November 21, 2014

Caddy Rowland - Making History, Bohemian Style (Part 11)

Please welcome back historical fiction author and artist, Caddy Rowland, our monthly contributor here at Historical Fiction Connection.

Le Bateau-Lavoir

For the last several months I’ve (hopefully) entertained and educated you about the art scene in Paris during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. We’ve talked about what Impressionism is, how it happened, where the artist’s hung out, where they bought supplies, and where they painted. I’m a painter myself, and many times I find myself fantasizing about how cool it would have been to have lived and painted during those crazy times. I’m sure they did have a lot of fun. But, as I’ve mentioned, most of the time they struggled. I’d like to say things have changed for artists today, but they still struggle to put food on the table and a roof over their head. It seems everyone would love to own original oil—for twenty-five dollars! :)

Back then so many artists went without food and decent places to live that I believe perhaps this is where the term “starving artist” came from. As you now know, Au Lapin Agile fed artists soup at the end of the night. Other times, when an artist sold a painting or was lucky enough to receive money from a concerned relative, they often used their newly acquired “money” to buy enough food for all of their friends to join them in a meal. Commune living at its finest!

Finding a place to live wasn’t easy, either. Only a few decades earlier they had been at least guaranteed a warm room and food from the wealthy families who hired them to paint family history. Now, part of the price for artistic freedom was finding a place to live they could actually afford. Trust me; most of these artists didn't have fancy studios or apartments. Some eventually ended up wealthy and successful, but not without first living hand to mouth. Renoir, Degas, and Picasso all ended up famous and wealthy, along with a few others. These men had lovely homes and gardens in their later years. One of these, Picasso, was a rare exception. Although Picasso did live in the tenements that were called artist's quarters when he first arrived in Paris, but he became famous before he was an old man. Renoir and Degas sometimes peddled paintings door to door, trying to gather enough money so as not to get evicted.

Max Jacob, a journalist and poet, became friends with Picasso when he first arrived in Paris. He taught Picasso French and the two men shared an apartment. The apartment consisted of one small room. Besides being small, it was extremely cold. Sometimes, to stay warm, they burned Picasso’s paintings. I’m not sure if this room was in the Le Bateau-Lavoir, but since both men did live in this building I’m betting it was.

A young Picasso in front of Le Bateau-Lavoir and one of his works in progress.

Le Bateau-Lavoir was a run-down dump of a building that served as an artist’s commune. Because of the hills in Montmartre, part of the compound was one story, and another more than three stories. People often commented it looked more like a heap of garbage than a building. Whenever it was windy the building swayed. There was no heat or plumbing. Because of the swaying and creaking it reminded people of the washing boats on the river. That’s how it got its name, which means the laundry boat, along with the fact that the way it was set up inside made it look like an ocean liner. The building was poorly heated, making it miserable during the winter months. One of Picasso’s mistresses during the time would stay in bed all day just to keep warm. One night she left a cup of water on the stand by the bed. In the morning the water was frozen solid. Additionally, there was one water tap in the whole building.

This dump of a building housed a ridiculously high number of creative geniuses—geniuses who would make art history. Click here to read the names of many of those great artists, under "history". Renoir was another who lived here for awhile, and Suzanne Valadon (who would herself become a painter) was his model. All but the façade was destroyed by fire in 1970. It was rebuilt in 1978.

Just like now, artists searched out the cheapest housing they could find, hoping against hope that somehow, someday they would become popular enough to have money to live on. Many of the artists from this time period did become famous. Unfortunately, most of them were old or dead by the time it happened.

Regardless, these artists went into painting knowing it wasn’t easy. They would probably never get rich, never see fame. Why did they paint? They painted because they had to. They had no choice. It’s why they were born.

Another view of Le Bateau-Lovoir

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