Retracing Picasso's Path Through Paris
Writer Luke Jerod Kummer visited Picasso's 18th Arrondissement haunts in order to complete his new novel, The Blue Period.
Forty-nine. The number oddly startled me when I found it enameled on a little blue rectangle nailed to an unassuming town house above Rue Gabrielle’s cobblestones. I’d been researching the history of this site, and others in Paris’ 18th Arrondissement, for months, attempting to understand what a 19-year-old Pablo Picasso might have experienced at these places for my novel, The Blue Period. I’m not sure what I was expecting at the address already etched in my brain—a gaggle of tourists aiming iPhones, maybe a gift shop, something resembling fanfare?
But the only acknowledgment of the location’s significance was a small granite plaque also affixed to the bone-white wall. In French, it read, “Here in 1900 Picasso had his first studio in Paris.” I knew, however, that inside this simple five-story building, nearly 120 years ago, a real-life drama played out that altered the course of Western art.
Around Picasso’s 19th birthday in late October 1900, he and his best friend, a mercurial poet-painter named Carles Casagemas, boarded a train in Barcelona heading from their native Spain to Paris, where they sublet a disheveled live-work space at 49 Rue Gabrielle. They’d come to see Picasso’s Last Moments, a somber, realistic painting, unrecognizable from his later abstract work, hanging in the world’s fair.
A young Picasso in Montmartre. / Getty Images
At first, Picasso and Casagemas’ stay resembled bohemian bliss, with Picasso winning interest from art dealers for his works styled after Toulouse-Lautrec’s café scenes, while the travelers also explored a land far more liberated than anything back in Barcelona. In Paris’ hillside enclave of Montmartre—a destination for intellectuals, artistes, radicals and late-night revelers alike—they drank at dimly lit boîtes, visited raucous dance halls and painted free-spirited models.
But a doomed love affair between Casagemas and one of those free-spirited models, a dark-haired woman named Germaine Pichot, led to Casagemas’ suicide, bringing this carefree time to an end. Picasso spiraled into years of depression, a spell during which he caromed back and forth between Paris and Barcelona, depicting the cities’ lost souls in a moody palette of cobalt, ultramarine and Prussian blue. This early, socially conscious phase in Picasso’s decades-long career transformed his precocious but unoriginal canvases into a groundbreaking exploration of empathy that set the stage for later achievement.
As a writer in search of a story but without an art-history background, I had scant interest in Picasso until a friend and editor pointed out a year earlier that the young painter was actually desperately poor and severely depressed during his famous Blue Period, a term I thought referred only to the colors he used. Slowly, I learned Picasso’s early life was not so effortless and became intrigued.
Born in Andalusia in 1881 to a mother from a modest background and a struggling artist father, Picasso and his family moved to Barcelona after his sister died of diphtheria when he was 13. Admittedly, these facts were hard to reconcile with the picture of Picasso in my mind as an aging, self-absorbed celebrity dashing off abstract mishmashes that would become priceless as soon as he signed his name.
While I had visited Paris before, I mostly overlooked the now quaint Montmartre in favor of more recently edgy spots, such as Belleville. But, as I was now considering a side of Picasso I’d never known, the time felt ripe to revisit the city’s iconic locale. I was here to hunt for vestiges of the heady milieu Picasso found in the early 1900s, to glean insight into what made him a prolific artist. After all, Picasso created many of the hundreds of works he produced during his nearly four-year Blue Period within this two-square-mile district.
A small granite plaque acknowledges Picasso's first address in Paris. / Photography by Laura Stevens
To start, I was thrilled to book a stay on VacationRentals.com in the very apartment building Picasso and Casagemas inhabited, for the exciting price of about $100 per night.
I pressed the bell, waited for the buzz, and stepped through the vestibule decorated with faded cement tiles. Jean-Yves, the bookish, middle-aged owner of the apartment, handed over an old ward key. After so many years, he explained, walking up the rickety staircase, no one knows for sure on which level Picasso resided.
The flat I rented on the first landing turned out to be simple but cozy, with oak floors, a small writing desk and a poster for the 2001 film Amélie, Montmartre’s more recent celebrity.
Light poured through the windows. This would please a painter, I thought. After Jean-Yves left, I set my laptop on the desk and visualized the layout before me cluttered with the objects Casagemas described in a worn postcard: “1 table, 1 washbasin, two green chairs, 1 green armchair, two chairs which are not green, 1 bed with trimmings, 1 corner seat which is not in a corner, two easels, 1 oil lamp, a heater, a Persian rug, twelve blankets, an eiderdown … glasses, bottles, paintbrushes, a screen newly arrived from a war zone.”
