The evocation of Montparnasse is associated with those of brilliant artists and prestigious cafés... This story calls for a mountain of testimonies, like the pile of rubble which gave its name to the district, before the promenade that was to become the future boulevard du Montparnasse.

Mont Parnasse

If the name of Montparnasse refers to Mount Parnasse, this mountain overlooking the city of Delphi, dedicated to the God Apollo and the nine muses, it has a more precise and ironic origin. At the beginning of the 17th century, students gathered on an artificial hill at the current intersection between Boulevard du Montparnasse and Boulevard Raspail. So they called Mount Parnassus this mound of rubble where they declaimed verses, with less serious views than those of Catullus Mendes and his epigones when they created contemporary Parnassus. This mound is clearly visible on a map of Paris published by Johannes Janssonius in 1657, Lutetia Parisiorum Vulgo, before being flattened around 1725 during the layout of the new Cours du Montparnasse which was to become the eponymous boulevard. This same Vavin crossroads, named Place Pablo Picasso in 1984, was the beating heart of the time: the "navel of the world", in the words of Henri Miller, where mythical cafés such as the Dôme, the Rotonde, the Coupole or the Select.

First there is the Dôme, founded in 1898 by the Auvergne Paul Chambon, then the Rotonde, in 1911 by his compatriot Victor Libion, a generous man who loved artists, allowed them to sleep on benches, to steal bread, wiped their slates clean, in exchange for which they paid him with their works. He was a visionary, the first brewery boss, no doubt, to see in them personalities whose genius the future would recognize, like Picasso, Braque, Modigliani and so many others. Their money, when they had it, they came to spend it with him with a prodigality commensurate with their past destitution. We also met poets (Apollinaire, Max Jacob, then Cocteau), musicians (Debussy, Stravinsky, Satie) and even politicians like Trostki or Lenin. In 1923, the Select was created and in 1927, the Coupole, an ultra-modern bar whose name stands out from that of the neighboring Dôme, just like the Rotonde had done.

Le Dôme in 1920

Artistic fraternity

"Whatever café in Montparnasse you ask a driver from the right bank to take you to, he will always take you to the Rotonde", wrote Ernest Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises (1926). Here is the description by Giraudoux in Siegfried ou le Limousin (1922): "At the corner of boulevard Raspail and boulevard du Montparnasse, on the terrace of a café in the middle of which, among the tables, was the exit of the metro (…) was installed all that Paris has of Japanese expressionists, Swedish Cubists, Icelandic engravers, Turks decorated with medals, Hungarians and Peruvians with complementary vocations, each embellished with a half-wife with individual make-up and none of whom used the same eye or lip color; each in the outfit that made him look crazy in his hometown, but which represented in this neighborhood, and for the concierge herself, the minimum of extravagance. »

How to account for the effervescence of the time, this fury, this mutual aid told by the witnesses of the Hot Hours of Montparnasse, documentary film undertaken in 1960 by Jean-Marie Drot, at a time when, regrets the collector Anatole Jakovsky , were already erasing the traces of past centuries? This spirit of artistic fraternity is perhaps illustrated by the Cité Falguière, opened in 1901 in the 15th arrondissement, a link between La Ruche (very to the south) and Montparnasse, where Léonard Foujita, Constantin Brancusi, Maurice Blond, were neighbors. while Modigliani and Soutine shared the same unsanitary workshop. From 1877, Paul Gauguin had settled at the entrance to the city. He is one of the precursors of the district, with the sculptor Bourdelle, who has lived since 1885 at 16 impasse du Maine, in the red brick workshop where he will spend his whole life sculpting, now the Bourdelle museum, adjoining the 15th .

Mosaic of cultures

We do not know by what end to render this mosaic of cultures, this district transfigured by the massive arrivals of foreign artists, especially Jews from Eastern Europe, such as Zadkine, Soutine, Chagall, Pascin who will constitute what will be called the First School of Paris. The whole world gathered in a network of streets and boulevards, of which the Vavin crossroads is the epicenter, on terraces where you could hear Russian, Spanish, Italian, Polish or Japanese spoken. This neighborhood was so singular that one of its muses, Kiki, bore its name, consubstantial with the place that she alone sums up and evokes. This incandescent home was as warm as it was dangerous, and many of its regulars burned their wings there, lost in a habit of nightlife, alcohol and bars. Also, Brassaï considers the witnesses filmed by Jean-Marie Drot as survivors, others not having survived, like Modigliani who died of tuberculosis, leaving alone and pregnant with a second child, the fabulous Jeanne Hébuterne , a fine arts student nicknamed "Noix-de-coco" who, in despair, threw herself out of the window of their house, rue de la Grande Chaumière. Some died at the front, like Alain-Fournier, the author of Grand Meaulnes.

"Montparnasse is an exception in the history of humanity because a district, for the first time, becomes the center of the world, and not a city", says Olivier Renault, author of Montparnasse, Lieux de Légendes (2013). Boulevard du Montparnasse, “we felt like we were at home, (…) that the street belonged to everyone,” recalls the painter André Masson, who shared a studio in rue Blomet with Miro. At any time you can come across Cendrars, Zadkine, Artaud, Chagall or Chirico.

