What was the view of Paris from Montmartre like in the 1870’s and 1880's?
The view of Paris from Montmartre is one of the most breathtaking sights in the city — a sea of slate rooftops and white buildings, scattered with recognizable landmarks, green spaces and other details like islands among its waves.
But how long has it looked like this?
Last weekend, a friend from the US was standing with me at the top of Montmartre. “What was the view like when Van Gogh was here?” he asked. “Was it mostly fields?”
I told him that it wasn’t — Paris has been a fairly large city for centuries and by the 1880’s, when Vincent Van Gogh was living in Montmartre, it was a huge sprawl of buildings, factories, avenues, the Seine, and several large parks. The view of Paris from Montmartre’s heights would at that time have been roughly the same as it is today.
As someone who loves Paris deeply, and has for most of her life, the appearance of the city during my favorite era of its history seems like a given. But I started to wonder what visual proof might exist to show someone that the view from Montmartre has remained roughly the same — not only from the time Vincent Van Gogh was living there, but also from the time of the 1870–1871 Siege of Paris, sixteen years earlier.
My search for answers has taken me on quite the journey these past few days, revisiting beloved images and discovering or re-examining others. Although I’m left with a few lingering questions, I hope that I’ve been able to put together a good collection of visuals that show what the view from various sides of the Butte (hill) Montmartre was like in the 1880’s and in 1870 and 1871.
The view of central Paris from Montmartre in the 1880’s
Let’s start with the 1880’s, since that was the era my friend asked about.
Vincent Van Gogh lived in Montmartre from 1886 to 1887 or 1888, fifteen years after the end of Hearts at Dawn (otherwise, I would have given my favorite artist a cameo in my book!). From what I’ve read in biographies on him, as well as in his published letters, Vincent — as he preferred to be called — found Paris inspiring, but also overstimulating and overwhelming. And it wasn’t always easy sharing the life of his brother and sister-in-law, whose apartment he was staying in.
Still, Vincent painted a number of canvasses during his time here, including a few views of Paris. My favorite of these is Vue des toits de Paris (View of Paris Rooftops), painted in March or April, 1887 (a sketch version also exists).
I love that we know exactly where this canvass was painted: from the window of Vincent’s room at his brother’s apartment, on the 3rd floor of 54 rue Lepic. This building still stands today, and whenever I’m in Montmartre, I stop by to look at it and marvel that Vincent once walked here on his way home.
The apartment is privately owned, so unfortunately you can’t go inside, but apparently some scholars have been allowed to. One of them shared in a blog post that the view from Vincent’s old window has, sadly, changed, with new buildings blocking the glimpse of Paris that he immortalized (you can see the current view from the window here).
Another of Vincent’s paintings from this time is usually given the similar title The Roofs of Paris. This time, we get an unobstructed view of central Paris, looking south from the summit of Montmartre.
Even today, this view from the southern side of Montmartre is the most famous one, since it offers an immense vista of the city below. As you can see in this cropped version of the photo at the beginning of this blog post, which I took from the summit of Montmartre last weekend, barring some additions like the occasional skyscraper, the Paris cityscape has remained more or less the same.
Vincent’s painting is of course an artistic interpretation — like many who’ve painted and sketched this breathtaking sight, he seems to emphasize recognizable monuments like Notre-Dame and the Panthéon, when in reality they probably looked at least a little smaller because they were far away. But I think it shows something about that excitement of being able to spot them and recognize them — like seeing friends in a crowd.
I also think the way he seems to have brought the city closer than it would have actually appeared could be a sign of that connection with others that he always sought. Or maybe it’s just his artist’s eye, knowing the precise way to frame the image and emphasize what’s needed.
Here’s another photo I took from the summit of Montmartre, looking slightly westward, cropped as closely as I can get it to Vincent’s painting:
Here’s the same image, with Notre-Dame and the Panthéon, the two most recognizable landmarks in Vincent’s painting circled:
As we can see, in the 1880’s, Paris was already a large, dense city. But this blog focuses on Paris during the Siege, in 1870–1871, so you might be wondering what was the view from Montmartre was like then.
The view of central Paris from Montmartre in 1870–1871
Between the 1870’s and 1880’s, some parts of the world experienced immense growth. For instance, my friend is from Colorado and I could imagine a frontier town changing a lot in those ten years. But in 1870, Paris looked pretty much the same as it did in the mid- to late 1880’s.
Of the things that had changed about the landscape, most would have been hard to spot from this towering vantage point, where so much is lost in that sea of slate roofs and white facades.
But one sure constant is that Paris was already a built-up city, especially in its central areas, and had been for decades.
For instance, in this 1862 caricature by Daumier of the famous pioneering photographer Gaspard Félix Tournachon, who went by Nadar (and who had recently invented aerial photography), we can see that the Parisian landscape below his balloon is packed with buildings, nearly to the horizon.
