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Discovering Black Cats and the Cancan at Musée de Montmartre

While touring Montmartre, Neil and I paid a visit to its namesake museum—the Musée de Montmartre. (If you want to learn more about Montmartre and its history, check out my separate post).

The museum consists of two buildings: the Hotel Demarne and the Maison du Bel Aire. The Maison du Bel Aire, located at 12 Rue Cortot, was built in the 17th century and is one of the oldest buildings in Montmartre. It served as a house for famous artists such as Pierre-August Renoir, Suzanne Valadon, Maurice Ultrillo, and Émile Bernard.

The collections consist of paintings, photographs, manuscripts, posters, and other items that tell the history of the neighbourhood. Notable exhibits include artefacts from notable Montmotre cabaret Le Chat Noir, as well as an entire room dedicated to the French Cancan.

The museum was founded in 1960, but most of its collection comes from Le Vieux Montmartre, a History and Archeology Society that dates back to 1886.

The front of the Maison du Bel Aire, facing Rue Cortot.

Back view of the Maison du Bel Aire, taken from the gardens.

A broader view of the museum, the garden, and the Café Renoir. You can also see the white Montmartre water tower, which was built in 1927 from the same stone that was used to construct the Basilica Sacré-Coeur. It is still in use today and supplies the houses at the top of the hill with water.

Below is a view of the Clos Montmartre vineyard from the gardens of the museum. The vineyard was part of the grounds of the Royal Abbey of Montmartre, which was demolished during the French Revolution in 1790. Along with the Church of Saint-Pierre, the vineyard is all that remains of the Benedictine monastery (established by Louis VI in the 12th century) that once covered most of Montmartre.


Another view of the vineyard and the Montmartre neighbourhood from behind the museum. The vineyard was replanted in 1933 by the same society, Le Vieux Montmartre, whose artefacts make up the museum’s collection.

Let’s move on to the collections!

Gypsum mining was one of Montmartre’s main industries, and mines were dug beneath the butte from the time of Roman settlement (circa 52 C.E.) until 1860. The painting below depicts the entrance to one of the man-made caves that were formed by the extraction process.

Entrance to the caves in Montmartre. Anonymous, 1845-1855.

During the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), the Prussian army laid siege to Paris for four months between September 1870 and January 1871. During the siege, the city was completely cut off from the outside world. The only communication that could be made was via balloon, carrier pigeon, or letters floated down the Seine river.

On October 7, 1870, French politician Léon Gambetta (Minister of the Interior) made his escape from Paris in a hydrogen-filled gas balloon. He landed in Tours, where some other politicians had fled and set up a government that could repel the Prussian occupiers. Gambetta took over as the Minister of War and organized an army to relieve Paris, but his force was ultimately overwhelmed and defeated. Gambetta’s dramatic escape is depicted in the painting below.

Departure of Gambetta in a balloon during the Siege of Paris., 1870. Yves Noro.

The Paris Commune was a major event that left its mark on Montmartre. Below are a series of pictures that were originally published in 1890 in a collection of booklets titled “Paris Under the Commune by a Faithful Witness: Photography.” The photos below were military costumes of the Commune, illustrated by A. Raffet. The illustrations are captioned, left to right: “A Worker Coming to Fetch a Hunt”; “Armed Woman of a Hunting Pot”; and “Federal Prisoner Dressed as a Man.”

Below is a pass that reads: “Let pass and circulate freely in the town hall of the 18th arrondissement the citizen L. Morin, Employee. Paris, January 1871.” It contains a signature on the right by “Le Maire” (the Mayor).

A flag below translates as: “Free Town of the Butte Montmartre.”

A close-up.

There is a great exhibit at the museum on the infamous cabaret Le Chat Noir, which was opened by Rodolphe Salis in 1881 at 84 Boulevard Rochechouart, in an old post office. Part artist salon and part music hall, Le Chat Noir is considered to be the first modern nightclub in which patrons consumed alcohol at tables while being entertained by a stage performance, with an MC hosting the event. An evening spent at Le Chat Noir included a mix of songs, performances, and a popular shadow theatre. It was billed as a “Louis-XIII style cabaret, founded by a fumiste” (a term that meant a joker/someone who doesn’t take things very seriously).

