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The Pilgrims of Babylon - the Artists of Montmartre

Report of the lecture given by
Douglas Skeggs
on February 23rd 2011

Douglas Skeggs, MA Cantab is an art historian, international lecturer, author and TV presenter who took us on a tour, or even romp, of Montmartre during the mid to late 19th century. This often sinister and dangerous place with its labyrinth of winding lanes and alleyways cascading down the hill with its renowned windmills became the places of entertainment and inspiration to many artists in the area - artists such as Renoir in the Moulin de la Galette, painting his famous crowd scenes, to Toulouse Lautrec's vibrant and evocative can-can girls and late night revellers in the Moulin Rouge.

Artists were also attracted to the area because it was a cheap place to live; drink flowed freely and drugs were readily available. Social barriers were broken down and the bohemian lifestyle inspired the artists' imagination but also impaired their ability and their health - notably Lautrec who died at the age of 37 from consuming too much absinthe (bitter green aniseed-flavoured liquor) whilst sitting in the Moulin de la Galette day after day observing and painting.

Suzanne Valadon, mother of the painter Maurice Utrillo, was a constant presence in Montmartre at this time, as a life model and lover, before becoming an eminent artist in her own right. Lautrec had given her painting lessons and she had observed and learnt techniques from the artists whilst sitting for them. She is featured in paintings by such artists such as Renoir and Lautrec.

This was a wonderfully absorbing insight into the characters and lives of the artists and their relationships to one another. Lautrec looked up to Degas as his hero and mentor whilst women found him unattractive, apart from Suzanne Valadon who proposed marriage to him but was turned down. Picasso was a very serious artist who was considered to be the last serious artist of Montmartre. Most of the artists were, however, enjoying the bohemian lifestyle too much to take their art really seriously.

Douglas's lecture explained why there is still such a fascination for Monmartre to this day and why the romance still lives on attracting many tourists who want to experience the poignancy and atmosphere of a place from where so many wonderful artists emanated.

John and Jane Simpson

Douglas talking with members afterwards