Just around the corner (literally) from the long lines at the Sacre Coeur in Montmartre is a charming under-visited museum. The crowds were huge at the Sacre Coeur with long lines to get through security, but at the Musee de Montmartre there were at most 4 or 5 people in line in front of us.
If you only visit Sacre Coeur and Place Tertre you are missing out on the essence of Montmartre. Montmartre was originally a village on the outskirts of paris and the Musee de Montmarte uses artifacts and paintings to show its history. The museum is worth a visit! Here are some highlights of the history of Montmartre:
A quarry for gypsym: Montmartre was the source of gypsum for “Plaster of Paris”. Gypsum was mined extensively in the quarries of the hill of Montmartre, so much so, that the butte (hill) was riddled with tunnels making the ground unstable. When the Basilica was built they had to build a special foundation that descended 40 metres under the ground to hold the structure in place.
Windmills to grind wheat: At one point there were up to fifteen windmills in Montmartre used mostly to grind wheat, but also to press grapes and crush materials needed in factories. Today, two windmills remain. The windmills of Montmartre appear paintings such as Le Moulin de la Galette, a series by Vincent van Gogh.
The Birthplace of the Cabarets: Le Chat Noir and the Lapin Agile were two of the cabarets located in Montmartre at the beginning of the 20th century. Writers, artists, poets, composers, and singers gathered at the clubs which provided entertainment, food, and drinks. Le Chat Noir was known for its shadow plays (théatre d’ombres) which used cutouts to project shows. The museum has a room full of rare zinc plates of scenes from the shadow theatre. The museum also has many examples of the posters which were used to advertise the cabarets. Le Moulin Rouge, the home of the Can Can, still operates at the foot of Montmartre.
A room of zinc plates for shadow plays:
A wall of photos of Can Can dancers.
Fun posters of “le chat noir.”
A gathering place for artists of all types:: Montmartre overall, not just the cabarets were a gathering place for writers, artists, poets, composers, and singers. Van Gogh painted the windmills. Toulouse Lautrec painted there and designed posters for the cabarets. Debussy hung out in the cafes and composed. Camille Pissarro painted.
The museum itself was founded in 1960, and is housed in one of the oldest buildings in Montmartre. During its heyday, the building 12 rue Cortot served as a residence and meeting place for many artists including Auguste Renoir, Suzanne Valadon and Émile Bernard, as well as the fauve artists Emile Othon Friesz and Raoul Dufy. Suzanne Valadon’s atelier has been recreated as part of the museum.