A Paris arts community
Past and Present
Tucked away on a tiny crook of a tiny rue near the Montmartre cemetery you’ll find an iron gate announcing “Villa des Arts”. If you peer through the wrought iron gaps, you can see a grassy courtyard but not the amazing arts scene housed here for over a century. This hidden village of artists well represents the blending of past and present in Paris. A glance at the cement wall plaques at the entrance gives a clue to its past.
“The painters Paul Cezanne (1839-1906, Paul Signac (1863-1935) and Louis Marcoussis (1878-1941) lived and worked in this house.”
“Here lived the painter Eugène Carrière (1849-1906). In this atelier, Verlaine posed for him.”
The plot of land was carved away from the Montmartre cemetery and artists lived there under the protection of King Louis XV. By the 1880’s, Montmartre was still rural; there were fields and vacant lots and the open-air gypsum quarry from which the famous Plaster of Paris was made*. On the other side of the cemetery was the Maquis of Montmartre, a labyrinthine hodgepodge of shacks, cabins and shanties housing the poor, the seedy, artists, scrap-dealers and hide-outs from the law and society. Somewhere between a bucolic village and a slum, laced with alleys and rustic stairways, artists were drawn to painting and living on the Butte and around the Maquis.
*as opposed to the underground limestone quarries in Paris from which building stone was made.
The Guéret family acquired the land where the Villa is located in 1888. They hired a popular architect of the time, Henri Cambon to redesign the cluster of old buildings then there. Cambon created many elegant apartment buildings in this area as well as the enormous Hippodrome at Place Clichy which could seat 8,000 people and whose stables held 200 horses. Buffalo Bill and his Wild West Show appeared there on its European tour. The Hippodrome is now a Castorama, a sort of French Home Depot store.
The construction of Villa des Arts is linked with the Exposition Universelle of 1889, the World Expo of its era. The centenary of the French Revolution was that year. The Expo celebrated the Machine Age and especially French Industry, French art and French colonization. The Eiffel Tower, which was initially unpopular and denounced by spokesmen of the day like Guy de Maupassant, was built for this Expo.
Cambon repurposed materials left-over from the Exposition in the construction of the Villa to spectacular effect, specifically a monumental double staircase and female statue, as well as art nouveau structural girders to buttress building walls.
He conceived of three main buildings, next to an existing pavilion, around a rectangular courtyard secluded from the street, initially named rue de la Villa des Beaux-Arts and now rue Hégésippe-Moreau. The buildings house 65 studios, some that are live-work studios. They have large windows providing the light so precious to artists.
Villa des Arts nurtured a spectacular array of artists over the years from many different art movements.
Renoir worked at the Villa from 1892 to 1896.This was his Nacrée (Pearly) period, known for transparent, luminescent effects and a more sensual and fluid style than evident during his previous Sèche (dry) or Ingresque period, marked by more linear and classical compositions.
Young Girl Combing her Hair 1894
The poet Stéphane Mallarmé, famous for his epistolary relationships, immortalized Renoir’s time at the Villa with one of the rhyming limericks he composed and used as addresses to his correspondants.
« Villa des Arts, près l’avenue
De Clichy, peint Monsieur Renoir
Qui devant une épaule nue
Broie autre chose que du noir.»
“At the Villa des Arts near the avenue
De Clichy, paints Monsieur Renoir,
Who, in front of a shoulder that’s nude,
Feels something other than blue.”
Stéphane Mallarmé, Les Loisirs de la poste, 1894
Cézanne lived and painted at the Villa in 1898 and 1899 on the 4th floor. Here he painted his friend, renowned art dealer Ambroise Vollard who sat 115 times for the portrait.
Eugène Carrière was a French Symbolist painter who taught at a private art school, the Académie de la Palette, located nearby on Boulevard Clichy, close to the Moulin Rouge. He painted the French Symbolist poet Verlaine, notorious for his scandalous affair with (and subsequent shooting of) Rimbaud.
Verlaine by Carrière
Carrière lived and worked at the Villa from 1898 to his death in 1906.
The list of artists who have worked at the Villa is a long one and the list of famous visitors is even longer (among them you find Picasso, Dali, Breton, Miro, Gertrude Stein).
The Villa was classified as an historical monument in 1994. In 2005 the orignal family owners sold the Villa in the face of costly but necessary preservation work. It was purchased by a developer with an eye to selling off the units piecemeal as luxury apartments. The community rallied around the historical mission of the Villa and it was bought by the City of Paris in 2007 and later gently renovated.
The live-work units have a mezzanine with living quarters over studio space.
Today the Villa still houses a vibrant community of artists as well as some public housing units (known in France as HLM, Habitation à loyer modéré). There are painters, photographers, sculptors, poets, writers, filmmakers,actors and graphic artists living and working here. They have an active association and an adjoined gallery with events and exhibitions open to the public.
Villa des Arts
15 rue Hégésippe-Moreau