Montparnasse District

Since I have started strolling in Paris following Atget's footsteps, the bare minimum is to visit the street where he lived, rue Campagne-Première in the district of Montparnasse. Thus, this is where we will start. Digging into his work more and more frequently, Atget's photographs have become more and more familiar to my eyes, and a peculiar link seems to have bound me to his work, through time and space. So familiar to me, his large photo albums somehow feel part of my memory albums. Could it be a Freudian transfert, as my Parisian grand-father used the same photographic chamber.

Honoré de Balzac, Emile Zola and Walter Benjamin have described the 14th district in a way that is not really inspiring. It is true that in their time, this district was essentially devoted to hospitals, from maternity hospitals to elderly homes, as well as orphanages and convents. It was before Montparnasse became the center of the Parisian artistic and cultural life, in the 1920's, when the artists moved away from Montmartre to Montparnasse, making the fame of cafes and restaurants like Closerie des Lilas and la Coupole. This is where the Catacombes, one of the most visited place in Paris, are located …

-       Starting point at the metro station Raspail or bus line 68
-       Rue Campagne-Première where lived Eugène Atget and Man Ray. Towards boulevard Raspail via the quiet passage d’Enfer and place Denfert-Rochereau where the Catacombes are located
-       Boulevard René Coty (old Water manhole), rue Hallé (Houses),  boulevard du Général Leclerc towards  boulevard Arago and  rue du Faubourg Saint-Jacques (Observatoire de Paris Garden)
-       Rue Cassini (Observatoire de Paris)
-       Port-Royal, today a maternity hospital, was in the past a convent playing a major role in a French theological movement called Jansenism
-       Val-de-Grâce Church
-       Luxembourg Garden and  Great Explorer’s Garden (Jardin des Grands Explorateurs)
-       Boulevard de Montparnasse (famous Cafes and brasseries)

Rue Campagne-Première

Passage d'Enfer

In 1899, Eugène Atget rented an apartment at 17 bis rue Campagne-Première. He was then 42 years old and had just stopped acting, as he used to be in a theatre troop. His partner, Valentine, actress as well kept busy with her theatre activities until 1902 when she decided to move to Paris and live with him. Being a true artist at heart, he started practicing  painting before photography. His first photographs were landscape pictures that he was selling to painters.
Then, working with the Commission du Vieux Paris (Municipal Commission of Old Paris), he became a photographer of Paris.  He sold his negative glass plates not only to the Commission but to many other organisations, like Musée Carnavalet, the Bibliothèque Nationale, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, today my precious sources.
I can imagine him, leaving his apartment, at dawn of day, with his heavy and bulky equipment; walking around in the streets holding a 13x18 camera with big bellows, a heavy wooden tripod and glass plates, walking around in the streets.  
It is also in this street that Man Ray moved to Paris, around 1921, and rented a ground-floor studio at 31 bis rue Campagne-Première. He had then the opportunity to meet with his neighbor, Eugène Atget, whose photographs appeared to him remarkably modern, even surreal, though the technique he used was old-fashioned.
It is how, Man Ray's young American assistant, Berenice Abbott, met Atget and took his two portraits before his death in 1927. When the young American photographer came back to the United States, she brought back several thousand of Atget's negative glass plates. To a very large extent, recognition of Atget is due to Berenice Abbott, especially with the publication of a book in 1930: Atget, photographe de Paris. Though Atget was working with several Parisian institutions, he did not get any recognition during his lifetime and his posthumous recognition came from the United States.
Inspired by Atget who was claiming his photographs as just documents, Berenice Abott dedicated her career to exploring strength of photography when it can combine both notions of documentary and aesthetic.

Let’s walk back on our steps going through Passage d’Enfer which opens at 21 rue Campagne-Première to go back to boulevard Raspail. This is a private quiet passage, where we can see the back of the building with ceramics located at 31 rue Campagne Première. Let’s turn left onto boulevard Raspail heading up to Place Denfert-Rochereau.  

We walk past Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain, designed by Jean Nouvel, easily recognizable with the glass walls covered with vegetation.  

