In the first decade of the 20th century, an old piano factory at 13 Rue Ravignan in Montmartre — now Place Émile Goudeau — was the scene of the most radical experiments in modern art. The Bateau Lavoir — so named by the poet and painter Max Jacob for its resemblance to the laundry boats that worked the Seine — was the home of Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris, Kees van Dongen and Amedeo Modigliani, with Henri Matisse, Gertrude Stein, Guillaume Apollinaire, Maurice Utrillo, Max Jacob, Constantin Brâncuși, Marie Laurencin, Maurice de Vlaminck and André Derain being among its regular visitors.
The fascination with the name and ethos of the Bateau Lavoir has far outlived the tenure of its most famous residents. In 1955, Mira Jacob opened Le Bateau Lavoir, a gallery on the Rue de Seine that became famous for its exhibitions of Surrealist art. In doing so, she paid tribute to — and hoped to emulate — the bold, avant-garde spirit of the original. Among the artists represented by Jacob was Paul Delvaux, whose prints were offered in our digital sale Paul Delvaux: L’Esprit Belge, from 26 January to 4 February 2016 (see below).
Here, Jack Castle looks at the history of the the Bateau Lavoir, where in one squalid ground-floor room Picasso finished Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, his 1907 masterpiece that signalled the birth of modern art — and explores the story of the gallery that continued the Bateau Lavoir legacy.
Montmartre — An enclave for creativity and debauchery
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), L’assommoir, 1900. Oil on paper laid down on panel. 21¾ x 17¼ in (55 x 43.8cm). This work was offered in the Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale on 2 February at Christie’s in London
When Picasso, van Dongen, Gris, Jacob and Modigliani lived at the Bateau Lavoir, Montmartre’s winding streets were home to a mix of risqué cabarets, expensive restaurants and picturesque windmills. By the time Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec painted this work in 1900, he and Impressionists including Théophile Alexandre Steinlen had already created an image of Montmartre as a bustling, creative, libertine enclave.
A maze of wooden passageways
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Jeune fille accoudée, executed 1903-1904. Blue crayon on paper, 14½ x 10½ in (36.8 x 26.7 cm). This work was offered in the Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale on 2 February 2016 at Christie’s in London and sold for £962,500
Picasso moved into the Bateau Lavoir in 1903. Originally converted into studios in 1889, whatever glory it had once held was long gone. From Rue Ravignan, you entered into the top floor — three other storeys sunk down into the hillside overlooking the Maquis.
The Bateau was a maze of wooden passageways and rooms, with one tap serving all the tenants, and a strong smell of cockroaches. Yet, in these insalubrious surroundings Picasso and his collaborators found the freedom to live and work as they pleased. Jeune fille accoudée (1903-04) is a perfect representation of their life: the focus on desperation and poverty typical of Picasso’s Blue Period combined with the natural, unstudied intimacy with which he can treat the nude female sitter.
The artists of Le Bateau Lavoir
Maurice Utrillo (1883-1955), Rue Norvins et Rue Lepic à Montmartre, circa 1904-1905. Oil on board attached to canvas. This work was offered in the Impressionist & Modern Works on Paper sale on 3 February 2016 at Christie’s in London and sold for £22,500
Parts of Montmartre were desperately poor, inhabited by prostitutes, dancers, farm workers, petty criminals and as-yet unsuccessful artists. A few hundred metres down the Rue Norvins, on the right, was the maquis, or scrubland, an area of wasteland condemned by developers as ‘unusable’, on which a kind of shanty town sprang up.
The maquis was levelled around 1902 to make way for the Art Deco masterpiece Avenue Junot — but not before housing Vincent Van Gogh, Steinlen, van Dongen and Modigliani on their arrival in Paris. Rue Ravignan was a left turn off Rue Lepic.
Picasso’s room — and pet mouse
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Nu se coiffant, circa 1905-1906. Charcoal on paper. 24¼ x 18⅜ in (61.6 x 46.5 cm). This work was offered in the Impressionist & Modern Works on Paper sale on 3 February 2016 at Christie’s in London and sold for £116,500
Early in his time at the Bateau Lavoir Picasso would meet Fernande Olivier, his first serious muse throughout the Rose Period and his early experiments with Cubism. She moved into his room almost immediately, and Nu se coiffant has been identified as a portrait of her.
