Tracing The Left Bank’s Golden Years

Words/images: James Startt

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Henry Miller wrote in the opening pages of “Tropic of Cancer,” his seminal 1934 novel, “It is now the fall of my second year in Paris. I was sent here for a reason I have not yet been able to fathom. I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.”

Henry Miller’s residence.

Eight decades after Miller penned those words, in my 26th year in Paris, I still have a vague idea as to why I first moved here. I’m relatively happy and, oh yes, I am alive.

I first moved to France to race bikes. Under the spell of the initial American invasion of bicycle racing in Europe, I followed distantly in the shadows of Greg LeMond and what can only be described as a wave of other hopefuls. My first directeur sportif was Joël Gallopin, father to current French pro Tony Gallopin. And that was about as far as I got to making it to the professional ranks. Fortunately I had other interests.

As a student of art history and photography at Indiana University, I was intrigued by the rich artistic heritage of Paris, especially in the late 19th and early 20th century. I had settled in the 14th arrondissement of the city, deep in the heart of what is often referred to as the Left Bank. As a bike racer, this neighborhood offered easy access to the countryside south of the city for training rides. But I soon learned that my neighborhood was the one-time hotbed for artists, writers and occasional revolutionaries, and for years was home to the likes of Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Salvador Dali, Amedeo Modigliani, Constantin Brancusi, Marcel Duchamp, Fernand Léger, Eugène Atget, Man Ray, Henry Miller, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Vladimir Lenin and, quite literally, a host of others.

The 14th arrondissement, along with the neighboring 6th and 15th arrondissements, all make up the larger Montparnasse district, and at the turn of the 20th century it represented one of the less-developed areas of the city. But it was an area rich for growth. Its train station, the Gare Montparnasse, was one of the main terminals in the city and it guaranteed business. Numerous inexpensive hotels could be found around the station. Meanwhile, chic restaurants like La Coupole, Le Dôme, La Rotonde, La Closerie des Lilas and Le Select opened on the spacious Boulevard du Montparnasse, attracting an increasingly cosmopolitan crowd. And because real estate was still relatively affordable, the city built numerous low-rent studios to provide artists with affordable workspaces. The combination proved irresistible. Numerous artists such as Picasso and Dali, who had initially located in the historical Montmartre area, soon relocated to the south side of the city. And as word got out artists flocked there from around the world.

Over the years I have enjoyed walking around the area, seeking out the old haunts. The original cafés and brasseries still exist and very much retain their spirit. The spacious La Coupole, with its sumptuous Art Deco interior, is still very much as it once was and La Closerie des Lilas farther down the Boulevard du Montparnasse still has the table where Hemingway dined regularly. And the Hôtel Istria on Rue Campagne-Première, home to many of the Surrealists, is still very much an active hotel, although a significantly more upscale one than it was back in the 1920s.

If you want to get a sense of the life around the many art schools that flourished here, L’Acadamie de la Grande Chaumière on the street of the same name, just a few dozen meters off the Boulevard du Montparnasse, offers a good glimpse. An art school where Alexander Calder, Juan Miró, Giacometti and Balthus all studied at one point, it is still an active school today.

But while the intersection of the Montparnasse and Raspail boulevards was the hub of social activity and networking, to get a real sense of how the artists lived and worked, one must venture deeper into the hearts of the surrounding neighborhoods. Not surprisingly, many of the old apartments and studios no longer exist. Some are virtually unrecognizable. But a few still remain. Regardless, it is fascinating to visit and somehow put the pieces back together from one of the richest creative periods this city, or any other, has experienced.

One of the first things that struck me in my pursuit to uncover the numerous locations was just how much the artists moved around. Picasso had at least two studios around Boulevard Raspail, as did Brancusi. Modigliani, known to be particularly poor, had three different locations, as did the sculptor Calder, while Brancusi, another sculptor, worked in no less than four locations. Word of mouth apparently traveled quickly in the ‘hood.

