One of the two most popular places for artists to hang out during the whole bohemian era was a notorious, raucous cabaret named Au Lapin Agile. Au Lapin Agile was located close to Place de Tertre in Montmartre and had been in existence since around 1850. It had always been a place where people gathered for sing-alongs. Sounds innocent enough, right?
The Au Lapin Agile attracted all kinds, however. Wagoneers with their knives stuck in the table tops as they drank, local villagers, artists, writers, pimps, down and outers, and anarchists all gathered there.In fact, the original name was Cabaret Das Assassins because a band of assassins broke in and killed the owners son.The songs sang were often either political and inflammatory or sexual in nature.
In 1875 an artist named Andre Gill painted a sign that hung outside the building showing a rabbit in a chef hat jumping out of a saucepan; a tribute to one of the dishes served there. People soon started calling the place Le Lapin a Gill, which meant "Gill's Rabbit". It evolved into Cabaret Au Lapin Agile (The Nimble Rabbit Cabaret). Most simply called it Au Lapin Agile or Lapin Agile. Once the name changed it became even more popular with artists, still drawing the same questionable crowd in addition to well off bourgeois slumming it for an evening of ribald fun.
There is conflicting information on who owned this cabaret for a time. Some information shows that a woman owned it for awhile (in fact during the time the sign was painted). I can't recall her name, but I believe she was a singer in another venue for awhile. Other references indicate that the artist who painted the sign (Andre Gill) actually owned it for a time. Whoever owned it did little to discourage riffraff from frequenting the place, but they were also very kind to artists.
Paintings were sometimes accepted in exchange for a meal. There was also an unspoken rule that at the end of the night any artist who had no money to eat would be given soup. Artists also had total freedom to become as drunk as they wished, fight, and pass out in a chair at one of the tables. They were not to be disturbed when they did so. Police were not to be called, either. In the morning they would simply wake up and stumble away.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century it was constantly packed with painters, writers, comedians, sculptors, poets, musicians and singers who all thrived on the energy and sharing of ideas there. Also, ownership had changed and a man named Frédé ran it. He had owned a previous cabaret and also pushed a wagon of goods around town. Because of that he owned a donkey, who would often ramble around the various tables in front of the cabaret, along with a flea bitten dog. Many nights Frédé played his guitar or cello as patrons sang.
In the early 1900's Picasso made Au Lapin Agile a favorite haunt of his. He did a painting titled Au Lapin Agile in which he was represented as a harlequin and Frédé is shown playing the guitar. It belonged to the cabaret and Frédé sold the painting in 1912 for $20! In 1989 it was auctioned for $40.7 MILLION dollars.
Just think about how many drinks and dinners that would have bought all of those crazy bohemians! (More to come later on this era of artists)