In Olivier’s memoirs she describes their room. ‘A mattress on four legs in one corner. A little rusty cast-iron stove with a yellow earthenware bowl on it, which was used for washing; a towel and a piece of soap were on a white wooden table next to it,’ she wrote. ‘In another corner, a poor little black painted trunk made rather an uncomfortable seat. A wicker chair, easels, canvases of all sizes, tubes of paint scattered about the floor… no curtains! In the table drawer there was a tame white mouse, which Picasso looked after lovingly and would show to everybody.’
The Bateau’s banquet
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Femme nue debout, 1910-1911. Oil on canvas, 18 x 12⅞ in (45.7 x 32.8 cm). This work was offered in the Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale on 2 February 2016 at Christie’s in London and sold for £902,500
The Bateau Lavoir was a difficult place to live, but it had one advantage: it was extremely cheap. Rent was only 15 francs a month, compared to one franc a night at the Hôtel du Poirier. The cheap rent allowed Picasso to pursue deeply experimental avenues in his work.
The tilted pose and hairstyle in this picture indicate the sitter to be Fernande Olivier once more. A lively, bohemian woman, she was well suited to the spirited atmosphere of the Bateau Lavoir, where practical jokes were commonplace — with Max Jacob often responsible. This culminated in the famous banquet in honour of Henri Rousseau — half serious, half not — attended by Apollinaire, Jean Metzinger, Gris, Jacob, Laurencin, and the art critics André Salmon and Maurice Raynal. Leo and Gertrude Stein, who were to become major patrons of Gris and Picasso, were also in attendance, as was Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, who was to make his name as the most important early dealer of Cubist pictures.
Pernod, grenadine and cherry liqueur
Maurice Utrillo (1883-1955), Le Lapin Agile, circa 1930. Oil on canvas, 16¼ x 21⅜ in (41.3 x 54.2 cm). This work was offered in the Impressionist & Modern Art Day Sale on 3 February 2016 at Christie’s in London and sold for £47,500
Run by landlord Père Frédé, Le Lapin Agile (The Frisky Rabbit) was an inn and meeting place for the artists and writers of the Bateau Lavoir, decorated with wall paintings of gruesome murders from its time as ‘Cabaret des Assassins’, and canvases received gratis from some of its patrons.
Frédé was an eccentric musician and potter who favoured brightly coloured velvet waistcoats, tasselled hats, artists, loud, wild songs on the guitar and sentimental ballads. Playing Le Temps des Cerises he would serve his potent house ‘concoction’: Pernod, grenadine and cherry liqueur. A sense of in-the-moment joviality was essential to counter the hardships of living at the Bateau Lavoir.
The lure of the carnival
Juan Gris (1887-1927), Le pierrot à la guitar, July-September 1925. Oil on canvas, 51¼ x 35⅛ in (131 x 89.2 cm). This work was offered in the Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale on 2 February 2016 at Christie’s in London
Along with this comic atmosphere came a sense of burlesque about subject matter. The artists were regular attendees at restaurants and cabarets so it is no surprise that figures from popular entertainment and theatre became their subjects, with harlequins appearing regularly in the work of Gris and Picasso.
The Cirque Medrano was not far away, at 63 Boulevard Rochechouart, and themes from its shows also appear in the work of artists associated with the Bateau — Max Jacob in particular. Far from being just subjects plucked from fiction or literature, the carnival-esque characters in the art and writing of Montmartre were genuinely present.
An emerging avant-garde
Maurice de Vlaminck (1876-1958), Nature morte au compotier et cafetières. Oil on canvas, 25½ x 31⅞ in (64.8 x 81 cm). This work was offered in the Impressionist & Modern Art Day Sale on 3 February 2016 at Christie’s in London
Originally attracted to Montmartre by Kees van Dongen, Vlaminck was a regular at gatherings at the Bateau Lavoir, though never a resident. Vlaminck made his name as one of the key figures in the Fauve movement, but in Nature morte au compotier et cafetières, circa 1910, the influence of Cubism is apparent, perhaps as a result of his direct interaction with Picasso, Gris and Braque.
Although the items Vlaminck uses as his subject seem too expensive for the residents of the Bateau Lavoir to use in still lives — at least if Fernande Olivier’s description is anything to go by — this is a key illustration of how quickly the ideas forged at 13 Rue Ravignan were influential on the wider avant-garde.
