Streets and Stories: Rue des Grands Augustins on the Left Bank in Paris

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Streets and Stories: Rue des Grands Augustins on the Left Bank in Paris

Image credit: Claudine Hemingway

On the left bank of the Seine just down from the Pont Neuf, the notorious restaurant Lapérouse marks the start of the Rue des Grands-Augustins. This short street was named after the convent that once sat here from 1293 until the Revolution when it was destroyed. Back then the street was the Rue de l’Abbé-de-Saint-Denis until it was changed in the 17th century. This is one of the many ancient streets of Paris that guides you deeper into the Saint-Germain-des-Prés district while you take a walk through history.

On May 14, 1610, an eight-year-old Louis XIII was inside the Convent des Grands-Augustins when his father Henri IV was assassinated by François Ravaillac on the Rue de la Ferronnerie as he was returning to Paris following the coronation of his wife Marie de Medicis in Saint Denis. The young Dauphin was quickly found and given the sacrament and would be named King of France an hour after his father was killed. His mother would serve as regent until he was old enough to rule at the age of 13 and would later exile her from Paris. Today the Relais Louis XIII restaurant at No 8 immortalizes the moment on the wall outside. “Ici, le jeune Louis XIII fut intronisé, une heure après la mort de son père Henri IV.

The most notable resident of Rue des Grands-Augustins lived just across the street from this historical marker. The Hotel de Bretteville at 7 Rue des Grands Augustins
was built in the 17th century but it was the resident that arrived in 1937 that gives it its place in history. However, before we get to that, it was a fictional resident that came first. The great French novelist Honore de Balzac wrote a short story in 1831 called “The Unknown Masterpiece.” It’s the story of three artists that includes a young unknown painter and an old master. In the story Balzac gives the old master a studio where the story opens at the “house on the Rue des Grands Augustins.” Although this story dates to 1831, it was the contemporary artist Cézanne that found an attachment to it and years later a certain Spanish painter named Pablo Picasso.

Image credit: Claudine Hemingway

In 1937, Picasso was looking for a new studio, and his mistress at the time Dora Maar discovered the open attic space on the quiet St Germain street. When Picasso found out the address, he had to have it. For he also found a kinship to the old master in the Balzac story. Picasso lived and worked here from 1937 to 1955, spending the Nazi occupation within its walls, being mostly left to himself. In 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, Germans bombed the Basque city of Guernica. With the encouragement of Dora Maar he took on what many would call his greatest masterpiece and most controversial work, the large tableau Guernica. Today this building sits in limbo, overseen by the Picasso Foundation. It was set to open as a museum at some point and recently rumors are flying it may finally happen. I love to stand in front of the gate and imagine Picasso walking in that door and up to his studio each day to paint one masterpiece after another.

Picasso wasn’t the only artist that called the street home. In 1912 Robert Delaunay moved into no 3 with his wife and fellow artist Sonia. Inspired by Cubism he would be at the forefront of creating the Movement Orphiste branch of Cubism named by Guillaume Apollinaire. Staying with his friends for a few months in 1912 he would watch him paint, breaking down objects, including the Eiffel Tower and filling the pieces with light. Exhibited at the 1913 Salon des Indépendants, Apollinaire would name it Orpheus based on his poem. “Orpheus, Admire his inborn might, His form of noble grandeur! Here is the voice heard at the birth of light”. You can find many of his paintings in the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris including his lovely paintings of the Eiffel Tower.

Image credit: Claudine Hemingway

At No 8 and 10 the ancient exposed chestnut beams of the former Hotel de Bussy dating back to the 17th century are marked on the upper balconies with the initials of the original owners EB. The address was used by Alexandre Dumas in his book The Dame de Monsoreau, telling the story of the loves of Diane de Méridor, wife of Count of Monsoreau and Bussy d’Ambroise. However, look to the left of the door at two historical treasures. Below is a cast iron plaque with the seal of Paris, the ship. The rectangular repères console markers are the oldest of their kind in Paris. Dating back to the 19th century they were put in place to record three different measures that would aid in water flow, moving through the city by gravity. Measuring the levels from the Pont de la Tournelle used for the flow of the sewers, the second number from La Villette for drinking water and the third for the distance from sea level. The one that can be found on the Rue des Grands Augustins is the finest example left in Paris. Many have been painted over and worn away over time. One of the many reasons Paris is such a fascinating and beautiful place are these tiny touches. It is just a marker but it is designed with the flourishing touches that makes the most basic thing beautiful.

