In Montmartre

Certain neighborhoods are forever linked with certain time periods and movements: Harlem with its literary renaissance in the 1920s, Haight-Ashbury with the hippie subculture in the 1960s and Montmartre with the birth of modernity in the early 1900s. In her new book, In Montmartre: Picasso, Matisse and the Birth of Modernist Art, art historian Sue Roe captures the zeitgeist of this exciting Parisian neighborhood as it witnessed the unveiling of novel art movements during its cultural zenith. Roe begins the book with a young teenager named Pablo Picasso who journeys to Paris for the first time to take in the World’s Fair on April 14th, 1900. Throughout the book, she charts the artistic developments of both Picasso and his rival, Henri Matisse. The two painters swirl around each other, moving in smaller and smaller circles until they finally meet through the legendary Gertrude Stein and all the pieces begin to work together, revealing the intimacy of Montmartre’s exclusive salons.

A straight-forward, linear chronicle, In Montmartre is exhaustive and thorough. Roe presents the history like a series of snapshots, describing each scene in detail and then telling a story about that scene. In this way she moves deftly between Picasso and Matisse and all their contemporaries, including artists Georges Braque and Andre Derain, art collectors and dealers Gertrude and Leo Stein and Ambroise Vollard, and other fascinating characters, like Picasso’s on-and-off again girlfriend and model Fernande Olivier. New names slip in without flourish and familiar names pop up when least expected, providing a thrill for art history enthusiasts. Roe explores the cultural growth of the neighborhood, covering the cinema, theater, Ballets Russes and of course, the art, from the influential Salon des Independants and Salon d’Automne to the divisive and controversial birth of cubism. An obvious art lover, Roe shines when talking about art and richly portrays Picasso in particular, though she spares no details about the rest of the crew.

According to Roe, Picasso’s early days in Montmartre were the happiest of his life, but by 1911 Montmartre had changed drastically from an interconnected community to a blossoming tourist attraction. A Picasso painting hung on the wall of a famous cabaret called Lapin Agile until one day it vanished, stolen by an opportunistic collector, a sign of a neighborhood forever transformed. In the face of such change, Roe’s book is an important catalog of the neighborhood many hope to glimpse when traveling to today’s Paris.