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Michelle Schwartzbauer

By Thirza Vallois

(Part one) “Around Montparnasse” a journey into the depths of Paris the magnificent: city of romance and drama, of triumph and tragedy, of farce and grandeur, of crime and passion—above all, Paris the city of contradictions, of myths and of change, from the book Around and About Paris, volume one, by Thirza Vallois (used by permission).

Continual waves of newcomers have come to Paris in search of livelihood, spiritual nourishment or political shelter. As the population of the city grew and craved elbow space, they helped bring down its successive walls—from those started by Philippe Auguste (Philip Augustus) in 1190 to those built by Adolphe Thiers between 1841 and 1844 and were demolished in 1919—always pushing out the boundaries of Paris farther from its original nucleus, the Ile de la Cité.

‘Ce n’est pas Paris tout a fait;
Ce n’est pas non plus la campagne;
Et le soir, lorsque l’ombre gagne,
On ne sait pas trop où l’on est.’

This is not exactly Paris
Nor is this the country;
And in the evening, when dusk encroaches,
One does not quite know where one is.

– Rosemonde Gérard

Around Montparnasse

In 1913 the painter Moise Kisling moved here. His studio in the attic under the roof was romantically picturesque, albeit uncomfortable in hot or cold weather. This was nonetheless luxury compared with what most fellow artists had to be content with across the boulevard du Montparnasse, in the 14th and 15th arrondissements. His attic became the social hub of Montparnasse, especially in the Twenties: Modigliani, Zborowski, Cocteau, Radiguet, Max Jacob and Pascin never missed his parties, a mere climb in the case of Pascin, André Salmon, Modigliani and Zborowski, all of whom lived in the building.

Zborowski was Modigliani’s dealer and had set him up here so that he should have where to work, but André Salmon moved across the street to the ground floor of no. 6 when he got married, a recent building completed in 1892.

Climbing the stairs to get to Kisling was no problem but tottering down after the wild parties was a different matter. Kisling was once heard to complain the next day: ‘They have peed on my sketches!’ But he was a good-natured fellow, full of joie de vivre and everyone loved him for it.

Turn left into RUE D’ASSAS. Across the street are the botanical gardens of the Science Faculty of the University and a picturesque rustic brick house that now belongs to the Faculty, reminiscent of a rural past. Continue to no. 100bis on your left, where the Musée Zadkine is set up in the one-time home and studio of the Cubist sculptor Ossip Zadkine. Jewish Russian-born Zadkine never idealised the life of destitution he was forced to live during his first years in Paris. Fifteen years later, in 1924, he could afford to buy this provincial house and never left it. The place is a joy, richly endowed with the works he had bequeathed to the City of Paris, surrounded by an oasis of a garden filled with some of his works and with the song of birds.

Retrace your steps along rue Joseph-Bara and turn right into rue Notre-Dames-des-Champs, then left into RUE DE CHEVREUSE. At no. 4 are the superb premises of Reid Hall, so called because it was originally sponsored by Mrs Whitelaw Reid, the wife of the American Ambassador to France in the late 19th century. At the time this was the American University Women’s Paris Club, a hall of residence for American women students, usually art students. Today it welcomes American students from various universities on programmes in Paris. The exquisite premises and garden are open to unobtrusive visitors who wish to look around.

At the corner of rue de Chevreuse and boulevard du Montparnasse stood Le Jocky, the shrine of Montparnasse nightlife between 1923 and 1927. It was decorated to look like a Wild West saloon. Its cowboy-turned pianist was an excellent performer and the two Hawaiian guitarists swept everyone into a languorous dance of blues. And then there was Kiki, who subjugated them with her harsh grating voice as she sang her own composition, which began as follows:

Un apache avec sa lame
M’ a ouvert le ventre en long; […]

(An Apache with his blade
Slit my belly open lengthwise; […])

One could not exactly say that her verse soared to great poetic heights, but in that smoke-and-alcohol-impregnated atmosphere everyone was thrilled. Besides, she was the most famous model and female character of Montparnasse and they all loved her. Nobody minded its cramped space and cluttered mess, not even the smart set who arrived here after the theatre in sleek limousines, and in their evening garb, to rub shoulders with bohemia.

