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Paris EN

in Modigliani’s Day


Fin-de-siècle Paris was a pulsating metropolis ranking among the largest cities in the world after London and New York. After the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71, Europe saw a period of peace and economic and cultural upswing. However, the continent and thus French society as well were thrown back and forth between extremes: the second Industrial Revolution, the chemical industry, electrical engineering, and the belief in progress and science went hand in hand with growing urban agglomerations and a proletarization of the workforce. At the same time, increasingly globally networking industries were still caught in the tight corset of states and monarchies with a nationalist outlook. Even worse: the rivalry of nation states for colonial and economic supremacy would soon lead up to World War I.

Between Belle Époque and Années Folles

The Belle Époque, as the period between 1885 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914 is often referred to, was the age of the bourgeoisie—the middle and upper classes—on the rise. In cafés, cabarets, and salons, issues of technology, science, the economy, and daily politics were widely discussed: a milieu that created the prerequisites for the period’s cultural heyday and, in a way, welcomed the avant-garde. The 1889 World’s Fair on the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution (construction of the Eiffel Tower) and the legendary reputation of Montmartre lured intellectuals and artists into Paris—be it such writers as Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce, photographers like Man Ray, sculptors, composers, and poets. The creativity of the penniless art scene, on the other hand, attracted such prominent patrons as Peggy Guggenheim. They were joined by numerous political emigrants from czarist Russia, including Lenin and Trotsky, who sat out the Revolution in Paris. In addition, Jews from Eastern Europe seeking to escape the ghettos and growing number of pogroms reunited in Paris.

Amedeo Modigliani, Pablo Picasso, André Salmon, 12th August 1916

© Paris Musées, musée Carnavalet, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image ville de Paris

There is a long list of prominent painters living side by side and enriching one another first in Montmartre and then in Montparnasse. To name just a few: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who rendered the world of Montmartre’s amusement establishment in a singular manner; Paul Gauguin, Paul Signac, Henri Matisse, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Édouard Manet, Vincent van Gogh, Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, and Diego Rivera, but also women like Suzanne Valadon and Marie Laurencin.

  • Jean Cocteau | Manuel Ortiz de Zarate, Moïse Kisling, Pâquerette and Picasso at Café La Rotonde, Montparnasse, 1916

    © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée national Picasso-Paris) / Thierry Le Mage
  • Paul Guillaume | Modigliani at his studio, Rue Ravignan, Montmatre, Paris, 1915

    © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée de l'Orangerie) / Archives Alain Bouret, image Dominique Couto
  • Moving from rue du Delta, 1913

    Photo: Marc Restellini
  • Modigliani’s studio at Cité Falguière, ca. 1914

    Photo: Marc Restellini

The First International Avant-garde

In those days, the Paris art scene was made up of thirty to forty percent of artists coming from abroad: a share that was a thorn in the flesh of conservative French critics and an insult to their national pride, which was commingled with anti-Semitism. The illustrator André Warnod named this group of foreign artists “École de Paris,” in response to the xenophobia and the anti-Semitism that had made itself felt in France since the Dreyfus affair.

Duncan David Douglas | Pablo Picasso, his son Paulo and Jacqueline Roque at his art collection, Chateau de Vauvenargues, 1959

© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée national Picasso-Paris) / image RMN-GP

When Modigliani arrived in Paris in 1906, opinions were divided in France as to the rehabilitation of the young Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfus, who had unjustly been accused of espionage in 1874. And yet, counteracting the powerful conservative side of France, there was also the movement of bohemians and non-conformists, who explicitly declined the bourgeois lifestyle and possessive mentality. The outbreak of World War I brought about a sharp caesura in the art world: whereas French citizens were summoned for military service, foreign artists, among them many Polish and Russian Jews, populated the studios and cafés in Montparnasse.

This was the Paris of Modigliani: the cradle of modern painting

Cafés such as La Rotonde, La Coupole and Le Select, which still exist today, were affordable even for penniless bohemians. They became the new gathering places and hubs frequented by the avant-garde. Numerous artists who are world famous today then lived in the studios of Montparnasse in the most miserable conditions. This was the Paris of Modigliani: the cradle of modern painting.

Maurice Drouard | The studio at rue du Delta, 1913

Photo: Marc Restellini

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