This is a caricature, of course, not necessarily a realistic depiction, but Paris had to be recognizable for it to work, so we can imagine that this is a fairly accurate impression of how the city looked from a high vantage point.
And in fact, here’s something that always amazes me: Some of Nadar’s aerial photographs, among the earliest in existence, still survive today. Here’s a view he captured of a part of western Paris. As you can see, certain sites are helpfully labeled…including a portion of the Butte Montmartre itself!
The photo is from 1858, four years before Daumier’s caricature. Yet even then, we can see a city that certainly has its green spaces (including the Parc Monceau, which plays an important role in Hearts at Dawn), but it’s very much already an urban landscape. And this isn’t even the heart of the city.
Another way to understand what Paris looked like in the 1870’s and ‘80’s is to look at maps.
Wikimedia Commons has a really cool collection of public domain maps of Paris throughout its history.
One of these maps, entitled “Le Paris de Napoleon III”, gives us an excellent overview of Paris in 1870.
At a glance, we can see one major difference compared to the Paris of today: the wall around the city. Known as the Thiers Wall (l’enceinte de Thiers), it was demolished in the 1920’s and ‘30’s. That said, as far as I can tell, there was no portion of the wall that would have been visible from Montmartre’s southern slope’s view onto the rest of the city, so it wouldn’t have influenced the famous view from the south side of the Butte.
Another difference that may be a bit more difficult to spot at first, especially if your computer is having trouble zooming in on the map, like mine was, is that the city is a bit less built up in certain areas, especially around most of its perimeter. That would probably give an overall impression of more greenery or space at the edges of the landscape than you’d see today.
Unfortunately, while we have drawings, paintings, and aerial views of Paris at this time, I don’t know of any photographs taken specifically from the summit of Montmartre with the intention of showing the view from its southern slope in the 1880’s or during the Siege of Paris. A big reason for this might be that photographic processes at that time couldn’t show distant landscapes in great detail.
But we’re lucky to have at least a few photos that were taken of people and a certain specific object on Montmartre in 1870 and 1871 that happen to give us at least a notion of the view from its slopes and summit.
This is due to the fact that Montmartre played an important role in the Siege and the Paris Commune (March 18-May 28, 1871), in two particularly notable ways:
1. It was the site of several balloon launches. Balloons are an iconic feature of the Siege of Paris, since they were the only (relatively) reliable means for Parisians to send messages to people outside the city walls — in fact, airmail was invented during and because of the Siege of Paris. Two of the balloon launches from Montmartre are especially notable: that of the Neptune, the first balloon launched during the Siege, and that of the Armand Barbès, which took Léon Gambetta out of Paris so that he could conduct government business and rally French troops on the other side of enemy lines.
Here’s a photograph by Nadar himself, showing the Neptune being prepared for flight, in the Place Saint-Pierre, the square at the base of the Butte’s south side.
2. It was the location of a large canon depot (parc d’artillerie). Many of these canons had been funded by donations from Parisians to fight the Prussians. On March 18, 1871 (about a month and a half after the end of the Siege), the French government’s attempt to seize the cannons to hand them over to the Prussians as part of the terms of the treaty that ended the Franco-Prussian War was the event that ignited the Paris Commune, a period of civil war between the French government and the rebel Communards (most of them armed thanks to that same government, which had encouraged them to volunteer for the Garde Nationale during the Siege).
When I was researching Hearts at Dawn, I came across several photos and images of the canons on Montmartre. But I have to admit, while I know that they were stored on the southern side and possibly summit of the Butte, I haven’t been able to find out exactly where the depot was or its extent. Some sources make it seem as though it was on the summit of Montmartre — for instance, this very detailed sketch shows Saint-Pierre de Montmartre, the church that’s been on the butte’s summit for centuries before the construction of the Sacré-Cœur, just beside the cannon.
But others, like this photograph, suggest it also extended down along the slopes.
While researching this blog post, I also learned that the parc d’artillerie was where the cannons were stored, but they were then rolled to areas called batteries — outcroppings with good vantage points — where they were aimed and readied for firing.
I came upon this sketch by Gustave Doré, entitled Batteries sur les buttes Montmartre and dated March 6, 1871. In the sketch, we can see several spots where cannons were placed along the southern side of the hill.
As a point of reference, here’s roughly the same view today:
Back to the first two of these three historical images — what’s most important, for the purpose of this blog post, is what we can see in the background of each. In the background of photo of the parc d’artillerie, a dense mass of buildings makes up even this relatively small portion of the view towards Paris.