Turn right into the boulevard du Montparnasse, then right again into RUE DE LA GRANDE-CHAUMIÈRE, named after a 19th century open-air dance hall across the boulevard. L’Académie de la Grande Chaumière, at no. 14, was the most famous of the Montparnasse’s art schools, allowing its students the freedom of expression denied them at the conservative Beaux-Arts school. Here, under the guidance of Antoine Bourdelle, the Russian and Polish free-spirited members of the École de Paris blossomed. The most impoverished among them could benefit from 20-minute tuition sessions for 50 centimes.

A ‘models’ fair was held every Monday on the corner of the boulevard du Montparnasse and rue de la Grande-Chaumière, where artists found a choice of Italian models from Calabria or Apulia, emulating their elders in the 19th century who had picked them on place Pigalle. While the men posed for allegorical figures that embodied contemporary values and such as ‘Work’, the women posed for ‘Holy Virgin’ or ‘Virgin and Child’, but also in the nude for such popular themes as ‘the Birth of Venus’ and ‘Bathers’. There was a fixed 5-franc fee for a three-hour session, a luxury that only the established artists could afford; struggling artists from Eastern Europe had to resort to using girls picked up on café terraces which was not necessarily a bad deal.

Thanks are due to Pierre and Irène Charpentier who saved the Académie de la Grand-Chaumière in 1958 by buying it up, since then it has expanded to no. 2 of the neighbouring rue Jules-Chaplain. The Polish Wadja, where Kisling and his famished friends used to dine for 3.50 francs, is gone, although the restaurant now standing here has kept its name.

Back on rue Notre-Dames-des Champs, turn left. The artist’s studio on the top floor of no. 73 was the home of the painter Othon Friesz from 1914 until his death in 1949. His studio had previously been occupied by William Bouguereau, a teacher at the Beaux-Arts and President of the panel that rejected the Impressionists from the Salon. He must have turned in his grave to see his studio occupied by the fauve Othon Friesz, and probably no less aggrieved to see the artistic path taken by this gifted student, Henri Matisse.

Turn left into RUE VAVIN and head to its junction with rue Bréa, a picture-postcard slice of old Paris, enhanced by a Wallace fountain, a few benches, old street-lamps and the odd surviving neighbourhood shop. At no. 26 is Henri Sauvage’s famous ‘Carreaux Métro’ building, so dubbed because it is entirely covered with white and blue ceramic tiles like those used to decorate the métro. The building dates from 1912 and was the first in Paris to be set progressively from the street line like a stepped pyramid, a design that allowed the architect to bypass the height regulations then in force and bring in more light to the apartments. His terraces, planted with exuberant bushes, heralded the concept of vertical wall gardens, which Patrick Blanc developed in Quai Branly museum close to a hundred years later. Sauvage must have been happy with the result for he kept one of the apartments for himself.

Continue along RUE BRÉA. Old timers still remember the defunct Dominique at no. 19, the Russian ‘canteen’ that opened here after the October Revolution to serve the ‘white’ Russian community of Montparnasse. It remained in the hands of the same family and one of the meccas of Montparnasse until the 1990s. Guy Martin from the Michelin-starred Grand Véfour has since taken over the premises. Proceed to the junction of boulevard du Montparnasse and boulevard Raspail, the historic Carrefour Vavin, now redubbed place Pablo Picasso.

