre: The Paris of the Impressionists
As France celebrates the 150th anniversary of Impressionism, Anne Price examines the historic importance of Montmartre for these artists A decapitated Christian Bishop carrying his head before him like a ventriloquist’s dummy as he walks several miles while delivering a sermon, is not what springs to mind in association with Montmartre; nor does the name of the first tour guide to the butte, King Dagobert 1st, automatically trip off the tongue, even though ancient records show that every seven years, he led groups of pilgrims to visit the site where Saint Denis, the Bishop of Paris, had died.  The cobbled streets of Montmartre – which lead up to the Sacré-Cœur Basilica, sitting like a glorious sugar concoction on its throne overlooking the city – hide beneath them the voices of the past waiting to tell their stories. In its time, Montmartre has been a burial place for the bones of persecuted Christians and the site of a prestigious Benedictine Abbey founded by Louis VI, whose buildings and gardens covered the whole of the hill until it was destroyed during the French Revolution in 1790; at the same time a 17th century priory was destroyed to make way for gypsum mines. It has twice been used as a vantage point from which to attack the city with artillery, first by Henry IV during the Siege of Paris in 1590, then by Russian soldiers  during the Battle of Paris in 1814. It became the focal point of the revolutionary uprising of the Paris Commune in 1871. All this before the names of a group of revolutionary artists became synonymous with Montmartre.  Statue of Saint Denis, the first bishop of Paris. © L. Benkard/Flickr From the 15th century, Montmartre was initially a rural village surrounded by vineyards, orchards and 13 working windmills, without a cancan in sight! In 1785, a tax wall was built around Paris, and Montmartre, being outside the walls, became a tax haven for businesses wanting to avoid taxation. Cafes and bars sprang up to serve them. In 1860, it was once again incorporated into Paris and soon became a renowned hub for art in Paris. It went from being a vantage point from which army commanders attacked the city, to a place from where artists could capture in their paintings, its picturesque charm and its spectacular views over Paris. Montmartre soon became a melting pot for a group of disenfranchised artists disillusioned with the conservative academism of the Royal Academy of Painting and sculpture, which they perceived as being stuck in a bygone era. It was here that the Impressionist saga began. Cannons of Paris brought to Montmartre. (1789) Jean-Louis Prieur, musée de la Révolution française, Vizille. Wikimedia commons Vincent van Gogh, La Colline de Montmartre ou Vue de Montmartre et de ses moulins (1886), Otterlo, musée Kröller-Müller. Public domain

Lead photo credit : Montmartre. Photo credit: Patrick K/Flickr

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I have spent my life traveling the world with my husband and family, teaching English in places as diverse as Wales, Zambia, Iran, Scotland, the United Arab Emirates, Lesotho, Swaziland, South Africa and Ukraine, meeting many wonderful people along the way. I love words which means I read a lot and talk too much. My earlier studies in Literature, Classics and Art History have at last found an outlet in my writing. I now live with my husband in the beautiful Creuse countryside where we are regularly visited by our children, grandchildren and friends.


  • Pat Hallam
    2024-04-19 04:05:20
    Pat Hallam
    Very enjoyable article but more than once the artists are described as 'reactionary' when I think you may have meant 'revolutionary'? Autocorrect gone wrong, perhaps? But since it occurs several times, it's perhaps worth rectifying?