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Paris:  Where Artists Dwelled

Arnie Greenberg

There are three important places that must be singled out in Paris as the cradle of twentieth century art & artists. Now, that’s saying a lot for a city that has hundreds of interesting places. But lets concentrate on the places where art and poetry blossomed, where important authors, painters and the literati met, played, ate, drank and argued. Three landmarks worth discussing are

1.     The Bateau Lavoire in Montmartre at 13 rue Ravignan.

2.     Le Lapin Agile in the same area at 22 rue des Saules.

3.     La Ruche in a residential district on the Passage Dantzig, #2.

Le Bateau Lavoire is located at 13 rue Ravignan. It faces a tiny square ( now named Place Emile-Goudeau) with delicate trees, a lovely water fountain and a few benches. It is high on the side of Montmartre. Pablo Picasso once lived here. The original wooden building burned down but was rebuilt. This time, the green wooden structure was replaced with a concrete replica. Neither building is memorable. As a matter of fact it would never be noticed except for its notoriety. It was called The Bateau Lavoire because it looked like the green washing boats that floated on the Seine.

When Picasso first came to Paris to live, he and a series of poets and artists moved there. Pablo’s friends, Max Jacob, the irreverent poet, Andre Salmon a man of great poetic talent, Fernande Olivier, Pablo’s mistress shared the one toilet with countless other artists such as Modigliani, Durain and Braque, Juan Gris and Van Dongen. Over the door of his tiny apartment Pablo wrote “Meeting Place of Poets.” It was certainly a rendez-vous for painters. Here the 25-year-old painter partied, plotted, and created. It was in this building that Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. It was in this building that Picasso and friends threw a famous banquet for the painter Rousseau. His friend, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire & Marie Laurencin were at that party as were Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas. Gertrude had been there many times as she posed for her portrait (now at the Metropolitan Museum in New York) and discussed her ideas about literature. It was during these discussions that Pablo began to see the world differently. He painted out her face.

“I do not see you anymore,” he announced. “I am confused.”

But that confusion led to his completion of the portrait with certain mask-like features in here face. This was the early stage of the invention of Cubism. And it all happened in this tiny studio. It was not only tiny but poorly insulated, with only one tap of running water in the basement* and totally run down. It is said that the tea left over in Picasso’s cup one winter’s night, froze by morning.

Often, Fernande, who lived with Picasso, couldn’t get out of bed because of the cold. Some nights, Picasso burned his drawings just to keep warm. Yes, it was a miserable place but new ideas in art sprang forth. Le Bateau Lavoire is a monument to creativity. But the talented people I talk about were poor. Before Gertrude and her brother Leo began buying Picasso’s paintings, he hardly had money to buy food. The Steins eventually paid for another studio in the same building for Pablo to work in seclusion.

There is a story told about Picasso forging some prescription labels and placing them on a table. Then he put Max in bed, made his face up to look pallid and ill and invited the neighbors in to say goodbye to their dying friend. It was a rule in those days that when you came to visit a dying man you left a few coins on the table to help defray the cost of the funeral. When they had collected enough money, the pranksters went from one bar to another enjoying the profits of their efforts.

Some nights, Picasso and Max and the rest of the Picasso Gang, “la bande a Picasso”, would come home late, firing a pistol and waking everyone in the area. But his fame and income, provided by the Steins, allowed Pablo and Fernande to move to a fancier residence. The moving men remarked that it was as though Pablo had won the lottery.

Pablo lived in many other places during his lifetime. Very few can be identified with the wonderful plaques the city of Paris erects. The other famous studio he occupied was on the left bank at rue des Grands-Augustins. It was here at the outset of World War I that he later painted his famous Guernica. That painting is now in Madrid.

I visit the Bateau Lavoire with a feeling of euphoria. I know I am standing on the same ground that the master once occupied. I then move up the hill and down past the last of the vineyards near the rue St Vincent. Here, at a corner facing that pink building once occupied by Maurice Utrillo, I visit the famous Lapin Agile at 22 rue des Saules. It is still as it was when Picasso spent many evenings, drinking with friends. Here, Fredé, the bartender accepted a painting of Picasso as a harlequin (At the Lapin Agile) seated at the bar as payment for lunch in 1905. Both Fredé and the painting are gone now but the wonderful painting of the “Agile” rabbit still graces the outside. How so many people fit into this tiny bar, restaurant I cannot say. It still is a popular place and I suggest a reservation.

I have often seen the wonderful Lapin Agile street painting Utrillo did from the side of his house (Montmartre Street Corner, 1936). Again, my mind goes back to the early days after 1860 when the bar was called, Cabaret des Assassins because of a painting showing a serial killer. The rabbit (Lapin) was a painting of an agile animal leaping from a saucepan with a bottle of wine in his hand. Since the artist’s name was Gill, the play on words became Lapin Agile. The rabbit does look agile (nimble).

Once, a group from Le Lapin tied a paintbrush on the tail of a donkey and sold the paintings he inadvertently made to an unsuspecting public. Even the critics found the exhibit “interesting”.