La Rotonde, at no. 105 boulevard du Montparnasse, was the junction’s first café, opened in 1911 by Victor Libion on the site of a previous shoe shop. Libion loved his artists and pretended not to notice when a croissant or the tip of a baguette disappeared; nor did he mind his customers sitting for hours in front of an empty cup. He even subscribed to foreign newspapers on their behalf. On the other hand, he asked them to bring him their paintings, which he hung on the walls, thus creating this special atmosphere that soon distinguished Montparnasse. He also extended his protection to the Russian Revolutionaries, such as Ilych Lenin and Leon Trotsky. But when he refused to play informer to the police on the eve of the Russian Revolution, they began to keep a watch on him and waited for an excuse to close down his café, an excuse he provided them with when they caught him buying American cigarettes for his ‘artistes’.

One day Libion was not at his place behind the bar: he had sold the café and moved to Denfert-Rochereau, further south in the 14th arrondissement. He died a broken man not long after the death of this protégé Modigliani, cheated out of the paintings the latter had given him. La Rotonde was never the same without him.

Author’s notes:

All the maps in the three-volume series of books Around and About Paris are available as PDFs on the author’s website and many can be downloaded for free. Visit: /

Alternatively they can be downloaded on the following link:

Because Paris is a city of change, some of the places mentioned in the book, Around and About Paris, Volume One, may have since disappeared or been transformed. If this is the case, please bear with the author.

Thirza Vallois, author and Sorbonne post-graduate, holds the Agrégation degree (a doctoral-level title) from the University of Paris. After starting her professional life in Paris as a teacher, she was “grabbed” by the city and set out to write about it. This led to a full-time commitment and to a 3-volume series of books Around and About Paris, walking guides for the very savvy which double as in-depth cultural companions to the city.

Around and About Paris, by Thirza Vallois

Around and About Paris, Volume One, by Thirza Vallois

Two other books followed: Romantic Paris and Aveyron, A Bridge to French Arcadia, a journey to the last corner of hidden, rural, France. Thirza is also the author of the Paris entry of the Encarta Encyclopaedia and writes regularly for the international press. She is a contributor to television and radio both in the US and the UK and has appeared on PBS, the BBC, CNN, the Travel Channel and others.

Thirza Vallois is the author of the book series, Around and About Paris, Volumes One, Two, and Three; and Aveyron, A Bridge to French Acadia. All books are available on in hard copy and Kindle versions.

You may also enjoy A Woman’s Paris® post, “Around and About Paris” – Montparnasse: Beneath its Surface (part one), is an invitation to scratch beneath its surface of dazzling vistas and imposing monuments and to probe the souls and lives of the restless people who throughout the ages have never ceased to shape it and reshape it, from the book Around and About Paris, volume one, by Thirza Vallois (used by permission). A travel and history guide through Montparnasse; including links to maps.

French Impressions: Thirza Vallois on the creative inspiration of cinema, literature, music and art. Thirza Vallois, author and Sorbonne post-graduate, started her professional life in Paris as a teacher. She shares the literature, music, and artists who have inspired her.

French Impressions: Cara Black’s “Murder Below Montparnasse” and her adventures through the history and mystery of Paris’ quartiers. Seductively and irresistibly French, The Aimée Léduc Series is one of the best heroines in crime fiction today. Cara Black is the national best selling author of  Murder in the Marais, and shares a behind-the-scenes look at mystery writing and Paris. (French)

Stars, Stripes and Seine: Americans in occupied Paris 1940-1944, by Alan Davidge. 5,000 Americans refused to leave Paris after war broke out in September 1939. Who were they? Read the stories of how Josephine Baker, Sylvia Beach, Arthur Briggs, Drue Leyton, and others lived and breathed Paris during the war.

African-American Expatriates in Paris, by writer Kristin Wood who shares a few of our favorite books written by and/or about African-Americans in Paris and France. Some are novels; some are histories; all are fantastic reads.

Text copyright ©2013 Thirza Vallois. All rights reserved.
Illustrations copyright ©Michelle Schwartzbauer. All rights reserved.
Illustrations copyright ©Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.