  • 17bis, rue Campagne-Première

  • 31bis, rue Campagne-Première

Place Denfert-Rochereau

Place Denfert-Rochereau
Colonne Morris
Atget - 1898
(BnF)

The public square got its name from colonel Denfert-Rochereau, who defended courageously the Territoire de Belfort during the 1870 conflict against Prussia. He is represented symbolically as a lion, replica of the monumental red sandstone sculpture in Belfort done by Bartholdi (sculptor of the Statue of Liberty).

In French, it also sounds like a pun. Denfert, sounds like d'Enfer, which was the older name of that same area. In the past, it was barrière d'Enfer. Barrière d'Enfer was a toll house through the Farmers General Wall. And in French it sounds like gate of hell. Quite an appropriate name for an area which collapsed a fateful day of December 1774. The accident which destroyed several houses recurred later in April 1777.
It was a part of the stone quarries which collapsed. The stone quarries beneath Paris were used in the past during several centuries to extract the lime stone. King Louis XVI appointed Guillaumot, an engineer, to a huge and tedious task of classifying and consolidating the underground galleries of the Parisian quarries.
Though not an entrance to hell, when accessing the Catacombes, today one of the most visited places in Paris, the visitors are welcomed by these words: « Arrête ! C'est ici l'empire de la mort ! » (Halt! This is the Empire of Death). When the Holy Innocents cemetery near the Halles was condemned for causing major health problems, it was decided to exhume and move the remains of bodies, more or less in decay, into the quarries recently consolidated. I can hardly imagine the gruesome carriages through Paris transferring the dead at night to the old quarries transformed into catacombs. Later, other Paris' dead from other condemned cemeteries were moved between 1786 and 1860.

The entrance to the Catacombes is located in one of the two toll houses built by Claude-Nicolas Ledoux through the former Farmers General Wall. The other toll house, across the street, shown on Atget's photo, is today near the metro station. There were fifty monumental toll houses all around this wall closing Paris. Few of them were kept, like the ones place Denfert-Rochereau, the two Rotondas de la Villette and Parc Monceau, and the two columns place de la Nation. It was a wall, 24 kilometers long, not intended to defend Paris, but only to force payment of tolls on goods entering Paris. It was demolished in 1860 and we roughly follow its former layout when we take the aerial metro on lines 2 and 6.

  • Porte d’Enfer
    Rue Denfert-Rochereau
    Atget – 1901
    (Musée Carnavalet)

Avenue René Coty - Manhole N° XXV

We now walk in front of the Denfert-Rochereau railway station, the oldest in Paris. It was opened in 1846, for the first railway line between Paris and Sceaux.  

Let’s go to avenue René Coty.

In Belleville, we have the opportunity to see several manholes giving access to the underground pipelines formerly supplying spring water.

Manhole (Regard XXV), located avenue René Coty on the grounds of the hospital de la Rochefoucauld, sits above the Medici underground aqueduct which used to supply Paris with spring water collected in Rungis and brought to a building called la Maison du Fontainier. This building can be visited on request or during the Heritage Days. We will later pass-by this building, when we will be in rue Cassini and rue de l'Observatoire. 

King Henry IV, concerned by the lack of safe water for Parisians,  formed the project  of re-establishing the former  Roman aqueduct. He therefore asked his minister Sully to rebuild the old aqueduct built in the 2nd century which was supplying the Gallo-Roman baths in Cluny. But, the brutal death of the king stopped the project. It was renewed later by the queen Maria de Medici to supply water to the fountains and basins of her new Luxembourg Palace.
After ten years of work, the new aqueduct was completed in 1623 and was supplying water to Paris from Rungis. The water was brought to the building, la Maison du Fontainier, from where the water was supplied firstly to the Luxembourg Palace and later to the public fountains. The aqueduct supplied water until mid 19th century and was fully disused in 1904, except one conduct supplying the lake and the cascade in the Parc Montsouris.   

Let’s walk up to rue Hallé on our right, then rue Sophie Germain and avenue du Général Leclerc on our right.
Rue Hallé, we will see a small shop selling many art supplies for drawing and painting.  Recently opened, it is a subsidiary of the very old and famous Sennelier shop, opened in 1887 close to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. A little bit further, we will see a group of  houses with their  charming gardens built in 1830, called the Village of Orléans.   