The sketch of the parc d’artillerie also suggests that immensity. Today, the dome of Les Invalides and the (then-new) Palais Garnier opera house are still easy to spot and loom fairly large among the rest of the cityscape. But I can’t vouch for the Arc de Triomphe being so noticeable, as I’ve never seen it from Montmartre’s heights. Like nearby monument The Eiffel Tower (which was constructed in 1889 and thus wouldn’t have been visible in the 1870’s or to Vincent when he was in Montmartre), it’s located in the western part of the city, a view that’s largely blocked by trees and buildings on and around Montmartre today.
You can see the Eiffel Tower, though, if you move a bit past the funiculaire. And according to this blog page, you can make out the Arc from the top of the dome of the Sacré-Cœur.
If you follow the link, you’ll see that the Arc de Triomphe is still pretty hard to spot, which makes me wonder if the artist of our sketch was just trying to emphasize it to give a reference point, or whether it might have been more noticeable because that area, while still pretty built up, as we could see in Nadar’s 1858 aerial photo, didn’t have quite as many tall buildings around it as it does today?
Where could you see the view from Montmartre in the 1870’s and 1880’s?
Speaking of vantage points, it would have been impossible to climb to the top of the Sacré-Cœur in 1870 or 1871, since its construction (started in 1875) wasn’t complete until the early 20th century. But the photographer and the draughtsman of our parc d’artillerie images are looking down on the summit, likely from the Tour Solférino, an observation tower that used to sit on the summit of the Butte. The tower’s two upper floors were demolished so as to be less of a potential target for Prussians during the Siege, and in 1874 it was demolished entirely.
You can see the lower portions of the Tour Solférino, as well get a general idea of what Montmartre’s summit looked like where the Sacré-Cœur now sits, in this painting from 1870. In it, Parisians are looking out over the city from what appears to be a makeshift observation platform. Note that while this artist wasn’t as focused on the details of the cityscape below, his use of grays and whites still suggests its size and density.
You can also get a very good overall impression of what the summit of Montmartre looked like in 1871 from Gustave Doré’s sketch of the batteries: The middle of the summit is a vacant space, with the church of Saint-Pierre on the left, and the Tour Solférino and some other structures on the right. In the center, we can see the tops of distant buildings set a bit further back on the heights of the Butte.
(Possibly) A view of western Paris from Montmartre in 1871
On the other hand, I have to confess that this photo of canons on Montmartre
is less easy to understand. The cityscape in the background doesn’t seem to be central Paris, since there are no noticeable landmarks and it looks more spacious and green. In the right corner is what seems to be a tree-lined avenue. There are no factory smokestacks, probably ruling out eastern Paris, as well as the landscape to the north of the city (a little more on those further on). I believe the batterie in this photograph may have been facing western Paris, but I can’t be absolutely sure.
Even though there are some very precise sources, like this webpage giving detailed information like where canons were kept in Paris and how many were at each site, nothing that I can find specifies how many batteries were on the slopes of Montmartre, or just how far around the hill they went.
(Probably) Views of eastern Paris from Montmartre in 1871
Fortunately, we have more precise information for these next images.
These photos date to the Commune (March 18 -May 28, 1871), and seem to show the same barricade on the Butte Montmartre (barricades were common in many streets of Paris during this time), taken at what appear to be slightly different times and angles.
The first is labeled as being on the rue de la Bonne:
while the second is labeled as being located at the intersection of the rue de la Bonne and the rue du Chevalier-de-la-Barre (then known as the rue des Rosiers, not to be confused with the rue des Rosiers in the Marais).
From what I can guess, the barricade could have been located near the intersection, in the present-day square Marcel-Bleustein-Blanchet, which overlooks northeastern Paris. But it’s also possible that it was at the actual intersection of these streets that we see on a map today; since the Sacré-Cœur wasn’t built yet, it might have been possible to get a relatively uninterrupted view of the city beyond, which would be impossible now. But since the Communards seem to be standing near the edge of the hill, my first guess seems more likely.
In both photos, the view of Paris is unfortunately a bit hard to make out in terms of details, but we can see a cityscape stretching out far to the horizon.
On the other hand, the location of the barricade and the fact that we can make out factory smokestacks and numerous green spaces make me even more convinced that this is a view from the eastern, not southern, slope of the Butte, which means this is a view of northeastern, not central, Paris.
This area was less developed and dense than the center, and many factories as well as parks like the fairly recently created Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, were located here. Even today, while eastern Paris is certainly more built up than it was in 1870–1871, many areas are still a bit more open than the center of the city.
The Butte Montmartre in the 1870’s and 1880’s
Montmartre is an iconic Parisian neighborhood today but for Parisians in 1870, it had only recently been incorporated into the City of Light, when the city officially added all or parts of surrounding villages to its borders in 1860. Before that, Montmartre was a village known for its windmills, taverns and guinguettes (beer gardens). After it became a part of Paris, this reputation was still upheld. It also was a pretty inexpensive place to live. With its cheap rents and unconventional attitude, artists began to flock to Montmartre’s slopes. Over the following decades, these included Vincent Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso, Modigliani, and many others.