The ‘wild beasts’
Kees van Dongen (1877-1968), Buste de femme nue, 1913. Oil on canvas, 25⅝ x 21¼ in (65.2 x 54 cm). This work was offered in the Impressionist & Modern Art Day Sale on 3 February 2016 at Christie’s in London and sold for £206,500
Van Dongen came to Paris from Rotterdam aged 18. He swiftly threw away his return ticket and found himself living in the maquis before moving to the Bateau Lavoir in 1900, selling his paintings on the pavement outside the Cirque Medrano and stealing milk and bread that was left on people’s doorsteps.
His break came in November 1904, when Ambroise Vollard exhibited his work alongside Matisse at his gallery in Rue Laffitte, and acquaintance with Derain and Vlaminck followed. This meeting of the Fauves with the world of the Bateau Lavoir is evident in Buste de femme nue — in the direct treatment of the nude and slightly Cubist-inspired organisation of her facial features, together with a Fauve’s ‘wild beast’ use of colour.
Kees van Dongen (1877-1968), L’élégante au chapeau, circa 1930. Oil on canvas, 29 x 19¾ in (73.9 x 50.3 cm). This work was offered in the Impressionist & Modern Art Day Sale on 3 February 2016 at Christie’s in London and sold for £422,500
Despite the hardships, the dwellers of the Bateau Lavoir remembered it fondly — even at the height of their careers. Picasso remained nostalgic for the Montmartre village of his youth; the farms and cabarets, selling sketches for 50 centimes to a dealer on the Rue des Martyrs. As he said to his friend André Salmon, ‘We will all go back to Rue Ravignan! In fact, we were never so happy as there.’ Those grim studios also had a place in van Dongen’s heart. Thirty years later and by then a great success, he would name his villa on the Cote d’Azur ‘Bateau Lavoir’.
Paul Delvaux and the Bateau Lavoir legacy
Paul Delvaux (1897-1994), The Clairvoyant, 1974. Lithograph in colours, on wove paper, watermark Bateau Lavoir. Image: 790 x 585 mm. Sheet: 998 x 685 mm. This work was offered in Paul Delvaux: L’Esprit Belge — A Collection of Prints, 26 January-4 February 2016, Online
A renowned figure in the Parisian art world, Madame Mira Jacob Wolfovska (1912-2004) continued the legacy of Le Bateau Lavoir — and firmly established her own — when she opened her eponymous gallery on Paris’s rue de Seine in 1955. Named after the fabled studios in Montmarte, Galerie Le Bateau Lavoir quickly became known for its exhibitions of Surrealist art, of which Jacob was a passionate advocate.
Paul Delvaux (1897-1994), The Garden, 1971. Lithograph in colours, on Arches wove paper. Image: 560 x 760 mm. Sheet: 664 x 662 mm. This work was offered in Paul Delvaux: L’Esprit Belge — A Collection of Prints, 26 January-4 February 2016, Online
Much like the original Bateau Lavoir, Jacob’s gallery became a centre for the most prominent literary and artistic figures of the period, the gallerist’s friends including André Breton, Alberto Giacometti, Marc Chagall, Jean Cassou, René Char, and Georges Braque, among others.
Paul Delvaux (1897-1994), The Station, 1971. Lithograph, on Arches wove paper. Image: 575 x 780 mm. Sheet: 690 x 905 mm. This work was offered in Paul Delvaux: L’Esprit Belge — A Collection of Prints, 26 January-4 February 2016, Online
Mira Jacob’s extensive collection was dominated by two artists: Odilon Redon, whose mystical compositions had a later influence on the Surrealists, and Paul Delvaux, the Symbolist whose dreamy tableaux reflected a distinctively Belgian spirit of Modernism, enigmatic and gently unsettling. Jacob was instrumental in encouraging Delvaux’s lithographic work, and became a passionate advocate of his artistic practice; Jacob went on to publish almost all of his prints after 1965, as well as writing the catalogue raisonné for his graphic work.
From 1969 to 1970 Paul Delvaux created a series of prints in tribute to the original Bateau Lavoir, and not a moment too soon. On 12 May 1970 a fire spread through the wooden labyrinth of passageways and sheds off the Place Ravignan, reducing the birthplace of Modernism to ashes.
Main image at top: Bateau Lavoir 1952 © Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
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