  • Water manhole
    Avenue d’Orléans
    (today avenue du Général Leclerc)
    Atget – 1914
    (Mission du Patrimoine Photographique)

  • Medici Aqueduct -
    Manhole nr XXV
    Hospital of la Rochefoucaud
    from avenue René Coty

  • Village d’Orléans – rue Hallé

Avenue du Général Leclerc - Hospice de la Rochefoucauld

At the end of rue Sophie-Germain, let's turn to the right into avenue du Général Leclerc. At N°15, behind the straight tree lined alley, we can see the retirement home de la Rochefoucauld. We saw its rear facade when we stopped in front of the man hole, in avenue René Coty. When this royal hospital was founded in 1780, it was dedicated to sick and poor old military and clergy men; it is today a geriatric home.

On our left, we walk in front of the lively pedestrian market street, rue Daguerre. We will miss now the small silhouette of the film maker Agnès Varda who lived in this street.

Let's continue walking up to place Denfert-Rochereau that we will cross to arrive in boulevard Arago.

  • La maison La Rochefoucauld
    Avenue d’Orléans
    (today avenue du Général Leclerc)
    Atget - 1920
    (Maison du Patrimoine photographique)

When in Boulevard Arago, we pass by the Garden of the Observatory, where Arago’ s statue was restored in  2016. The new wavy and curved sculpture designed by the Belgian artist Wim Delvoye has replaced the former statue erected in 1893 where today remains only an empty pedestal. This statue, melted by the Germans in 1942 was erected in front of the garden, exactly where the Meridian is crossing Bouleverad Arago (place de l’Ile de Sein). The white dome of the Observatory can be seen at the back of the garden.   

Founded by Colbert (King Louis XIV’s minister of Finances), the Paris Observatory is the oldest observatories in the world still in use. Claude Perrault (one of the Louvre’s architects),  designed the building according to the Paris Meridian passing through its center. The Meridian is represented on the second floor by a brass line inlaid across the floor.

Let’s turn on the left into rue du Faubourg Saint-Jacques.  

Rue du Faubourg Saint-Jacques - Hôtel de Massa

The photo taken by Atget shows the Hôtel de Massa, a former countryside house (in French a folie) built in 1777 which would have hosted the romances of the Comte d'Artois, brother of the King Louis XVI. But, in 1905, the house was located elsewhere, more precisely at the intersection of Champs-Elysées and rue de la Boétie. Seven months before the Storming of the Bastille, the house was sold to the Duke of Richelieu still using it as a place of pleasure. The house was abandoned during the French Revolution period, during which Alexandre Lenoir (who saved many art objects during the Revolution) saved two statues made by Michelangelo: the Dying Slave and the Rebellious Slave, today held at the Louvre.
As the house of the Italian Ambassador during the French Empire, it recovered its past splendor. It has its name from the Duke of Massa, host of many receptions during the Second Empire.
In 1926, the house was bought by the owner of the Galeries Lafayette. The project was to demolish it and replace it by a shopping center. Instead, the building was moved stone by stone in 1928 and rebuilt here in the Garden of the Paris Observatory.
Ever since then, it is the head office of the Société des Gens de Lettres, a public utility association founded in 1838 upon instigation of Honoré de Balzac, advocating today author's rights .
An Art Deco building is standing where was the Hôtel de Massa in Champs Elysées. It was built by the National City Bank of America. And by a funny twist of history, the building has been fully restored for the concept store just opened in March 2019 by Galeries Lafayette…

Let’s turn on the left into rue Cassini.

  • Hôtel Massa (Street side) Hôtel d’Artois à Paris
    Corner avenue des Champs-Elysées and rue de la Boétie
    Atget – 1905
    (Médiathèque du Patrimoine)

  • Hôtel Massa
    today at 38, rue du Faubourg Saint-Jacques

Rue Cassini

Villas rue Cassini
(3bis, 5 et 7)

Giovanni Domenico Cassini, recruited in 1669 was the first of a family dynasty of Paris Observatory Directors, during one hundred and twenty five years up to the French Revolution.

François Arago, director of the Paris Observatory from 1843 to 1853 said these words about his neighbor,  the writer Honoré de Balzac who also lived rue Cassini: "... From my  window, I could see him by the flickering light of candles: we were two night workers, myself with the eyes directed into the space, himself with the head downward his paper. And I am not sure that the one able to see the farthest was the astronomer! ..."

