In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, fledgling painters flocked to Paris, attracted by the Bohemian atmosphere, cheap rents and companionship of other artists. They settled primarily in Montmartre, the "mountain" of the Right Bank, and later in Montparnasse, the "mountain" of the Left. Today's traveler can walk their streets; visit their homes; see the gardens, parks and countryside they painted; and eat in their favorite cafes. Who were they? Renoir, Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh, Monet and Picasso, to name a few.
These artistic rebels were interested in new ways of seeing the world around them, heightened impressions rather than realistic portraits and compositions. They went outside, basked in the ordinary -- people dancing, drinking in cafes. Many, especially Monet, were interested in light in its ever-changing aspects, in bright colors and landscapes. They were the founders of Impressionism, Post-Impressionism (van Gogh) and Cubism (Picasso).
The best way to experience these artists' Paris is to walk. Begin in Montmartre (Metro line 12, stations Pigalle or Abbesses), avoid tourist-trap souvenir centers, and wander the quieter streets to soak up the atmosphere. At 54 rue Lepic, note the plaque where van Gogh lived, and up the street at 79/83, stop at the 1622 Moulin de la Galette, where you can enjoy snacks, singing and readings (entry $24 with one drink). The moulin, or windmill, was a gathering place and subject for artists such as van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso and Renoir, who immortalized it in his masterpiece, "Dancing at the Moulin de la Galette," found at the Orsay Museum on the Left Bank.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the aristocratic graphic artist, had his studio nearby, close to the brothels and nightclubs he frequented and memorialized, such as the Moulin Rouge (82 Blvd. Clichy) a tourist venue for dinner and a floor show featuring the cancan. The 17th century Musée Montmartre (12 rue Cortot) once contained Renoir's studio. It showcases displays on Montmartre's history as well as changing special exhibits.
When Picasso arrived in Montmartre in 1904, he settled in the Bateau-Lavoir (13 Place Émile-Goudeau), a squalid former piano factory converted into artists' studios. It still has private studios, but there is a display outside recounting its history. Here he painted his groundbreaking Cubist masterpiece "Demoiselles d'Avignon," reviled at the time, as well as his famous portrait of Gertrude Stein, the expatriate American writer and art collector.
The Lapin Agile (22 rue des Saules) was another Picasso haunt, captured in his absinthe-drinking Harlequin painting, "At the Lapin Agile." Today it's a family-appropriate club and cabaret.
In the nearby Quartier de l'Europe (Metro line 3, station Europe; line 14, station Gare St-Lazare), both Manet and Monet lived and worked. They further broke with traditional art by daring to paint and make beautiful a railroad bridge; Manet with his exquisite "Gare St-Lazare," featuring a reading woman, puppy and child, and later Monet in 12 canvasses painted around the train station.
PONT NEUF AND TUILERIES GARDENS
A must-visit is the Pont Neuf ("new bridge"), the oldest in Paris, painted by Monet and Renoir (Metro line 7, station Pont Neuf). Mid-bridge, walk into the Place Dauphine, a tiny gem favored by artists, writers and theater people. Sip wine at the exceptional Taverne Henri IV (13 Place du Pont Neuf; closed weekends) and order a platter of charcuterie, cheese or foie gras. Stroll to the magnificent Tuileries Gardens, a popular spot with artists and Parisians. Enjoy a fresh-made crèpe, the world-class sculptures and visit Monet's "Water Lilies" at the Orangerie Museum, located inside the gardens.
By the time Picasso moved to Montparnasse on the Left Bank in 1912, it was a modern center for foreigners, artists, writers and Bohemian life. He lived at several locations, painting indoors and spending nights in cafes on the Boulevard du Montparnasse: Le Select (at 99), La Coupole (102), La Rotonde, (105), Le Dôme (108), La Closerie des Lilas (171), all in business today. Success eventually enabled him to to move to the Riviera, but it was Paris that formed him.
Giverny: Financial success also enabled Monet to leave Paris. In 1890, he purchased land and a house in Giverny, where he spent his last four decades, painting and planting his renowned garden, open to the public from April through October. Trains leave regularly on the 45-minute ride from the Gare St-Lazare to Vernon, where you can take a taxi, bus or bike to Giverny. The family home (now the Monet Foundation) is dazzling, painted and decorated according to Monet's specifications. The gardens are in two parts: le Clos Normand, planted by Monet, a superb gardener, to look like the canvasses he wanted to paint; and the Japanese Garden, created with his famous waterlilies in mind. Today the gardens are impeccably maintained, but be warned, in summer they are crowded. A large souvenir and bookshop is in Monet's former studio.
Van Gogh, unlike the others, ended his life a failure, spending his final weeks in Auvers-sur-Oise, a one-hour train ride from Paris. There, he was under the care of Dr. Paul-Ferdinand Gachet ("Portrait of Dr. Gachet"), a painter himself, who also had befriended Renoir, Manet and Monet. Vincent had a room and ate in the Auberge Ravoux, painting the town and its people.
The inn has been transformed into the Maison Van Gogh. Visit the spare upstairs room where he lived and died. There is an excellent, beautifully restored restaurant run by the Ravoux family (reserve ahead). Meander through the winding streets of the tiny town, visiting Vincent's grave alongside his brother's, and study the panels reproducing the scenes in the same spots van Gogh memorialized. You cannot fail to be deeply moved.
IF YOU GO
Paris museums showcasing work by Renoir, Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh, Monet and Picasso:
Musée d'Orsay: Metro line 10, station Musée Orsay; line 12, station Assemblée Nationale. Open Tuesday-Sunday. Admission around $11.60.(musée-orsay.fr/en)
Centre Pompidou: Metro line 11, station Rambeauteau. Open daily except Tuesday. Admission about $16.75. (centrepompidou.fr/en)
Musée de l'Orangerie: Metro lines 1, 8 and 12, station Concorde. Open daily except Tuesday. Admission about $9.70. (musee-orangerie.fr)
Musée Marmottan Monet: 2 rue Louis-Boilly. Metro line 9, station La Muette. Open Tuesday-Sunday. Admission about $13. (marmottan.com)
Musée Picasso: Closed until late 2013; much of the collection housed in above museums. (musee-picasso.fr)
Maison Van Gogh (Auvers-sur-Oise). Open Wednesday to Sunday (closed Nov. 12-March 12). (maisondevangogh.fr)