I struck up a conversation with an elderly gentleman in the street one evening; Montmartre had been his home for over forty years, and as the sun set over the hill, he entertained me with tales of the famous people who had once lived there.
In a nutshell, it would seem that Montmartre has been a base, at one time or another, for almost all of the famous artists and writers in Montmartre who have lived in France over the last century. And that's no exaggeration! By the end of the 19th century, all kinds of creative people had swarmed to the area. And by the turn of the 20th century, Montmartre had become the centre for all artistic and intellectual life in Paris.
I assumed that creative people would flock to Montmartre to be inspired by the spectacular views over Paris, or that they were attracted by the cheap rents of this once working class neighbourhood (unfortunately the cheap studios have long been replaced by luxury lofts!).
There was, however, another reason for the influx of so many artists: the tax-free wine!
At the end of the 19th century, Montmartre was still officially outside the city limits and so wine wasn't subject to Parisian taxes! This, coupled with the fact that Montmartre was covered with vineyards, quickly made the area a popular place to drink. Even the local nuns made wine!
One of Montmartre's most famous former residents was the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso. He resided at the Bateau-Lavoir, a fairly run-down block of flats, which soon became the meeting place of a whole host of impoverished artists, writers, actors and art dealers (until the start of World War I, when they relocated to Montparnasse).
Apparently the autobiographies of any of the famous artists and poets who lived at the Bateau-Lavoir (Picasso, Modigliani, Braque, Juan Gris, Apollinaire...) will give you a good insight into their life there; Amedeo Modigliani destroyed a number of his friends' paintings while in an alcoholic rage one night, according to the memoirs of his daughter Jeanne!
It was in his studio at the Bateau-Lavoir in 1907 that Picasso painted one of his most noted works, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. It was also in Montmartre that Picasso and Georges Braque co-founded Cubism, one of the most famous and influential art movements of the 20th century.
I went down to look for the Bateau-Lavoir (no. 13 place Emile Goudeau) and the facade of the original building still remains (the rest of the building was damaged by a fire and rebuilt in 1978).
If you are a fan of art history, the list of famous artists who took inspiration from Montmartre is long: Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, Pierre Brissaud, Alfred Jarry, Jacques Villon, Raymond Duchamp-Villon, Henri Matisse, André Derain, Suzanne Valadon, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, Maurice Utrillo, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Salvador Dalí, Amedeo Modigliani to name but a few ! Probably the last of the bohemian Montmartre artists was Gen Paul, who died in 1975.
By turn of the 20th century, Montmartre had developed into a full-blown centre of decadent entertainment and attracted a host of creative people looking for entertainment ; Le Chat Noir (the Black Cat), founded by Rodolphe Salis in 1881, is thought to be the first modern cabaret (the composer, Satie, played the piano there).
(probably the most well-known cabaret in the world) was made famous by the can-can dancers in the paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec, and more recently by the movie of the same name.
The Moulin de la Galette is probably even richer in art history than the Moulin Rouge, and features in the paintings Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec and Renoir, to name but a few. It is now a beautiful restaurant on rue Lepic (Van Gogh lived at no. 54!).
Among the last of Montmartre's bohemian gathering places was R-26, an artistic salon frequented by Josephine Baker, Le Corbusier and Django Reinhardt (who wrote a tribute to song to the place in 1947 called R vingt-six). Visite their website for reservation.
More recently, Montmartre has been made famous by several hit movies.
In 2001, it was the setting of by Baz Luhrmann's romantic musical Moulin Rouge, staring Nicole Kidman (which was nominated for eight Oscars!). There was also a 1954 movie called Moulin Rouge, which was solely about the life of painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
Since it opened in 1928, writers and artists have flocked to Studio 28 (a small, but famous cinema in Montmartre) to see the fiilms of up-and-coming directors like Truffaut or Orson Welles.
Studio 28 also features in the 2001 hit movie Amélie, which is set in an exaggerated, quaint version of Montmartre. The movie has made the area hugely famous (it is still the highest-grossing French-language film released in the USA!). If you're an Amelie fanatic, you can find the grocer from the film in rue de Trois Freres (he must be the most famous grocer in Paris!) and the bar where is worked is called Les Deux Moulins on rue Lepic.
You can find two cemeteries in Montmartre (Cimetière de Montmartre & Cimetière Saint-Vincent) and they are the final resting place of many famous people who lived and worked in the area, including: Dalida (Egyptian-born singer/actress), Edgar Degas (painter, sculptor), Alexandre Dumas, fils (novelist, playwright) Jacques Offenbach (composer) Hector Berlioz (composer) François Truffaut (French New Wave filmmaker, director). The author Émile Zola was originally burried there before his body was moved to the Pantheon in 1908.
Finally, if you want to learn more about the famous people who lived in Montmartre (inhabitants, history, cuture) it's really worth visiting the Montmartre museum (Musée de Montmartre) at no. 12 rue Cortot. It has all the answers, and is also one of the most charming museums in Paris!
The Renoir gardens which surround the museum (named after the impressionist painter Auguste Renoir who lived there and painted several masterpieces on-site) offer breathtaking views of Montmartre's only remaining vineyard (the Clos Montmartre) and the northern cityscape of Paris.
The Museum and gardens are open every day, all year, from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm and it costs 9 euros to enter (children under 10 go free).