After leaving Montmartre, Picasso moved into a studio on the ground floor of a courtyard at 242 Boulevard Raspail in the autumn of 1912. Aficionados of art will recognize this period as the height of Cubism. But for local residents, Picasso’s time here was less remarkable. “These studios originally were built for the sculptors and stonecutters that worked on the tombs for the Montparnasse Cemetery,” the current resident of Picasso’s studio told me in a chance meeting recently. “There was no heat, and Picasso didn’t last long. He only stayed for a couple of months. And he left without paying!” Picasso did not move far though, just a few dozen meters really. But there, on Rue Victor-Schoelcher, he found a spacious studio with large windows.

Modigliani studio. Rue de la Grande Chaumiere.
Picasso studio on Boulevard Raspail.
Lenin’s apartment on Rue Marie-Rose.
Hemingway apartment on Rue Froidevaux.
Dali house on Villa Seurat.
Brancusi studio on Rue Du Montparnasse.
Rear studio on Cite Falgueire.
Man Ray had a space on Rue De Camgane-Premiere.
Modigliani studio on Rue de la Grande-Chaumiere.

Perhaps the best sample of a standard artist studio can be found on the Cité Falguière in the 15th arrondissement, constructed in the 1860s by the sculptor Jules-Ernest Bouillot. A modest artist himself, Bouillot nevertheless left an indelible mark on the artistic tradition in Paris, because his primary goal was simply to provide affordable studio space for fellow artists. Only two of the studios actually remain on the outside of the street, but venturing through the main doors into the rear courtyard takes the visitor through a virtual labyrinth of studios with one nearly built upon another. The passageway is narrow, leading up and down to various studio spaces, some of which still appear in use today.

The walls of the Cité Falguière are thin and clearly offered little protection from the damp, cold Paris winters. But the high ceilings and large glass windows provided the much sought-after natural light to work with in an age when electric lighting was only just dawning. Today, the two remaining outside studios appear fragile, as they are simply dwarfed by the taller buildings surrounding them. Yet through these doors walked many some of the greatest artists of their day. Paul Gauguin, Chaïm Soutine, as well as Brancusi and Modigliani, all called the Cité Falguière home at one point in their careers.

Tracking down the addresses also shows how the fortunes of some artists changed. Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir spent their early years together in the Hotel Mistral on the Rue Cels in the early 1930s, before moving into an elegant apartment on Rue Victor-Schoelcher, as Picasso had years earlier. Nearly penniless upon arriving in Paris, Henry Miller stayed in numerous low-cost hotels found around the train station, including the Central Hotel on Rue du Maine, which is still very much intact on the outside.

But fortunes changed for him when he moved to the recently constructed Villa Seurat, a small cobblestone street on the southern edge of the city, in the early 1930s. While this narrow, dead-end street is easily overlooked, it is one of the most elegant streets in the neighborhood. Conceived and built in the 1920s, the Villa Seurat was nothing short of an architect’s dream, as each house was a unique structure and often reflected the distinctive architectural styles of the day. One of its most celebrated residents, Salvador Dali, then the superstar of Surrealism, occupied the spacious house on the corner of Villa Seurat and Rue de la Tombe Issoire for much of the 1930s. Less well off, Miller lived in a smaller studio on the upper floor of 18 Villa Seurat. It was here, encouraged by his muse Anaïs Nin, where he wrote “Tropic of Cancer.” While small, the apartment boasted a large skylight, typical of so many studio spaces in the city, and the quietness of this remote street obviously offered an ideal space for a writer.

Miller stayed on the Villa Seurat until 1939, when the Nazi invasion of Paris forced Miller, like so many other expatriate artists living in the city, to flee, hence bringing an abrupt close to one of the richest creative periods in Paris. Some would return. And some like Man Ray, de Beauvoir, Sartre, Samuel Beckett and Constantin Brancusi are even buried in the Montparnasse Cemetery. But after suffering through two world wars the Left Bank’s creative and intellectual stronghold faded. Still, however, walking through the many backstreets around Montparnasse remains a wonderful way to connect with the city’s rich artistic heritage.

Follow Startt on Instagram: @jstartt

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