Vincent Willem Van Gogh (30 March 1853 – 29 July 1890) spent two years in Paris. It was to be an exciting and important period in the young Dutch artist’s life as he was swept up by the artists who were changing the world’s vision so comprehensively.
In the spring of 1886 he moved from Antwerp to live with his younger brother Theo, a Parisian art dealer, in his small apartment at 25 Rue Victor Masse. Two months later they moved into a bigger apartment at 54 Rue Lepic where Vincent had his own spacious studio.
Like many other artists and dealers, the Van Gogh brothers’ choice of Montmartre was deliberate. On the northern edge of Paris and on the highest hill, Montmartre was entirely different from the rest of Paris. It wasn’t even part of Paris at that time. Instead Montmartre offered a demi-monde Bohemian life. It was full of bars, cafés and restaurants, inhabited by fellow artists, actors, singer and dancers, ladies of decidedly easy virtue and prostitutes. 19th-century Montmartre offered a cheap and easy Parisian life.
It’s changed of course, but there are still elements of the former disreputable and tacky district left.
A Walk around Montmartre
A walk around Montmartre is the best way to see the buildings associated with Van Gogh’s time in Paris. Decide between any of the many companies who offer Van Gogh walks; or take your own route.
See where he lived, where he ate and drank and met some of the artists flocking to Paris: Camille Pissarro, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Gauguin, Paul Signac and Émile Bernard. Of these, Bernard is the least well known, but he was a significant artist and writer. He chronicled the new modern arts styles that were so revolutionary, but more importantly for anyone interested in 19th-century Paris, he described life among the disparate group of artists.
The close group of friends shared exhibitions, models and lovers, caroused in bars and arranged their own exhibitions – the Establishment would have nothing to do with them.
Van Gogh loved the city, writing to his British artist friend Horace Mann Livens as soon as he arrived: “And mind my dear fellow, Paris is Paris, there is but one Paris and however hard living may be here and if it became worse and harder even – the French air clears up the brain and does one good – a world of good.”
Van Gogh in Paris Paintings
In his two years in Paris, Van Gogh produced a glorious series of works. He painted portraits of friends and acquaintances, still lifes, views of Paris and particularly of Montmartre, scenes in the rural village of Asnières and along the peaceful Seine.
The Boulevard de Clichy which marks the southern boundary of Montmartre was a favorite subject of all the artists in Paris. It’s pretty similar today.
The Mills of Montmartre
Back then 300 windmills operated in Paris, 30 of them standing high on the hills around Montmartre. One of the oldest, Le Butte-fin, dated back to 1622 and was still producing flour in the 19th century.
In the early 19th century the Debray brothers bought the windmill and the Moulin Radet, both in the Rue Lepic. In 1870 they added an outdoor dance hall and guingette to the Butte-fin and renamed it Le Moulin de la Galette where you could get a glass of wine and bread made from the mill’s own flour. It was a popular hangout for the artists who painted it: Van Gogh, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec and Picasso.
Today Le Moulin de la Galette is still a restaurant; you’ll find it at 83 Rue Lepic.
The Artist Materials’ Shop
Julien François ‘Père’ Tanguy’s shop at 14 Rue Clauzel was the favorite art supplier for many of the artists living in Paris. The genial paint grinder, who his customers affectionately nicknamed ‘Père‘ also sold art, particularly the Japanese prints by Hokusai and Hiroshige which had such an influence on Van Gogh and his fellow painters.
Tanguy often took paintings by the impoverished artists as payment for materials, making his shop an experience like ‘visiting a museum’ of Impressionist paintings.
When Tanguy died in 1894 his daughter sold the Portrait of Père Tanguy to Rodin. You can see it in the Musée Rodin in Paris.
Where Van Gogh met his Friends
The Café du Tambourin at 62 Boulevard de Clichy was one of several local places where artists paid for their meals with paintings and organised exhibitions of their work. The owner, Agostina Segatori, was a model for many of the artists including Manet and Corot.
She and Van Gogh had a love affair but the story doesn’t end happily. They parted in 1887 after a stormy relationship though she kept his paintings including many of his still lifes. Then the café failed and she went bankrupt. The debtors sold Van Gogh’s paintings ‘as waste canvas’ in batches of ten costing from 50 centimes to one franc per batch. What was even more devastating to the young Van Gogh was that he lost the valuable frames.
Paintings of Asnières and the Seine
Asnières in the 19th century was a delightful country retreat on the Seine. It might have been a short train ride from Paris but Van Gogh preferred the 8-km (5-mile) walk which he did frequently.
Asnières itself was popular, particularly for the ‘unrestrained atmosphere’ of the regular dances. But the main reason for the trips outside Paris was the small island in the Seine just opposite Neuilly-sur-Seine, the Ile de la Grande Jatte.
Many of the Impressionists painted scenes in the park, but it was Seurat’s A Sunday on la Grande Jatte that is the one everyone recognises. It was the painting that launched pointillisme as an art style.
Along with other artists like Paul Signac and Emile Bernard Van Gogh painted the Seine at Asnières looking towards the Pont de Clichy. Van Gogh’s depictions of the area are delightful; it was here that he introduced a lighter, more colorful palette.
Signac frequently met up with Van Gogh. “I would encounter him at Asnières and at Saint-Ouen. We painted together on the riverbanks, we lunched at roadside cafes and we returned by foot to Paris via the Avenues of Saint-Ouen and Clichy.“
“Van Gogh, wearing the blue overalls of a zinc worker, would have little dots of color painted on his shirtsleeves. Striding quite close to me, he would be yelling, gesticulating and brandishing a large size-thirty, freshly painted canvas; in this fashion he would manage to polychrome both himself and the passers-by.”
Visiting Asnières-sur-Seine today
Asnières became Asnières-sur-Seine in 1968 and it’s still a delightful place to visit. Cross over to the Ile de la Grande Jatte and walk the route that takes you around the island indicating the places painted by the Impressionists.
How to get to Asnières-sur-Seine
From Paris Saint-Lazare:
Transilien railnetwork: Line L /J to Gare D’asnieres-sur-Seine
Metro: Line 13 to Gabriel Peri then 12 minute walk
Van Gogh’s Work in Le Musée d’Orsay
One of the highlights of any visit to Paris is the Musée d’Orsay, the spectacular museum on the Left Bank devoted to major French art between 1848 and 1914.
27 paintings by Van Gogh include highlights such as Starry Night Over the Rhône (1888); Self Portrait (1889), and Bedroom in Arles (1888).
The paintings of his time in Paris in the collection include La Guingette (Le Moulin de la Galette) and the Restaurant de la Sirène at Asnières. Most of the other paintings Van Gogh did in Paris are in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
Don’t Miss Van Gogh in London
Don’t miss this exhibition in London which is coming from October 2021. You must book now.
L’Atelier des Lumières, a digital art museum but not just any digital art museum, is putting on its extraordinary art immersion project on Van Gogh. They haven’t revealed the London location yet but it should be as impressive as the show. It will take you into an enclosed space where hundreds of Van Gogh’s paintings are transformed to fill and move around the whole space: floor, walls and ceiling while you list to music like Nina Simone’s Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.
The show was produced and has been shown in France and is now touring the world.
In France three permanent locations that are part of the Culture Space enterprise put on annual art shows of different artists. Paris has (Les Ateliers de Lumières), Bordeaux (Bassin de Lumières), and Les Baux de Provence (Les Carrières de Lumières).
More about France and its Art
Did you know that Toulouse-Lautrec was a great cook and gourmet? He cooked elaborate meals for his friends and made special menus and invitations for them.