Even Talouse-Lautrec used the bar-cabaret in some of his work. They too can be seen in New York’s Metropolitan. Modigliani was also seen here, especially when he lived in the area.

 Today there’s a 19 Euro cover charge but worth it if you like live music of old French songs while you drink.

Don’t expect a large club in the tradition of Les Deux Magots or Le Flore. Le Lapin Agile has more charm because of its history and lack of space. There are regulars there, to be sure, but those who know Paris or those who follow the footsteps of Paris’s great artists and poets return for the ambiance of a lost age.

Recently, the actor-comedian Steve Martin wrote a play that gave the Lapin Agile a shot in the arm. Here, with Fredé and Picasso as characters, the author introduces Albert Einstein who engages the artist in a witty conversation. The two never actually met but the play is interesting nevertheless.

The third place famous because of the artists and sculptors who lived there in a residential part of the 15 Arrondissement near Rue de La Convention. Here on a fork of the larger rue Dantzig on a small ‘passage’ at number 2 is La Ruche, the beehive. I saw it recently for the first time. It was like finding a lost friend. The building gets its name from the shape. It really does look like a beehive and the tiny pie wedge cells used as studios gives it a beehive flavor. Ossip Zadkine, one of the artists (sculptor) called it “ a sinister wheel of Brie”. Just a list of the great artists who lived there makes one understand its importance dating back to 1900. Many were Russian painters who arrived in Paris without any knowledge of the language and without any money. Later they were joined by Constantin Brancusi, Jacques Lifshitz, Jacob Epstein, Jules Pascin, Moise Kissling and Marc Chagall. They say that even Trotsky stayed at La Ruche from time to time.

 It was the sculptor Alfred Boucher who bought the Médoc Wine pavilion and two beautiful caryatids from the British East India Company to adorn the front door. He put a gate out front which had been forged for the Pavillon des Femmes (the Women’s Pavillion) and rented it out to these needy artists. The owner wasn’t overly diligent in collecting the meager rents.  The building was inaugurated in 1902.

My experience at La Ruche was a surprise. I found it easily enough but was stymied by the locked gate. One of the inhabitants let me in as long as I promised to view only the outside. I walked around the overgrown garden and came across a wonderful statue done by Boucher himself. I was impressed with the silence of this structure in the middle of this noisy city. I took pictures of the doorway with the wonderfully preserved caryatids, those powerful women who seemed to balance the entrance on their heads. They reminded me of the ones I saw at the Acropolis in Athens.

After a few minutes, a very old lady, dressed in black, appeared leading her time poodle. She introduced herself as the “doyon” or senior resident and asked about my interest in her longtime home. After her artist husband died, she remained in a tiny apartment. She was over 90.

We talked about La Ruche, about art and the artists who lived there. She was proud to have met so many and told me that when she met Marc Chagall she told him, “You are not an artist.” The painter was taken aback.

“No,” she told him, “anyone who could put wings on a donkey is a poet.”

“He smiled,” she said proudly. “He liked that.” Then she added, “But he was a poet, really.”

I agreed.

We bid our farewells as I turned to look at this birthplace of art. How fortunate I was to have this experience. On the way home I stopped nearby in Georges Brassins Parc. There I made notes of my experience. I thought back at the other places I had visited in this city of art.

I was smiling, surely, as I wrote. I’m still smiling.

*There was and still is a small green fountain in the tiny Emile-Goudeau Square. There are over fifty such fountains in Paris. Each is called Une Fontaine Wallace, named after the man who had them built in the 19thy century.

  • Le Lapin Agile is at 22 rue des Saules in front of the Paris vineyard. For reservations call (1) 46 06 85 87
  • Ask anyone when you are in Montmartre or on the ‘kitchy’ Place du Tertre where the artists paint on the square.

Unfortuately, the Bateau Lavoire and La Ruche are not open to the public. But I suggest that you visit them just the same.

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You can Contact Professor Arnie Greenberg at


Over the past few years, Professor Greenberg has traveled with groups to France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Budapest, Vienna, Salzburg, Prague and both Sorrento and the Bay of Naples plus most of Sicily. His tours traveled to the far reaches of the globe including Italy and most of China (Beijing -Hong Kong) and to Russia where his group cruised the waters from St.Petersburg to Moscow. 

"He took a group to Greece and another to northern Russia. In Nov 07 he took a tour group to much of India and ended his tour groups by revisiting France. He now travels with his wife and friends. They winter in Argentina or San Miguel Mexico.  His newly found spare time is taken up with his painting and writing. "I must write every day." His current work is a cautionary manual for would-be tour leaders..  "So You Want To Be A Tour Leader." 

Arnie now travels with friends. He continues writing Travel articles about unusual places but often concentrates on novel writing. Two books based on French Art will be published this year.  Keep reading his web for travel ideas.  His next novel HELLSTORM'S Folly, will be available this fall. He now lives in British Columbia.

Go to: or contact him directly at

(More about the writer.)


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