I’m on hols in chilly old France. And after a week roaming the galleries of Paris admiring paintings of windmills atop the city’s highest peak, I thought it might be time to learn a bit more about les moulins de Montmartre.
My apartment is on Rue Caulaincourt, in a residential part of Montmartre. It’s behind and down the steep hill from Sacré-Cœur Basilica rather than at the Paris-facing front where most other tourists, and hawkers selling selfie sticks, take advantage of the 180-degree view.
Over here on the northern side of la Butte, I’m one of the few tourists to be seen.
La Butte Montmartre is well past its bohemian heyday – when Toulouse-Lautrec, van Gogh, Matisse, Renoir and Picasso drew inspiration from the earthiness and liveliness of the place – but it’s still pretty arty. Parisians think of Montmartre the same way many Perth people think of Fremantle – less rustic than in the past but with some remnant charm, and not a bad old spot to linger on a Sunday afternoon.
Thanks first in the 1890s to the flamboyant posters of Montmartre’s favourite adopted son, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and then in the early noughties to a movie by blow-in Baz Luhrmann, everyone knows about the Moulin Rouge. The famed red windmill is the spiritual home of the Cancan. But despite occupying a site on Boulevard de Clichy, at the eastern base of la Butte, Moulin Rouge is only a copy of the original that burned down in 1915. It’s not one of the former working windmills that for centuries have punctuated parts of Montmartre.
I learn that there are only two Montmartre windmills that fulfil this criterion of authenticity. Bloggers say these are the only two windmills remaining in a metropolis once dotted with hundreds of them. But the onetime windmill at Longchamp racecourse gives lie to that.
My morning hike up Montmartre starts after I find out that, like me for the past week, Lautrec stayed on Rue Caulaincourt for several years from 1887 to 1893.
He had a studio at No.27, which is now No.21, where he lived with a doctor who’d been a childhood friend. I’ve no reason to believe the bloggers who’ve posted photos of the building at No.27, pictured left, are wrong when they say this is the same building Lautrec lived in, rather than a replacement one. But there’s no historical marker of an artistic past on the front of the building, as is common around here. And the building looks to me a little modern for Lautrec’s era. But adding weight to the bloggers’ case are that real estate websites list the construction date in Lautrec’s time, there’s still no shortage of doctors in there, and the windows up top look like they’d be ideal for a studio. If writing this article were my day job, I’d call an art scholar or local official to confirm.
But it’s not my day job, so onward and upward to my next stop, just around the corner from Lautrec’s home. It’s the white apartment building, at 54 Rue Lepic, pictured right, where van Gogh’s art dealer brother, Theo, put him up for two years from June 1886. The building does have a plaque attesting to much of this. Vincent and Lautrec were associates, with the latter sketching the former in Montmartre with a glass of absinthe, a potent spirit that they both drank too much of in the bars of la Butte.
Vincent’s time in Montmartre and his personal exposure to some of the Impressionists up here transformed the way he painted, bringing out the vivid colours and more abstract style for which he would become posthumously famous. From the apartment, he painted views of the city. And from outside he rendered more than 20 images of the Montmartre windmills.
From Vincent and Theo’s pad, I embark on the steepish, but not long, walk up along Rue Lepic toward the two remaining windmills.
For a traveller ascending the cobblestone streets near the top of la Butte, the most obvious of the Montmartre windmills is the second one reached along this route – Moulin Radet. Confusingly, for the uninitiated, a French restaurant called Moulin de la Galette is located in front and lower than it, on the corner of Rue Lepic and Rue Girardon. Pictured left, Moulin Radet can easily be seen from either of the streets, particularly in the Parisian winter when a potentially obscuring tree is bereft of leaves.
About 100 metres back down along Rue Lepic, the other original windmill is the Moulin Blute-fin, pictured right. The name Blute-fin comes from the French verb bluter which roughly means “to sift”. As pictured below, left, the windmill is visible from the fine Rue des Abbesses cafe strip that winds around the eastern base of Montmartre like a contour on a topographic map. But it’s easily missed from higher up on the hill because it’s well above street level. And in summer Blute-fin is obscured by dense foliage.
From the 1830s, the two windmills and the area they occupy have collectively been known as ‘Moulin de la Gallette‘. Hence the name of the restaurant in front of Moulin Radet. Moulin de la Galette was a popular dance and drinking venue. Renoir’s painting titled ‘Dance at Moulin de la Galette‘ pictures general shenanigans in the area in 1876. It is one of the best-known images in the world. You can see it, along with many other Renoirs, in Paris’s Musée d’Orsay. A ‘galette’ was a brown bread made by the millers here that was popular with peckish Parisians.
The local tourism office says there were once about 15 Montmartre windmills, mainly along the ridge of la Butte. This does not include Moulin Rouge, which it must be ceded is not technically ‘on’ Montmartre. In this regard, residents of the top of the hill are quick to stress the stratification between the village atmosphere of their lofty, leafy neighbourhood and the bawdiness of the red light district below.
Legend, relayed by a scholarly source, has it that in 1814, during the siege of Paris at the end of the Napoleonic wars, three sons of the miller who owned Moulin de la Galette were killed when trying to defend the mill against advancing Cossacks. The miller himself was purportedly hacked into quarters that were hung from the sails of one of his mills.
The miller’s family vault at Montmartre’s Petit Cimetiere du Calvaire has a little windmill on top. The now-faded windmill was once red, to represent the blood that dripped from the sails at Moulin de la Galette. Another legend is that the little red windmill inspired the name of the now-famed Moulin Rouge.
When it comes to the authenticity of Montmartre windmills, what spins around comes around.
Photos: Chris Thomson