La Ruche by night

From the Bateau Lavoir to La Ruche

At the turn of the First World War, using the recent North-South metro line linking Montparnasse to the Abbesses, painters left Montmartre for Montparnasse, in search of virgin land to set up their workshops there, sometimes unsanitary but at low rents. So they naturally move to the 14th or 15th arrondissement, where everything is not yet integrated. Picasso arrived in 1913, followed by Chagall, Vlaminck, Léger, Braque, Van Dongen. Modigliani and Brancusi who moved from the Bateau Lavoir to La Ruche, this new phalanstery of artists laid out by the sculptor Alfred Boucher, with materials recovered from the colonial exhibition of 1900, on land sold by Victor Libion, rue de Dantzig.

Montparnasse is a spirit, a Babel of foreign languages, an "American" dress which contrasts, according to Apollinaire, with an old-style Montmartre: "Mountaineering for mountaineering is always the mountains, the on the peaks. Rapins are more comfortable in modern Montmartre, difficult to climb, full of false artists, whimsical industrialists and opium smokers on the fringes. In Montparnasse, on the contrary, we now find real artists dressed in American style". He frequents the circle of poets that Paul Fort brings together every Tuesday at the Closerie des Lilas, with Jarry, Carco, Laforgue, Maeterlinck, Dorgelès or Jacob .André Salmon recounts with emotion his meeting with Paul Fort in a passage from The Hot Hours.In the 1920s, La Closerie was created by Hemingway, Dos Passos, Fitzgerald, and later Miller, to whom Fitzgerald had read the manuscript of The Great Gatsby.


Man Ray, who arrived in Paris in 1921, was immediately charmed by the cosmopolitanism of Montparnasse and he fell in love with his muse, Kiki, whom Foujita, this Japanese who had come inexplicably here, painted as an odalisque in this Reclining Nude in Toile de Jouy which will be the event of the Salon d'Automne of 1922. Like Kiki, the muses are the mistresses of poets and painters, Eluard marries Gala who becomes the mistress of Max Ernst and will be the wife of Dali, Youki, who was also queen of Montparnasse , will be successively the lover of Foujita then that of Desnos.

On November 5, 1928, Aragon met Maïakovski at La Coupole, the next day he met Elsa Triolet there, whom he would not leave until her death. However, like the other surrealists, he knew Montparnasse less than the Grands Boulevards, the Café Certa described in Le Paysan de Paris, or the Place Blanche, which led to the rue Fontaine, where Breton lived most of his life. This would be to forget the famous house-workshop on rue du Château, opened to all winds by Marcel Duhamel, where Prévert and his friend Yves Tanguy lived with their wives. This "rabbit skin merchant's hut" becomes a "phalanstery", where almost all the surrealist meetings will be held, not to mention the exclusions...

There are streets that condense an extraordinary history, such as rue de la Grande Chaumière, rue Delambre or rue Campagne Première, of which it would take too long to list the illustrious inhabitants, especially in that it hosts the hotel Istria which was a place of passage for Duchamp, Picabia, Rilke, Tzara or Satie.

Montparnasse today

The former Montparnasse museum, now Villa Vassilieff, named after the canteen run by Marie Vassilieff in 1913, houses the Marc Vaux collection, including photographs by hundreds of artists from Montparnasse between the 1920s and 1970s. The Mendjisky museum , which recalled the memory of the two Schools of Paris, composed mainly of painters of Eastern European origin, closed its doors on December 31, 2016.

The spirit of Montparnasse still vibrates today in a few chosen places, such as its galleries, its cinemas, this mythical Tschann bookstore or even the Académie de la Grande Chaumière which remains almost as it was at the time, where it cohabited with those of Paul Ranson. , Matisse or Van Dongen. Although Bourdelle and Zadkine no longer teach there, whose museums are very close, people still come there to learn about painting or nude sculpture.

We will also mention two theatres: first the Lucernaire, created in 1968 and which moved ten years later to rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, long attached to Laurent Terzieff and which includes theatres, cinemas, a library, a restaurant and a student-created bar. As for the Poche Montparnasse, founded in 1944 with creations by Duras and Ionesco, it was taken over at the end of 2011 by Philippe Tesson, his daughter Stéphanie and Charlotte Rondelez who offer, in the original spirit, a demanding and popular programme. Note that the the Poche is integrated into a beehive, a building that houses around thirty workshops overlooking a garden.

Finally, you can always go to these same cafes, certainly gentrified, but which somewhat retain the spirit of the time, the Rotonde, the Dôme, the Coupole, the Closerie des lilas, but above all, for Philippe Tesson, the Select : “Today, there remains a light but sensitive scent of the artistic life of the 20s. It is confined to a few beehives, in a few bistros, including one where I go all the time, the Select. If you are attentive, the lighting, the mosaics of the floor, the spirit are very reminiscent of the 1920s. In the evening, we have, through flashes, a diffuse evocation of the artistic life of the bistros of Montparnasse. Live it one day, go for a drink around eleven o'clock in the evening, you'll see, there's still something there, you'd think there's still Cocteau and Picasso. »

source : Autour de Paris