New York Times: Where to go in Paris for artistic inspiration

PARIS: From the local parks, with their carefully plotted plantings and neatly clipped trees, to the turrets and spires and bridges along the Seine, Paris certainly can be inspiring.

It’s therefore no surprise that the French capital has proved to be a fertile source of inspiration for artists, from Renoir and van Gogh to Picasso, Man Ray and Modigliani.

When they weren’t wandering the city or holed up in their studios, these artists — as well as countless writers, designers and other creative types — took to Paris’s cafes, bars and brasseries to think, drink and draw.

Here’s a sampling of some of the landmarks and eateries made famous by the artists. Though some have evolved as the city has shifted around them, all are inspiring spots to take a break from the contemporary art world of Paris+, and journey into the city’s artistic past.

The Seine

Both celebrated artists and amateur painters have long captured on canvas and paper the city’s river thoroughfare. Georges Seurat’s most famous work, “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,” painted between 1884 and 1886, depicts Parisians relaxing in an island park in the middle of the Seine, the river in the background, dotted with sailboats.
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Some 10 years earlier, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, captured one of the city’s most storied bridges from an elevated perch in a nearby cafe in “Le Pont-Neuf.” The painter’s brother Edmond was said to have helped him set the scene, delaying people as they walked across the bridge by asking them questions so Pierre-Auguste could quickly sketch them.

Claude Monet’s “Le Pont Neuf,” painted just a year before and from the same perspective, is decidedly more melancholy. The image’s muted tones captured the mood of Paris after the defeat of the Paris Commune, a group of French revolutionaries who seized power for two months in the spring of 1871 before being driven out by government troops, during a bloody period when about 20,000 insurrectionists and 750 government troops were killed.

A view looking out the window of a bus. The neon cursive sign for Le Dôme shines across the street, and the neon block-lettered sign for La Rotonde is reflected in the window.
The cafes of Montparnasse, such as La Rotonde and Le Dôme Café, drew many artists and writers during the years between World War I and World War II.Credit…Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times

The Cafes of Montparnasse

Between World War I and World War II, this neighborhood — located on the lively Left Bank of the Seine — played a key role in the vibrant, shape-shifting artistic happenings of Paris.

Marcel Duchamp, Diego Rivera, Wassily Kandinsky and Salvador Dalí were just some of the artists who hung around the cafes dotting Boulevard du Montparnasse. Café de la Rotonde was a frequent stop for Picasso, whose studio was a short walk away, while it was here that the Welsh painter Nina Hamnett first met the Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani. Reproductions of Modigliani’s works are now scattered across the walls of this scarlet-red-hued brasserie.

Across the street is Le Dôme Café, another favorite of the artistic set. The artist Meret Oppenheim was said to have first discovered Surrealism when she met Alberto Giacometti there; the photographer and painter Man Ray frequented the cafe, as well.

Several other brasseries dotting Boulevard du Montparnasse, including Le Select, La Coupole and La Closerie des Lilas — the charming cafe where F. Scott Fitzgerald gave Ernest Hemingway his manuscript of “The Great Gatsby” — were also frequented by artists and art patrons.
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Jardin des Tuileries

This public garden, bordered on the west by Place de la Concorde and on the east by the Louvre, with views of the Eiffel Tower to the southwest, is a work of art in its own right. There are a number of sculptures scattered throughout the grounds, including Henri Vidal’s “Caïn venant de tuer son frère Abel” (“Cain, having just killed his brother Abel”) (1896) and Aimé Millet’s “Cassandre se met sous la protection de Pallas” (“Cassandra putting herself under the protection of Pallas” (1877).

The Musee de l’Orangerie, which permanently houses eight massive canvases from Monet’s “Water Lilies” series, is also located within the gardens.

Monet himself was taken by the Tuileries, painting “View of Les Tuileries” in 1876, foregrounding the garden and its paths, statues and fountains, the Seine a distant blue in the background. Édouard Manet focused “Music in the Tuileries Gardens” (1862) on the aristocrats attending a concert in the park, while Stanislas Lépine painted more than a dozen views of the gardens, including “Nuns and Schoolgirls in the Tuileries Gardens, Paris” (1871-83).


Before Montparnasse had its artistic heyday, there was Montmartre, a hilly district where artists found inspiration not only in the buzzy cafe scene, but also in the bohemian street life.

The brasserie Le Moulin de la Galette, its name a nod to one of the windmills that dotted this neighborhood in the 17th century, was the setting for one of Renoir’s most famous works “Bal du Moulin de la Galette”(“A ball at the Moulin de la Galette”) (1876) — a painting that captures Parisians enjoying an afternoon of dancing and lounging.

Slightly up the hill, the brasserie formerly known as Aux Billards en Bois — now called La Bonne Franquette — inspired van Gogh’s 1886 painting “La Guinguette” (“Terrace of a Cafe on Montmartre”). The Dutch artist and his brother lived in the neighborhood, and Montmartre was the inspiration behind a number of works that van Gogh painted during his time in Paris.

Le Consulat, the much-photographed cafe just across a small cobblestone alleyway from La Bonne Franquette and in the shadow of the Sacré-Coeur Basilica, was said to be another hangout for the likes of van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec and Picasso.

A dark hued painting showing the interior of a nightclub. A table of well-dressed patrons is on the left, several other people stand in the background, and, on the right-hand side, a seated woman has an ominous green-white cast to her face.
“At the Moulin Rouge” (1892-95), by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. The artist created numerous paintings and posters featuring the nightclub, which helped put it on the map.Credit…via The Art Institute of Chicago

Moulin Rouge

About a 20-minute walk down the hill from the famously picturesque basilica (which Picasso painted during his Cubist period), where Montmartre meets neighboring Pigalle, is the Moulin Rouge. It’s hard to miss — with a large red windmill on the top and a bright red image of cancan dancers on the front — and today it has become one of the city’s major tourist spots, drawing travelers who pay upward of 110 euros ($116), to see the show.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec helped put the cabaret on the map with his numerous paintings and posters that captured the vibe of Montmartre and Pigalle. “At the Moulin Rouge” (1892-95), one of his most famous works, depicts a table of clientele on the left side and a woman with a rather haunting, bluish-white face on the right.

His much cheerier piece “Moulin Rouge: La Goulue” (1891) not only helped cement the club as a must-visit in fin-de-siècle Paris, it may have laid the groundwork for the Moulin Rouge to become, arguably, the most famous continuously running club in the world.



  1. The cafes of Montparnasse, such as La Rotonde and Le Dôme Café, drew many artists and writers during the years between World War I and World War II.Credit…Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times
  2. “Le Pont-Neuf,” by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The painter captured a view of the bridge from an elevated vantage point in a nearby cafe.Credit…via National Gallery of Art, Washington
  3. Le Moulin de la Galette restaurant in Paris in October. The brasserie was featured in Renoir’s painting “Bal du Moulin de la Galette” (1876).Credit…Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times