That afternoon, I hit the streets, soon rambling through the Place des Abbesses, where a vendor’s roasting chestnuts summoned me. The curved-iron, art nouveau entranceway to the Métro seemed like a gateway to yesteryear. Paris’ underground transit system, a quintessential feature of modern life, was unveiled only months before Picasso arrived, though, and I realized how futuristic it must have appeared in 1900. When I strolled past the bulbous white domes of the Sacré-Cœur—one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks where tourists crowd the steps at sundown to catch stunning views—I reminded myself the church was still in scaffolding when Picasso first laid eyes on it.
Macarons by Christophe Roussel. / Photography by Laura Stevens
Across the street, I stopped for macarons at the sleek patisserie Christophe Roussel. So much of what we associate with Paris today didn’t exist or was brand-new at the turn of the century, but these delicate, creamily filled meringue sandwiches date back to the 1500s in France. So Picasso may have at least been rewarded for his travels, as I was, with these most Parisian confections.
Reinvigorated, I wound along the steep lanes slicing into the “butte,” as Montmartre’s incline is called, walking over pavers arranged in fantail designs and passing cafés where diners spilled onto the streets beneath canopies. They perched upon rattan chairs, confabbing over coffee and wine, just like in the impressionist paintings Picasso would have seen in Paris.
Mist accumulated as I ascended to visit the Musée de Montmartre, a charming 17th-century estate that would later receive Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Here, I learned that Montmartre’s role in an 1871 uprising lent it a subversive reputation. Cheap rent, no tax on wine and Le Chat Noir—a cabaret mixing poetry, shadow puppets and song—attracted Renoir, Vincent van Gogh, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet and Picasso.
Other museum exhibits detail the high-flying Cirque Medrano, beloved by Picasso, and how neighboring Pigalle emerged as a venue for ribald entertainment, helped along by the high-kicking cancan dance. Before I left, I studied a Toulouse-Lautrec lithograph of a performer on the Moulin Rouge’s dance floor hiking up her skirt, and recalled that it wasn’t just the Louvre’s sophisticated offerings that drew Picasso and Casagemas from Spain, but gaiety and abandon, too.
Back on the street, I passed a squat, vine-covered cottage nearby. Originally dubbed the Cabaret des Assassins, it was rechristened Au Lapin Agile in 1875 after a painted sign appeared depicting a dapperly dressed rabbit holding a wine bottle. The bunny’s image still hops along the building exterior today.
Picasso became connected to this place when Frédé, an eccentric bard and the proprietor of Picasso’s preferred watering hole, Le Zut, took over Agile. He replaced the riffraff with artists and musicians, and Picasso migrated here with them. During the day, Frédé vended fish from a donkey cart. At night, he ran the bar, composed verse and strummed guitar. He also popularized a potent concoction, reputedly made from cherries, white wine, grenadine and liqueur, which remains the drink of choice to this day.
Singers at Au Lapin Agile. / Photography by Laura Stevens
Inside, I found the jaunty crowd joining chansonniers belting out French tunes and cheering performers doing age-old vaudevillian routines. While the red-tinted room is bedecked with assorted mementos, including a life-sized crucifix, it was a reproduction of Picasso’s painting bearing the cabaret’s name, At the Lapin Agile, that caught my eye. It’s a self-portrait of the artist brooding beside the notorious Germaine Pichot. Picasso’s romance with her conceivably overlapped with his best friend’s infatuation, and Germaine mysteriously appears in Picasso’s works over the years, such as Portrait de Germaine (1902), La Vie (1903) and The Three Dancers (1925). The picture before me was completed in 1905, shortly after his Blue Period. Still, it simmers with emotion despite the warmer color palette. Picasso scholars sometimes characterize her as little more than a fling but that’s wrong, I think. After becoming famous, Picasso—aloof and self-preoccupied—often treated old friends with disregard and yet he visited Pichot until she died in the 1940s.
The first painting Picasso ever made of Pichot, Le Moulin de la Galette, is among the most well-known. Done days after he and Casagemas arrived in town, the piece shows the enigmatic model at an outdoor dance hall wearing a feather-trimmed hat. Sometime during the following decades, the Moulin de la Galette—situated beneath a 17th-century windmill—became an eerie skeleton from a bygone era. But in 2016, it reopened as a posh restaurant serving broiled meat and fish.
In the early 1900s, Pichot was busy redecorating a rundown boardinghouse, transforming it into an inn and café frequented by artists. Picasso became a regular, and today La Maison Rose is a casual option for light French or Italian fare. The bright pink facade and green shutters Pichot debuted long ago have made the eatery trendy on Instagram regardless of its Picasso connection.
My trip’s most sumptuous repast, though, was at the classic French restaurant Le Basilic, near the former abode of van Gogh, who also had a remarkable influence on young Picasso. A decade after the Dutchman’s 1890 apparent suicide, his legend as a tragic artist figure was already growing. Picasso began his tempestuous Blue Period by imitating the painter’s short, bold brushstrokes, and one can surmise how much he identified with this persona. Beneath half-timbered ceilings, Escoffier-style dishes such as escargots and sole meunière made it easy to envision wolfing down a meal more than a century ago. The velvety burgundy and tender duck made me never want to leave.