It was certainly no pleasure for Balzac to settle in this district, that he described in his novel History of the Thirteen, Ferragus:
"There in fact, Paris has ceased to be; and yet Paris is still there. This place smacks at one and the same time of the city square, the street, the boulevard, the fortification, the garden, the avenue, the highway, the province and the capital; certainly it has something of all that but is nothing of all that: it is a desert."
However, he had to flee away from his creditors who were waiting for him rue des-Marais-Saint-Germain (today rue Visconti) where he had his printing press. He therefore settled in a house at N° 4 to 8 rue Cassini (cf: Connaissance du Vieux Paris – J. Hillairet), under the name of Surville, his brother-in-law. 

A series of three amazing and different villas for artists, built between 1903 and 1906, by Louis Süe, painter and architect can be seen at N° 3bis, 5 and 7.  

The Paris Observatory can be seen at the end of the street. Their website offers a large set of astronomy learning services and resources.  

The Maison du Fontainier (meaning the house of the fountain keeper) is standing right next the Paris Observatory. I was referring to it when we were in front of the man hole on avenue René Coty. This is where the Medici aqueduct was arriving. The person who had the royal charge of the water supply was living in the house. The aqueduct had twenty seven man holes (Regards), as points of control and maintenance. We saw the no 25 on avenue René Coty and the Maison du Fontainier has the no 27. Under the house, in a basement, there were three basins and canals. The first was distributing the water to the Luxembourg Palace, the second to the convents and the third to several public fountains in Paris. Visits can be arranged with the association of Paris Historique. The house is generally opened during the Heritage Days. See also this page for a virtual visit.

Let’s continue in the boulevard de l’Observatoire, then rue Henri Barbusse leading to boulevard de Port-Royal. 

  • Front of the house where Balzac settled in 1829
    (Note written by Atget)
    6, rue Cassini
    Atget – 1912
    (Musée Carnavalet)

Boulevard de Port-Royal - Convent of Port-Royal

Maternity Hospital - Boulevard de Port-Royal
Atget – 1899
(BnF)

The convent of Port-Royal in Paris was first created as an extension of the abbey of Port-Royal des Champs (Port-Royal in the Fields), founded in 1204 in the Vallée de Chevreuse, close to Dampierre, southwest of Paris. It is possible to see today some ruins of the abbey and a museum. The marshes around the abbey became so unhealthy that the nuns moved in 1625 to a land in Paris owned by the abbess Angélique Arnaud, where the monastery of Port-Royal de Paris was built.
The name of Port-Royal is closely associated with the Jansenism, which doctrine hostile to the Jesuits was introduced in 1636 by the Abbott of Saint-Cyran, a follower of Cornelius Jansen. Blaise Pascal, engaged in the Jansenism controversy, was frequently meeting with his sister, nun at Port-Royal and wrote his famous religious libel: the Provincial letters. Port-Royal was defending  a very strict  catholic practice and was blaming the Jesuits and King Louis XIV for their moral laxity.  
The play Port-Royal written by Henry de Montherlant takes place in the convent during one day in August 1664, with the archbishop Beaumont de Péréfixe trying to convince the nuns of signing a document in which they formally renounce at the propositions in the writings of Jansen.
The convent was converted into a prison during the French Revolution, under the name of Port-Libre (Strange name for a prison … Libre meaning Free …). Lavoisier, the famous chemist, spent his last hours in this prison before being guillotined.
In 1795, the buildings were transformed into a Maternity hospital and since 1814 is known as Maternity of Port-Royal.

The old monastery buildings as photographed by Atget are still there, the cloister and the chapel have also been preserved.

Let’s now cross the boulevard to take rue Pierre Nicole. Let’s turn on the right into rue du Val-de-Grâce.

Rue du Val-de-Grâce

L'intérieur d'une cuisine Martin Drölling

In front of us, we can see the church of Val de Grace. The first symbolic stone was settled in 1645 by the young king Louis XIV, who was six years-old at the time. His mother, Queen Ann of Austria, made a vow to God to erect a beautiful temple if He gave her a child. At the age of thirty-six, she finally gave birth to Louis XIV after twenty-two years of marriage. Quite naturally, she chose the abbey of Val de Grâce, where she frequently met the abbess Marguerite d'Arbouze.
When he built the imposing church, François Mansart met huge difficulties due to the weak soil laying above several old quarries. Later in 1793, the porter of Val de Grâce went down into those quarries and got lost. His skeleton was only found eleven years later and was recognized thanks to the bunch of keys hanging from his belt.   He was buried where his last remains were found, below place Louis-Marin. For the cataphiles, his grave is now a special place.      