It was the first vanguard literary, artistic, and music cabaret in Paris. Its clients consisted of many prominent French artists, writers, and musicians. This first location of the cabaret was very small, consisting of only two narrow rooms that fit up to thirty people.

In 1885, the cabaret’s success led to its move to a new and bigger location on the rue Laval (now 12 rue Victor-Massé).

The second location of Le Chat Noir at 12 Rue Victor-Massé. Image from 1929. From Wikipedia.

The cabaret attracted a lot of artists, who were happy to bend their pencil or paintbrush in service of the theme. Adolphe Léon Willette (1857-1926) was a French painter, illustrator, and caricaturist. He designed the cabaret’s distinctive exterior sign: a black cat on a crescent moon.

The cabaret’s exterior sign.

Sign from the cabaret “Le Chat Noir.” Adolphe Léon Willette, late 19th century. From the website of the Musée du Carnavalet.

Willette painted the following piece, which is one of my favourites.

Woman and cat. Adolphe Willette, around 1881.

The following artwork¹, also by Willette, was created for the cabaret. The museum says the piece is “a cry of distress and terror issued forth toward God by a suffering people… this macabre dance can be seen as an allegory of death and the futility of life and its frivolous pleasures.”

Parce Domine, Parce Populo Tuo. Adolphe-Léon Willette, 1884.

Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen (1859-1923), a Swiss-born French Art Nouveau painter and print-maker, designed the famous poster for the cabaret. He moved to Montmartre when he was in his 20s and soon became part of the artistic set at Le Chat Noir. His poster, below, advertises a tour of the cabaret’s theatre company. It translates as: “Soon the very famous company of the Black Cat with his shadow plays, his famous poets, and composers.” (Sorry for the heavy sunlight glare from a nearby window on this item).

Below is an original handbill that advertises the reopening of Le Chat Noir at the new location².

Réouverture du Chat Noir (reopening of the Chat Noir). Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen, 1896.

Steinlen also painted the pieces shown below. He had a great affection for cats, and often featured them in his work.

Chats et lunes. Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen, around 1885.

Rodolphe Sisel encouraged artistic collaboration amongst the artists that came to his establishment. From 1882 to 1895, the cabaret published a weekly journal that featured literary writings, local news, and political satire. The cabaret also published several novels, and organized art sales.

An edition of Le Chat Noir from Saturday, April 25, 1885.

Below are some illustrations by Steinlen that appeared in the journal. The first one is “The History of Maigriou and Blanchet.”

“The Horrible End of the Red Fish”, also by Théophile Steinlen. The fourth illustration cracks me up.

Another journal cover.

Below are two story collections published by the cabaret, titled “Tales of the Chat Noir.” The one on the left is the spring edition, the one on the right is the winter edition. Illustrated by George Auriol, 1888-1891.

Below is a “Comedic Novel of the Chat Noir” by Gabriel Montoya. Illustrated by George Auriol, 1888-1891.

Below is an invitation to an art exposition featuring “the Collection of the Chat Noir by Rodolphe Salis. Original drawings, paintings, watercolours, lithographies, and etchings.” It was held on Sunday, May 15, 1898 from 2:00-6:00 pm at the Hotel Drouot, in room 1.

Le Chat Noir also had a small theatre and theatrical company.

Le Théâtre du Chat Noir. Maurice Neumont, 1895.

Between 1885 and 1896, the cabaret produced 45 theatre d’ombres (shadow plays). The plays were staged behind a screen on the second floor of the cabaret, using a large oxy-hydrogen backlit performance area (about a square metre in size). A double optical lantern was used to project backgrounds. At first, the plays used cardboard cutouts. After 1887, zinc figures were used. French artist and designer Henri Rivière³ created 43 of these plays that featured stories on a variety of subjects from history, myth, and the Bible.

Below are some of the zinc shadow theatre sets.

There’s a whole room of these. They were really cool to see!

A poster for the shadow theatre.

A theatre program, illustrated by George Auriol.

