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June 2004 - Americans in Paris - Montparnasse before WWI

It began as a heap of rubble lying in an open field, just outside the walls of Paris. Students from the Latin Quarter would gather around the mound to recite poetry. They called the rubble heap “Mount Parnassus”, after the mountain in Greece where the Muses resided. Years later the mound was leveled to make way for a great boulevard, but the influence of the Muses persisted.

In Paris, toward the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th, the sway of the Muses was still at work, inspiring writers and artists who came from all over the world to live and work in Montparnasse.

Years later the mound was leveled to make way for a great boulevard, but the influence of the Muses persisted.

In Paris, toward the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th, the sway of the Muses was still at work, inspiring writers and artists who came from all over the world to live and work in Montparnasse.

La RotondeIn the years running up to WWI, Montparnasse was a center of intellectual effervescence. Artists and writers gathered at the Dôme (opened in 1898) and La Rotonde (opened in 1903), two cafés located in the heart of Montparnasse, to discuss their theories. When the war began in 1914, a number of them were called upon or volunteered to meet their destinies on the battlefield, and the artistic face of Montparnasse was changed. Many, such as Picasso and Modigliani, would achieve fame or notoriety after the war.

A good number of the foreign artists in Montparnasse prior to World War I were Americans. James McNeill Whistler had a studio nearby on rue Notre-Dame des Champs. He is best known for Arrangement in Grey and Black (painted in London in 1871), more popularly known as Whistler’s Mother, now hanging at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

Another 19th century American artist who came to Paris was John Singer Sargent. Though he did not live in Montparnasse, he studied there at the atelier of French artist Carolus-Duran. Sargent’s portrait of American society matron, Madame Gautreau, entitled Madame X, created a scandal at the Paris Salon of 1884.

Frederick Carl Frieseke moved to Montparnasse around the turn of the century and studied at the Académie Julien and at James McNeill Whistler’s studio, the Académie Carmen. He later moved to the artist’s colony at Giverny, where Claude Monet resided. At the height of his career (in the 1910s and early 1920s) he was perhaps the most popular of all living American artists.

Henry Ossawa Tanner also lived in Montparnasse around the turn of the century. From 1894 his works were exhibited virtually every year in the Salon de Paris. In 1897, the French government purchased his painting The Resurrection of Lazarus.

Among the American writers who moved to Montparnasse just after the turn of the century, Gertrude Stein is perhaps the best known. She arrived in Paris in 1903, having followed her brother Leo to Paris. They lived together on rue de Fleurus, not too far from Montparnasse. There, they began purchasing and collecting paintings that reflected the new art form that was emerging. Gertrude was especially influenced by Cubism, and she sought to apply its principles (the simultaneous portrayal of an object from multiple points of view) to writing.

During the First World War, Stein was one of many Americans who remained in France and volunteered for the war effort. Other American writers, such as Hemingway, Dos Passos, and e.e. cummings, moved to France to do the same. An American woman, enamored of French literature and undeterred by the dangers of war, also moved from the safety of her sheltered life in the United States to arrive in Paris in 1917. Her name was Sylvia Beach, and her arrival would soon mark a major turning point in literary history.

In the second installment of “Americans in Montparnasse”, we will recount the story of Sylvia Beach and her immeasurable contribution to the literary movement that followed the end of the Great War.

Paris Panorama Newsletters for 2004