In the 1870’s and ‘80’s, some parts of Montmartre were somewhat built up. For instance, the building Theo Van Gogh (and, for that short time, Vincent) lived in looks like a perfectly normal 19th-century Parisian apartment building. (That said, Montmartre has never totally followed the rules — as its streets were being paved, many often caved in, due to the Butte itself being full of hollow spaces where plaster of Paris had been mined in previous centuries.) But just around the corner, dirt roads, shacks, and wooden dwellings cobbled together by amateur (albeit talented) builders were the norm.
This area roughly between the rue Lepic and the rue Caulaincourt was known as le maquis. The picaresque slum’s origins date to around the 1870’s or ‘80’s. Despite health and sanitation issues, including no running water or building safety standards, le maquis existed to some degree until as late as the 1940’s. You can see some fascinating photos of the maquis through the years here. Keep in mind that most, if not all, of these photos date to later than the Siege and Commune of Paris.
So, if you were looking at Montmartre itself in the 1870’s, you would see a hill dotted with structures like buildings and windmills, but also plenty of undeveloped areas, including a good portion of its summit. By the time Vincent Van Gogh was there, in the mid- to late 1880’s, the maquis would have been more noticeable, and the Sacré-Cœur would be under construction at the summit.
The view north of Montmartre in the 1870’s and ‘80’s
The northern side of Montmartre looks out over a little bit of the city but mostly beyond it, into the northern suburbs. In the 1870’s and ‘80’s, that view would look more like what my friend was expecting. Villages and towns to the north of the city had fields between them, as opposed to the relentless urban sprawl that you see today.
When researching this blog post, I was excited to come upon this 1874 sketch by Eugène Delâtre, which shows the view from the rue du Mont Cenis, a long road that runs down the Butte’s northern slope. In the distance, we can see factories and villages, but also some green spaces.
This is the most radically different view from the Butte Montmartre. Here’s how it looks today — a vast urban sprawl:
A view out of time
Back to our most famous vista: central Paris, seen from the south side of the Butte Montmartre.
Because some areas of Paris were less developed than they are today, the overall landscape in the 1870’s and 1880’s might look slightly less dense, something that most of the visual sources here seem to confirm.
But overall, as we can see from the images I’ve shared here, as well as what we can tell from sources like maps, guidebooks, contemporary novels, correspondance, and travelers’ accounts, Paris in the 1870’s an d’80’s looked, on a whole, very similar to Paris today, especially in the central parts of the city. The same can’t be said for the view from Montmartre’s northern side; today, the scattered albeit big towns have given way to a vast urban sprawl.
Of course, in the 1870’s and ‘80’s, there weren’t skyscrapers, the Centre Pompidou, or the Eiffel Tower (well, not until 1889) — all of which you can see from Montmartre today.
Another thing to consider is that what I’ve described here are the typical views you’d see on a typical day from the top of Montmartre. But I imagine there must have been times when observers in 1870 and 1871 could see some sign of the forts that surrounded the city firing, or some trace of battles in the northern suburbs. During the semaine sanglante (Bloody Week), in late May 1871, when the Communards were burning down landmarks and government buildings around the city, people could surely see clouds of smoke if they were looking down from the Butte. And I imagine its summit would have been an amazing place to observe the aurora borealis that appeared in the sky on October 24, 1870.
But despite all of this, while it certainly wasn’t exactly the same, the general view from Montmartre in 1870–1871 and in the 1880’s wasn’t dramatically different from what we see today. The city was still dense, especially its center, and you can still spot recognizable monuments like the Palais Garnier, Notre-Dame, and the dome of Les Invalides.
This similarity is one of the things that, to me, makes the spectacular view of Paris from Montmartre even more moving. When I look out at Paris from Montmartre, I am seeing the scope of a city of countless stories. I am seeing nearly the entirety of this enormous place that I love. And I am sharing that view with people from the past. Someone in 1870, a year I wrote about and studied and have grown to love, would see almost the same thing as I do now. For a moment, it’s like we’re standing together, suspended in time.
A Beauty and the Beast retelling set during the 1870–1871 Siege of Paris, Hearts at Dawn has been selected as a Historical Novel Society Editors’ Choice book. It’s currently available in Kindle and paperback formats and is part of the Kindle Unlimited Library. I hope you’ll give it a read!
And if you do, I’d be forever grateful if you left an honest review on Amazon and any other sites or social media platforms where you post. Reviews help books gain more visibility and credibility. Even a review of a short few lines can be incredibly helpful.
Until next time!