Postcard from Paris: a night at Picasso’s favorite hotel

The myth of the ingenious artist starving in a garret exerts a timeless strength, not least because it contains a great blob of truth. Tag Pablo Picasso. In 1900, on the eve of his 19th birthday, he traveled from a comfortable home in Barcelona to Paris and instantly fell in love with the city and in a cheap way of living in it, combining passionate friendships with sexual and artistic freedom. Money – let alone heat or water supply – seemed largely a secondary concern.

Over the next decade or so, surrounded by a group of like-minded friends and operating mainly from a dilapidated Montmartre studio that would sway in the wind (and then get the nickname le Bateau-Lavoir after the washboats on the Seine), Picasso changed the world. Out of physical and moral misery, he conjured up his periods of blue and rose and watched the birth of Cubism. Any apparent financial failure only added to the lure.

But critics’ praise came late his way, followed by a stream of money and then by a flood. In 1918, Picasso was still in Paris, where he now celebrated his marriage to the Russian ballerina Olga Khokhlova at the grandest of magnificent hotels, Le Meurice on Rue de Rivoli, with Jean Cocteau and Serge Diaghilev as his fiancés.

Picasso’s reputation was such that when a flying champagne cork damaged a sumptuous oil painting by Madame de Pompadour in one of the hotel’s lavish reception rooms, management was knowledgeable enough to know that it was better to preserve the brand of Picasso’s champagne than to repair it. The painting.

Table and chairs on a terrace with planters and rooftops in the distance

The terrace of a suite at Le Meurice

The damaged portrait remains in situ to this day. The same goes for the magnificent reception rooms, which are flooded with gilded and mirrors à la Versailles, these days characterized by contemporary art. The suitably luxurious guest rooms still overlook not only the Tuileries Garden, but can also occupy in a single stroke, with the smallest neckline, the Louvre, Notre-Dame, the Musée d’Orsay, les Invalides, the Grand Palais, the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe.

Not surprisingly, Le Meurice’s historic guest list is replete with royalty – Hollywood and actual – but the hotel has always been particularly proud of its artistic and literary clientele. Dalí was a regular and took a suite for a month each year, which he adorned with distinctive self-promoting props such as a flock of sheep, a Harley-Davidson chopper or Andy Warhol. Further back, Balzac, Thackeray, Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky were attached to the hotel. Recently, Bob Dylan and Beyoncé have been.

Le Meurice has never been shy about its Picasso connection, but only recently, as Paris seems to be moving decisively out of Covid restrictions, has it introduced a Picasso-themed package with an overnight stay and a private tour of Picasso Montmartre with art historian and author Marta-Volga de Minteguiaga-Guezala (as the artist, a Spaniard living in Paris). She manages to perform the remarkable trick of finding some, relatively, off-the-beaten track through a now well-to-do Montmartre that had begun to attract tourists even in Picasso’s time.

A marble bathroom with a window above offers views of the roofs and a cathedral in the distance

A bathroom at Le Meurice with the Sacré Coeur sprouts in the distance

Circular tables and chairs in a large stately room with mirrors, chandeliers and an ornate painting

One of the hotel’s event rooms with Versailles-style floor-to-ceiling mirrors

My trip with her included a visit to the unmanageable site of a long-gone cabaret frequented by the artist – the unambiguously named Zut – a scene brought to life as Marta revealed the rags in Picasso’s story. The original Bateau-Lavoir burned down in 1970, but the rebuilt version can be seen, like Picasso’s first Paris studio, on Rue Gabrielle (where he refined the signature of his work from various iterations of Pablo and his paternal surname Ruiz to the more emphatic and brand-friendly Picasso), and which attracts remarkably little tourist influx.

Zut’s owner, Frédé Gérard, was also the owner of another Picasso hang-out, Lapin Agile, which still operates today. The painting Gérard commissioned in 1905, “Au Lapin Agile”, shows Picasso himself in the bar as Harlequin with the lover of a close friend who had killed himself (and with whom Picasso, all too predictably, later had an affair). Gérard himself is in the background playing guitar, and for years the painting served as Picasso’s “credit card behind the bar” for his wine bill, Marta explained. When it was last sold, in 1989, it earned $ 40.7 million.

Au Lapin Agile, a bar in Montmartre frequented by Picasso and still in operation © Alamy

The hotel’s Picasso package coincides with an important new double exhibition at Paris’ Musée Picasso, home to the mother of his art, which also reflects the role money ultimately played in his career and beyond. One half is dedicated to work attached to her daughter with her lover Marie-Thérèse Walter, Maya Ruiz-Picasso. It features a variety of portraits of Maya made by her father when she was a toddler in the late 1930s, as well as rudimentary toys made from the odds and ends of the studio. The second section shows works that Maya recently donated to the French state in lieu of taxes, including a portrait of Picasso’s father, made when the artist was only 14 years old, and a Polynesian tiki sculpture, part of the collection of African and oceanic art, which he started back in his Montmartre days, and it had such a huge impact on his work.

In a space in front of buildings, Picasso looks into the camera in dark casual clothes

Picasso in Montmartre (c1904), where the artist lived © Corbis via Getty Images

Picasso’s financial affairs are infinitely complex – he died without leaving a will – and just a few months ago there was a public dispute within the family over whether his work could be presented in the form of the currently voguish NFTs. But despite all that, he lived most of his long life tempering an appreciation of the finer things (expensive cars were a weakness) with simpler pleasures and an overriding commitment to his work. As he remembered 50 years after he and his comrades left the material poverty of their time in Montmartre: “We had no other preoccupation than what we were doing. . . and then no one but each other. . . Think about it, what an aristocracy! ”.

details

Nicholas Wroe was a guest at Le Meurice (dorchestercollection.com); Picasso’s Montmartre package costs from € 1,330 for two. ‘Maya Ruiz-Picasso, daughter of Pablo’ is at the Musée National Picasso-Paris (museepicassoparis.fr) until December

Follow @ftweekend on Twitter to first find out our latest stories

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.