Below is a handbill dated Thursday, April 11 for the shadow theatre announcing different performances, including: “The Prodigal Son, A Biblical Parable in 7 Tableaux. Story and Music by Georges Fragerolle, Designs by Henri Rivière.” There is also “The King Landed, a pantomime in 4 tableaux by Louis Morin” and “Pierrot Pornographer, a pantomime in 7 tableaux by Louis Morin.” There are also “intermediate songs and humorous verses interpreted by the authors Angoudezki, G. Montoya, Numa Bles, Lamagois (?), Alitoine (?) Brun, Richard, etc. presented by R. Salis.” The curtain for the performances is at 9:15, the location itself is open from 11:00 to 8:00.

Sadly, Rodolphe Salis died on March 19, 1897. Soon after his passing, his iteration of Le Chat Noir closed. In 1899, the cabaret was bought and reopened by Henri Fursy, who renamed it La Boîte à Fursy (the Fursy Box). In 1907, Jehan Chargot opened a new Le Chat Noir cabaret at 68 Boulevard de Clichy. He wanted to resurrect and modernize the spirit of its predecessor. This cabaret was also popular, and remained open until the 1920s.

Today, it is the site of a café and hotel also named Le Chat Noir. Although Salis’ original cabaret was only open from 1881-1897, it left a lasting impression on Paris’ cultural scene (and endless prints of Steinlen’s posters available for sale in souvenir shops everywhere).

The illustration below by Édouard Manet pre-dates the opening of the cabaret, but was also part of the exhibition.

The Meeting of the Cats, from the Illustrated Chronicle: October 25, 1868. Édouard Manet.

The Musée de Montmartre also had exhibits on other neighbourhood cabarets (although I didn’t obsess over them as much as I did with Le Chat Noir).

Jules Chéret (1836-1932) was a French painter and lithographer who was a master of the Belle Époque poster. There were a couple of his posters on display. I really like the fluidity of colour and movement in them!

La Loïe Fuller at the Folies Bergère. Jules Chéret, 1893.

The way Chéret presented women in his posters as being free-spirited (yet modest), joyous, and lively (yet elegant) earned him a lot of praise. For centuries, women in art had been depicted as being either of the highest or lowest moral character (saints versus sex workers), with nothing in-between. These “Cherettes”, as they were popularly called, were neither. The French women of the time really appreciated that.

Bal du Moulin Rouge. Jules Chéret, 1889.

In 1875, French artist and caricaturist André Gill painted a sign for a Montmartre cabaret then known as Au rendez-vous des voleurs (At the rendez-vous of thieves) that featured a rabbit jumping out of a pan. Local residents began referring to the cabaret as “Le Lapin à Gill” (Gill’s Rabbit), which gradually evolved into the new name, “Cabaret Au Lapin Agile.” The original sign was stolen in 1893, but the museum had a reproduction of it on display, shown below.

Place Pigalle, the subject of the painting below, is a public square located at the foot of the hill of Montmartre, in the 9th arrondissement. At the end of the 19th century, it contained a lot of painting studios and literary cafés. The Moulin Rouge is located only a couple of blocks away.

Fête Place Pigalle. André Warnod, 1907.

Speaking of the Moulin Rouge, we now come to the museum’s exhibit on the French cancan. The cancan may have been inspired by the final figure in the quadrille—a fashionable social dance that four couples would dance to. A popular feature of the cancan, the grand écart (a jump-split), may be rooted in the acrobatics of 1820s entertainer Charles Mazurier. Throughout the 1830s, the cancan was actually performed more often by men than women in dance halls. At this time, the dance was done by individuals, rather than a chorus line. There were a few male cancan stars who rose to prominence throughout the mid-19th century.

Two male cancan dancers with two female dancers: La Goulue (centre left) and Grille d’Egout (centre right).

Dancing the Can-Can, late 19th century. From Wikipedia.

In 1889, the Moulin Rouge was opened by Charles Zidler and Joseph Oller on the Boulevard de Clichy. Their goal was to have the most modern French cabaret. They covered the ballroom with mirrors, had a giant elephant set up in the garden outside, and a life-size windmill (painted red!) adorned the roof of the nightclub.

The Moulin Rouge is where the modern French cancan was born, as it evolved into a high-energy performance of high kicks, splits, and cartwheels danced by a chorus line of female dancers. The vigorous flipping of the dancers’ skirts and petticoats are also a characteristic feature of the dance.