Afterwards, I traipsed down to the Boulevard de Clichy, already a bustling strip in 1900, which was—according to Casagemas’ scrawled postcard—lined with “bloody trivial things making packets of money … everything is festival, for show, made of silver paper, cardboard, fake, papier-mâché, full of stuffing.” Glancing around at the glowing neon signs, sundry shops and risqué revues, I couldn’t deny his assessment still mostly rings true today.
The Moulin Rouge cabaret. / Photography by Laura Stevens
Bypassing the Disneyfied raunch of the Moulin Rouge, I settled instead into the nondescript Palace Café and sipped a beer. The spot has changed often over the years, and, indeed, it’s something else now—Bel Ami, a joint serving American pancakes for breakfast and cocktails till 2 a.m. Once, though, this corner restaurant was l’Hippodrome, where Casagemas took his life in 1901. That event brought on Picasso’s despair, when he swapped idle cabaret scenes for painting the downtrodden in nocturnal shades. Though many people who suffer depression understandably feel unable to do much of anything, Picasso found the will to seek out new subjects and paint at a feverish pace.
The next morning I trekked from Montmartre on foot to an adjacent arrondissement and visited Le Jardin Saint-Lazare, a sprawling beige complex with arched windows, a chapel and a new multimedia library. In Picasso’s day, this was a prison and infirmary for women accused of petty crime or solicitation. As his depression deepened, he would come to paint the inmates, who were often incarcerated alongside their children, inspiring such wrenching works as Femme aux Bras Croisés, Femme Assise au Fichu and Maternité. That last painting shows a thin woman in a blue cloak clutching her son, his tiny eyes downcast, resigned. Awash with existential anxiety and tenderness, this portrait was among those that touched me most when I began my research.
I couldn’t help but wonder how Picasso found motivation within his melancholy, especially since financial gain did not spur him on. While his earlier cabaret scenes impressed patrons and critics alike, these newer works went all but unsold. Picasso resorted to scavenging food and struggled to even afford art supplies, returning to the galleries on Rue Laffitte with the same canvases painted over again. He supposedly became so destitute during a Paris winter he burned his sketches to keep warm.
Following Picasso’s Paris footsteps, I was beginning to comprehend how his anguish led to creative outpouring. In Picasso’s old age, he confided that guilt around his sister’s death always plagued him—as a child, he made a pact with God that he’d give up painting if it might save her, then broke this vow just before the illness worsened. The drastic change in his artwork after Casagemas’ suicide likewise speaks to how much he once again blamed himself. As his secretary and biographer, Jaime Sabartés, noted, “Picasso believes that art emanates from sadness and pain.”
The Bateau-Lavoir building. / Photography by Laura Stevens
The sun was falling during my journey to Rue Ravignan, a shady plaza and my checklist’s final destination. After enduring the Blue Period’s tragedy, poverty and misfortune, in 1904 Picasso moved into the Bateau-Lavoir, a residence and meeting place for artists. Finally nestled among like-minded creatives, and with a new love, Fernande Olivier, Picasso’s blue canvases slowly gave way to pinks and orange, as seen in Boy Leading a Horse and Family of Saltimbanques, while his subjects shifted to the fanciful circus performers he admired. Soon, Picasso had ushered in a new chapter: the Rose Period, marked by paintings resembling sunset-tinged allegorical dreams.
Though the blues subsided and his art became more vibrant and then more abstract, the emotional intensity Picasso honed during his long bout with melancholia sometimes emerged again, notably in his 1937 anti-war masterpiece, Guernica, which portrays the gory aftermath of a Basque village bombed by fascists. His Blue Period work also shows the seeds of cubism in his experimentations with angles and proportion, such as in The Old Guitarist or Woman Ironing. Unheralded during its time, Picasso’s Blue Period remains important both for this novel focus and because it put him on a path to his revolutionary break toward abstraction.
While that upheaval still reverberates in art, the fame it brought Picasso appears to have had a corrupting influence. His commitment moved away from those society left behind, and in the end he turned into something of a caricature. But no figure, as students of cubism know, is one-sided. Everyone has multiple dimensions that can be viewed from different perspectives or vantages in time.
When I returned to the unassuming town house on Rue Gabrielle, I noticed a long mirror in the hall. Its giltwood frame and glass appeared old. Did Picasso look into this? What did he see? A vision of the big-shot artist he would become, or a teenage nobody, talented and ambitious, but without money or certain promise, arriving in Paris to make his mark on the world, hardly ready for what lay ahead?
I climbed upstairs to write.
The Blue Period by Luke Jerod Kummer is out now.