Lapérouse restaurant. Photo: Mbzt / Wikimedia Commons

Just above the marker is an indention within the stone. These niches were used to house oil lamps used to light the streets in the 18th century. The niche and groove was covered with a cast iron cage that each day lamplighters would make their rounds maintaining and filling the oil and light them as the sun set. Unlocking the cage they would lower the lamp, complete their task and move onto the next lamp a few meters down. Only two of these remain in Paris, but this is the only one in perfect condition.

Towards the end of the street at no 28 is the restaurant Roger La Grenouille. Opened in 1930, this classic French bistro has seen everyone from Picasso to Saint-Exupéry; even Pope John XXIII has walked through its doors. The menu has been updated over time and includes all of those classic French dishes you crave and, of course, frog legs. Maybe Picasso strolled down the street for some frog legs while he was working on Guernica?

Before you sit down to a lovely meal, walk into the courtyard door just before the bistro and keep walking. Inside you will discover a wonderland of corridors one after another filled with plants and a few frog statues. It’s these small little secret passages that fill almost every building in Paris, one never knows what you might come across, so when you see an open door, venture in and discover hidden gems.

For more articles in our “Streets and Stories” series, click here.

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Image credit: Claudine Hemingway

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Claudine Hemingway had a deep love of Paris instilled in her at an early age from her beloved grandparents. Following in their footsteps, she is happiest strolling the historic cobblestones soaking in the architecture, art and history. Highly sought after to plan your Parisian adventure that ventures off the beaten path and digs deeper into the historic and secret Paris. Contact her at [email protected] to plan your trip. You can follow her adventure and daily Paris history lesson on Instagram @claudinebleublonderouge

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Comments

  • Geraldine Repak
    2020-07-11 04:17:36
    Geraldine Repak
    I really enjoyed reading this story about "la rue des Grands Augustins" I know this street very well because I lived in that neighborhood until 1961. It will always be the best neighborhood in Paris for me. I lived rue Mazarine and went to school rue du Jardinet. I know all the places you mentioned in your articles. It was really a great article and I thank you Claudine for the pleasure you gave me in reliving a part of my youth in Paris.

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  • Claudine Hemingway
    2020-06-27 16:29:45
    Claudine Hemingway
    Hi all, Follow me on Instagram at @claudinebleublonderouge for more photos of the street and info

    REPLY

  • Darice
    2020-06-23 08:26:32
    Darice
    I found the Marker and a niche (no cage) at #8, far left .

    REPLY

  • Pam M.
    2020-06-18 13:29:53
    Pam M.
    I used Google Maps to find the reperes and niche referred to in the article. I had to go up and down the street a bit to find them. If you put in #11 Rue des Grands Augustins, you will come closer to finding the iron plaque and niche. They are on the far left side of the last door. Enjoy!

    REPLY

  • Antonia Horne
    2020-06-13 17:00:30
    Antonia Horne
    Yes I thought so too. Not well set out Unfortunately. Adèle does it perfectly gorgeous photos with captions underneath.

    REPLY

  • Rob
    2020-06-13 00:04:27
    Rob
    Thank you for this wonderful article full of interesting references to history, literature and art, imbued with a love for and the spirit of Paris. More please!

    REPLY

  • Lauren Golden
    2020-06-12 16:10:57
    Lauren Golden
    I agree. I searched for the fascinating details of the article in the photos and couldn't find them nor pinpoint the locations. As a previous English teacher I had to include a correction! "......Orphiste branch of Cubism named by HIM and Picasso’s friend Guillaume Apollinaire." I do want to go back to the rue des Grand Augustins to find these interesting things in your article.

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  • Carol Lindquist
    2020-06-12 15:04:15
    Carol Lindquist
    Deja Vue ! My husband & I spent the summer of 1992 at #3, rue des Grands Augustines in a very romantic & charming garret apartment that looked like a scene from La Boheme - magical ! Wonderful photos brought back happy memories! Merci Beaucoup ! Carol Lindquist

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  • Caz
    2020-06-12 08:13:58
    Caz
    Same for me...needed to see clearly what was being told in the text. Caz

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  • Gwen Seuell
    2020-06-12 07:22:38
    Gwen Seuell
    I looked and looked to find in the photos what was described in the article. I wasted too much time and finally gave up. I would love for you to reprint this with identifiers on the photos. I am truly interested.

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  • Pam
    2020-06-11 12:47:13
    Pam
    I wish the photos would have been identified. Other than the Louis XIII inscription and restaurant Laperouse, I didn't know what I was looking at. Too bad this caused disconnection from the article.

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