Rue Lepic is an ancient winding road in Montmartre, climbing the steep hill from the Boulevard de Clichy to the Place Jean-Baptiste-Clément. Having been given various names previously, in 1864 the street was renamed after General Louis Lepic, a hero of the Napoleonic Wars (and of the Polish Campaign in particular). The street is famous for its steep hill. Louis Renault built his first car in 1898, calling his car the ‘Voiturette’. On 24 December 1898, he won a bet with his friends that his invention was capable of driving up the slope of Rue Lepic. As well as winning the bet, Renault received twelve orders for the vehicle.
From 1886 to 1888, Vincent van Gogh and his brother Theo lived on the third floor of the property at no. 54. In the spring of 1887 he painted an image of Paris as seen from his room in the Rue Lepic. It was during this period that Vincent changed his painting style from the dark Belgo-Dutch browns and blacks to bright impressionist colours.
For much of his live novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline lived for much of his life at no. 98 Rue Lepic, opposite the Moulin de la Galette. He mentions the street in several of his novels.
Yves Montand dedicated to this road his charming song ‘Rue Lepic’ which features on the 1974 album Yves Montand. It ends with the lines:
Et la rue
Monte, monte toujours
Vers Montmartre, là-haut,
Vers ses moulins si beaux
Ses moulins tout là-haut
Since the Middle Ages there have been windmills on the hill of Montmartre and in the seventeenth century there were at least thirty. The mills were used to grind the corn grown on the plain of Saint Denis, north of Montmartre (now the location of the Stade de France). At the time of Claude Renoir’s death in 1919 nearly all the windmills had disappeared as Paris expanded and the old cornfields were sold off as building plots. The few remaining mills were turned into cabarets and restaurants. Its more recent past saw Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Amedeo Modigliani, Piet Mondrian and others calling Montmartre their home. Around the same time the Basilica of the Sacré Coeur rose from its highest point, memorializing losses suffered during the 1871 Franco-Prussian war and the end of the Paris Commune. This white basilica has dominated the Parisian skyline since 1914. It was dedicated to the 58,000 who lost their lives in the conflict.
For many Parisians a trip to Montmartre was an escape, a place to have fun out of sight of relations and enquiring neighbours. The main attraction was the Moulin de Galette, a windmill situated near the top of Montmartre. The name is based on a popular brown bread or galette that was produced by the nineteenth century miller family of Debray. Initially it was sold with a glass of milk. As the nearby fields were replaced with housing and factories, Nicholas Charles Debray sought commercial opportunities to remain in business. One of the mills was turned into a viewing tower and a dance hall was opened adjacently. People came to the Moulin for entertainment and dancing. It became an outlet for Parisian pleasure-seekers to enjoy a glass of local wine (rather than milk), freshly baked bread and a terrace view of city and Seine below. A number of artists have immortalized the Moulin de la Galette.
The earliest and most notable image was was Renoir’s atmospheric 1876 oil on canvas painting ‘Bal du Moulin de la Galette’, one of the masterpieces of early Impressionism. This painting is his most important work of the mid 1870s and was shown at the Impressionist exhibition in 1877. Though some of his friends appear in the picture, Renoir’s main aim was to convey the vivacious Sunday afternoon atmosphere of the dance garden on the Butte Montmartre. This snapshot of the moving crowd, bathed in natural and artificial light, is depicted with brightly coloured and fluid brushstrokes.
Van Gogh completed his version of the Moulin in 1886 whilst living in the Rue Lepic. Painting outdoors encouraged him to explore the effects of natural light and the result is a luminous palette that departs from his usual sombre tones. Toulouse-Lautrec painted the Moulin de la Galette in 1889, thirteen years after Renoir, but he adopted the same angle of people sitting at tables enjoying the music and dancing in the background. He however uses darker colours and does not focus on the faces of the people, whereas Renoir painted almost every figure looking directly at the viewer. Renoir’s work seems more staged. It seems as if the company of revellers is posing for a photographer.
Picasso created his image of the mill in 1900. His depiction of lamps burning in darkness and women wearing lipstick and striking outfits portray a different ambience than Renoir’s. But in his case too, the painting resembles a stage performance. Looking towards the viewer, his figures pose as if they are keen to give their identity away. One year earlier, Dutch painter Kees van Dongen had settled in Paris and became a resident of the Bateau-Lavoir in Montmartre.
In the early years of the century the poet Max Jacob had the name Bateau-Lavoir to a conglomeration of artists’ studios in Montmartre, at the top of the steps leading to no. 13 Rue Ravignan. They were situated in a shaded square which later took the name of the singer Émile Goudeau. It was a gloomy heap of dark and dirty premises made of beams and planks. On stormy days they swayed and creaked so dangerously on their uncertain foundations that they reminded one of the washing-boats on the Seine – hence the name. Between 1904 and 1914 an extraordinary number of outstanding artists, poets and authors settled here.
The list of occupiers of the building is like a comprehensive index of modernist artists in the years preceding World War I, extending from Picasso, Braque, Modigliani, to Apollinaire, Jarry, and Cocteau. It was in this milieu that Picasso first discussed Cubism. Picasso’s studio was next to Van Dongen, and the two became close friends. Van Dongen painted ‘Le Moulin de la Galette’ in 1904. He participated in the controversial 1905 exhibition Salon d’Automne, in a room featuring Henri Matisse amongst others. The bright colours of this group of artists led to them being called Fauves (‘Wild Beasts’).