Per her vow, Ann Austria's heart of Ann was buried in the church of Val de Grâce, where other royal hearts were buried until the French Revolution. In 1793, the urns containing the Royal Hearts were profaned; per a legend told by the French historian, André de Castelot,  these hearts could have been used to make a Mummy Brown. These pigments used with oil paint could provide an excellent glazing. Martin Drölling could have used it for his painting L'intérieur d'une cuisine.

The Benedictine nuns had to definitively leave their convent transformed into a military hospital during the French Revolution. Up to the 21th century, Val de Grâce kept its vocation of military medicine. However, the modern hospital built in 1979 was closed in 2016 and its services transferred to the two other military hospitals: Bégin in Saint-Mandé and Percy in Clamart. The church and the museum settled in the former monastery are open to the public. Be careful though as the museum shows a very impressive collection of casts and moulages taken from horribly mutilated faces of First World War veterans.

Mucha lived in a large apartment studio at n°6, rue du Val de Grâce during the years he spent in Paris from 1886 to 1906, period when he mastered his Art Nouveau style.

Let’s now turn on the left into rue Saint-Jacques.

  • Rue du Val de Grâce
    Atget – 1900
    (Musée Carnavalet)

Rue Saint-Jacques - Convent Feuillantines & des Bénédictins

All this area was devoted to the religion until the French Revolution period. We saw some examples with the Benedictine nuns of Val de Grâce and the Abbey of Port-Royal. There was also the Visitandine, the Ursuline, the Carmelite, the Feuillantine convents, the English Benedictines congregation … The Feuillantine convent was also founded by Ann of Austria in 1626. Closed during the French Revolution, it was divided into several houses where lived Victor Hugo as a young child; Later, he wrote: 

And thus, already thoughtful, sixty years ago I lived a child !
Only with deep emotion can I recall those days.

My life glided on amid the flowers.

In the garden of the Feuillantines I rambled as a child,

I wandered as a youth, watching butterflies,
Culling buttercups, seeing no one but my mother and my two brothers
And the goodold priest who perambulated the place, his book continually beneath his arm.

 

Occasionally I would venture through the garden
to the gloomy thicket at the end :
in its dim recesses there would seem no motion but the winds;
the solitary sound came from the birds' nests;
no life was manifest except in the trees.
Gazing through the branches, I could espy the crumbling fabric of the ancient chapel,
and the shattered panes enabled me to perceive the sea-shells
fantastically embedded on the inner wall.
The birds hew in and out of the unprotected windows;
for the birds the ruin was a home.
God and the birds were there together.

In 1640 the English Benedictines monks, fleeing the schism in England, bought a small land owned by the Feuillantines. They settled down their convent at the n° 269bis of rue Saint-Jacques.
Later, the King James II, was forced to exile when William of Orange invaded England and ousted the king,  his father-in-law. He lived in France, in the royal chateau of Saint-Germain-en-Laye where he died. On his death, he was laid in the monastery chapel until the Revolution, during which his tomb was profaned.
The old monastery is now an eminent music school, the Schola Cantorum.

  • Former Feuillantines convent
    269 bis rue Saint-Jacques
    Atget – 1900 /1901
    (BnF)

Rue de l'Abbé-de-l'Epée

Rue de l’Abbé de l’Epée and
Church Saint-Jacques-du-Haut-Pas
Atget – 1899
(Wikimedia Commons)

Before turning into rue de l'Abbé de l'Epée, we pass by the National Institute for Young Deaf in Paris, created by Charles Michel de l'Epée (1712-1789). He imagined a sign language based on the French syntax.

Jean-Denis Cochin, known for his devotion to poor people, was the parish priest of the church Saint-Jacques du Haut-Pas from 1756 to 1780. He founded a small hospital for poor people in the faubourg Saint-Jacques, which finally became the Hôpital Cochin. The tombs of Jean-Denis Cochin and Jean-Dominique Cassini were in this church until their bodies were moved to the catacombs in 1850.