Cancan dancers at the Moulin Rouge.

A colour photo of the first Moulin Rouge cabaret, which burned down in 1915. It reopened in 1921.

The Moulin Rouge in Autochrome Lumiere colour, before the 1915 fire. January 1914. From Wikipedia.

The giant (hollow) elephant in the garden in 1900.

Moulin Rouge, 1900. From Wikipedia.

The cancan was considered scandalous because of its dancers’ costumes. In the 19th century, women wore white linen undergarments (known as pantalettes) beneath their crinolines and hooped skirts. The pantalettes covered their legs, but had an open crotch for hygienic reasons. Thus, a high kick could possibly result in a cancan dancer unintentionally flashing her audience.

I’m sure some of the patrons of the Moulin Rouge would not have minded; in fact, they probably hoped for that outcome (although it has been noted that management at the Moulin Rouge did not permit women to perform in “revealing undergarments”).

At the same time, dancers took advantage of the voluminous layers of skirts and undergarments, and wore contrasting black stockings. A move that was considered particularly saucy was for the women to bend over, throw their skirts over their backs, and present their (still-clothed) bottoms to the audience.

For awhile, there were some attempts to suppress the cancan and some performers were arrested. However, it was never banned and its popularity soon had it spreading to dance halls beyond Montmartre to the rest of Paris, and even outside of France.

Cancan dancers. Note the black stockings, the pantalettes, and the lifting of their skirts with layers of petticoats underneath.

Can Can. Louis Icart, 1933.

La Goulue (translates as “the Glutton”) was the stage name of a famous cancan dancer who performed at the Moulin Rouge. She was born Louise Weber (1866-1929) to a Jewish family in Alsace, and her family later relocated to a town near Paris. Weber’s mother worked as a laundress, and as a young girl Weber is said to have dressed up in the laundry customers’ expensive clothing and then pretended she was a performer on stage. At the age of 16, she began to sneak off to dance halls in borrowed dresses. She trained with a Moulin Rouge dancer who went by the name of “Grille d’Egout” (translates as “Sewer Grate”) because of the gaps between her teeth. Weber began dancing at the Moulin Rouge in 1891. She became popular for her dancing skills and her cheeky, outgoing personality. She was given the name “La Goulue” because of her habit of finishing customers’ drinks as she passed by their tables. Her name became synonymous with the cancan and the Moulin Rouge. She had a heart embroidered on her knickers, which she flashed at the audience when she flipped up her skirts. She was a favourite subject of painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who immortalized her in his famous Moulin Rouge posters.

One of Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings of La Goulue at the Moulin Rouge.

Moulin Rouge: La Goulue. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec , 1891. From Wikipedia.

A picture of La Goulue (right) with her teacher, fellow dancer Grille d’Egout.

La Goulue. Circa 1890. From Wikipedia.

A photo of Grille d’Egout.

A cancan dancer demonstrating her flexibility. A joke that the dancers liked to play was to stand in front of a man and bet that they could take his hat off without using their hands.

I hope you enjoyed this tour of the Musée de Montmartre! It was a fun stop on our walking tour. The paintings, photos, posters, and other collection items really bring the history of the neighbourhood to life.


¹ A sharper image of Willette’s painting:

Parce Domine, Parce Populo Tuo. Adolphe-Léon Willette, 1884. From Wikipedia.

² In both Steinlen’s handbill and poster for the cabaret, he placed a stylized halo behind the head of the black cat. This was a tongue-in-cheek artistic reference to Alphonse Mucha, a Czech painter, illustrator, and graphic artist who was also living in Paris during this period. Mucha became famous for his distinctive theatrical posters featuring French stage actress Sarah Bernhardt. In his posters, Mucha often included elaborate halos to his human subjects.

Zodiac calendar for La Plume. Alphonse Mucha, 1897. From Wikipedia.

³ Rivière also worked on the editorial team of the weekly Le Chat Noir cabaret journal, and submitted art and reviews to it as well.

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One Response

  1. Another enjoyable stroll through history courtesy of your interest, and writing and photography skills. It feels almost as if I have been there.

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