Let’s now cross boulevard Saint-Michel and take rue Auguste Comte to turn on our left into the Jardin des Explorateurs (Garden of the Great explorers), an extension of the Luxembourg gardens.  

Jardin des Grands Explorateurs

This garden, created in 1867, provides an extended and pleasant view on the Luxembourg Gardens. The name is a homage to the explorers Marco Polo and Cavelier de la Salle. The monumental fountain of the Four Parts of the World (Fontaine des Quatre Parties du Monde) was created by several different artists: It was designed and supervised by Davioud; the bronze figures representing Europe, Asia, Africa and America were created by Carpeaux; the globe decorated with zodiac signs was created by Legrain; the sea horses and the turtles of the basin were created by Frémiet.

The gardens sit more or less where was the Castle Vauvert, built at the end of the 10th century. At that time, the castle was far away from the centre of Paris and there were rumours that it was inhabited by the devil and ghosts. This gave the French phrase: aller au diable Vauvert, meaning a dangerous journey to a distant country. Later, the castle was given by the king Louis IX to the monks of Chartre who kept it until the French Revolution.

We now leave the garden and take boulevard du Montparnasse.

  • Fontaine de l’Observatoire created by Carpeaux
    Jardin du Luxembourg
    Atget – 1901/1902
    (Musée Carnavalet)

  • Luxembourg
    Fountain Carpeaux
    Atget – 1901/1902
    (INHA)

Boulevard du Montparnasse

126, boulevard du Montparnasse
The Society of Catholic Workers Circle was created in 1865 in this house
Atget - 1903
(BnF)

We now pass in front of a famous restaurant, la Closerie des Lilas, a main meeting point for many intellectuals at the beginning of the 20th century. The poet Guillaume Apolinaire wrote about this part of Montparnasse which became for the painters and the poets what was Montmartre before, a haven of good and open simplicity.

Atget photographed a house located at nr 126 boulevard du Montparnasse, four years before it was destroyed. The first catholic circle for workers was created in this house in 1865 by a brother of Saint-Vincent de Paul, Paul Maignen.
In the aftermath of the class-based violence of the Commune, the Society of Catholic Workers Circles expanded everywhere in France. It started in Belleville, one of the main hotbeds for the Commune, and where the slaughter of hostages took place (cf: Villa of the hostages – rue Haxo).
It was then implemented in Montmartre, near the wall where several soldiers were shot and where the Sacré-Coeur was built, per the National vow (cf: Sacré-Coeur).  

The influence of the Catholic Workers Circles diminished as the socialism became more important at the beginning of the 20th century. The Catholic Circle of Montparnasse was destroyed in 1907 and a new building with painters studios was created in 1908-1912. The access to the two yards is today private. The white buildings with large bay windows overlooking the yards were designed by Louis Süe, the architect of the three houses for painters rue Cassini (see above). Originally, the painters studios were firstly intended to be used by young couples of artists. One may doubt that it is still true today …   

  • 126, boulevard du Montparnasse
    Building and painters studios Created in 1908

We now arrive at Carrefour Vavin, where many artists were gathering at the beginning of the 20th century in four cafes as famous as la Closerie des Lilas.
There was le Dôme, open in 1897, where many painters and the German art community were meeting. Wilhelm Uhde, leader of this German circle, discovered the Douanier Rousseau and Séraphine de Senlis as beautifully evoked by the filmmaker Martin Provost ‘s biopic Séraphine.
Le Dôme was the heart of the intellectual life of the artists, known as the Montparnos: the poet Apollinaire, his friends Max Jacob and Picasso, the surrealists Breton and Man Ray who transformed Kiki de Montparnasse into a violon d'Ingres, the painters Derain, Vlaminck, Gauguin, Modigliani, the writer Ernest Hemingway…
La Rotonde, across le Dôme, from a small bistro attended by workers became also the meeting point of the artists with its new owner in 1911.
Le Sélect where Hemingway and Scoot Fitzgerald were meeting and finally
la Coupole attended by Prévert, Picasso, Sartre and Beauvoir.

All the more reason to sit down in one of these cafes mostly attended by local people, as it is the end of our tour !                                               
  

  • Le Dôme,
    boulevard de Montparnasse
    Atget – June 1925
    (MoMA)

Copyright Year 2018 - Martine Combes author for text and photos of today Paris