Ghouls’ Night Out: Sex, Death, and Damnation in Fin de Siècle Paris

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The Cabaret du Ciel (left) beside the Cabaret de l’Enfer (right) on the Boulevard de Clichy

Every generation likes to think they’re the first to invent counterculture, but today’s goths and Murderinos are part of a tradition of gleeful creepiness that goes back centuries. We’ll be looking into more of this in future posts, but tonight we’re going to start in Montmartre.

In Bohemian Paris of Today (1899), William Chambers Morrow describes Montmartre as “that strange Bohemian mountain with its eccentric, fantastic, and morbid attractions,” and that’s a good start. It was home of the Moulin Rouge, Le Chat Noir, the famous stairs of the Rue Foyatier, and the Sacré-Coeur. Now one of the most recognizable parts of Paris, Montmartre was (and continued to be) the red light district, inhabited by countless sex workers as well as some of the most influential writers, musicians, and artists of the late nineteenth century.

So much of Western art and literature can be traced back to Montmartre in the 1890s that it’s really worth of a blog of its own. We already looked at Toulouse-Lautrec and some of the famous figures who appeared in his art, so today we’re looking a bit closer at some of Montmartre’s hottest nightspots–the magnificently goth heaven and hell nightclubs the Cabaret du Ciel, l’Enfer, and the Cabaret du Néant.

neant postcardCabaret du Néant

At the Cabaret du Néant (Cabaret of Nothingness), the morbid nihilism sweeping fin de siècle Paris found its natural home. If you were thirsty after a long day of morgue tourism*, you could pull up a bench at a coffin of your own in their Salle d’Intoxication, a bar decorated with human bones.

Every aspect of the décor had been chosen to make an impact. The entrance was draped in heavy black curtains with white details, the same ones that hung in the houses of the dead around the city. Even the iron lanterns gave off a sickly green light, giving anyone who passed beneath them the pallor of a corpse. The drinks themselves were named after poisons and diseases and served in cups shaped like skulls**, and the waiters dressed as monks and pallbearers.

After a glass of “spitting tuberculosis”, you could proceed into the adjoining room for entertainment of another kind. With the Pepper’s Ghost illusion, the bar used light and a series of carefully angled mirrors to create some very alarming effects. While Pepper’s Ghost is great at simulating apparitions, Néant took it a bit further. Seated on coffins, the guests would watch as a young woman wrapped in a shroud appeared to fully decompose into a skeleton then slowly come back to life. How they managed it, we can only guess, but they did recreate the experience for their guests; anyone could pass through the coffin, decompose, and be brought back to life in Néant’s “Cave of the Dead.”

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Néant’s chandelier

First established in Paris on the Boulevard Rochechouart as the Cabaret de la Mort (Cabaret of Death) in 1892, it relocated to the Boulevard de Clichy and took the name Néant, because apparently it was the name frightening the residents and not the chandeliers. (right)

In spite of the grim theme, contemplation of one’s own mortality was not the aim—or it didn’t stop there, at least. Néant was above all else a place to hook up. Whether sipping “Asiatic cholera” in the Salle d’Intoxication or taking in a show in the “Cave of Gay Ghosts” or “Cave of Sad Specters,” guests were known to engage in a fair bit of PDA. Secret Montmartre explains it thus:

“It is a constant of eroticism to be bound to the ephemeral and to death. (…) The show does not discourage the libido of spectators who do not forget that in Pigalle, sex has the last word. We kiss each other, we caress each other under the empty gaze of the skeletons.”

Cabaret du Ciel

After passing through the coffin and being dramatically reanimated at Néant, you could stagger a bit farther down the Boulevard de Clichy to the Cabaret du Ciel (Cabaret of Heaven, “the sky”) or l’Enfer (Hell) just beside it. If you’d been good—or didn’t mind a fairly blasphemous drinking session—you might make it up the stairs to le Ciel, where you would be greeted by angels, priests, and St. Peter dripping holy water on you from above.***

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Angels surround the Golden Porcus. That’s not weird.

If the nearly naked angels cavorting to harp music wasn’t enough to keep you entertained, you could listen to their naughty confessions or watch them perform scenes from Dante’s Inferno. It must have been quite a scene–some of them were also dancers at the Moulin Rouge.

Bizarrely, le Ciel also had a massive golden pig (“the Golden Porcus”) that was worshiped like a deity, decorated in flowers, and surrounded by candles. (right)

Like Néant, le Ciel had their own names for common drinks. Morrow describes his experience:

“Brothers, your orders! Command me, thy servant!” growled a ferocious angel at our elbows, with his accent de la Villette, and his brass halo a trifle askew.

Mr. Thompkins had been very quiet, for he was Wonder in the flesh, and perhaps there was some distress in his face, but there was courage also. The suddenness of the angel’s assault visibly disconcerted him,–he did not know what to order. Finally he decided on a verre de Chartreuse, green. Bishop and I ordered bocks.

“Two sparkling draughts of heaven’s own brew and one star-dazzler!” yelled our angel.

“Thy will be done,” came the response from the hidden bar.

Throughout the night, they would invite guests to become “angels” and suspend them on wires from the ceiling, allowing them to fly above the other patrons until Father Time appeared with his scythe to collect tips and send them on their way to l’Enfer.

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Cabaret de l’Enfer

As over the top as Néant and le Ciel must have seemed, l’Enfer was another story altogether. Just downstairs from le Ciel, it couldn’t have been more different:

“We passed through a large, hideous, fanged, open mouth in an enormous face from which shone eyes of blazing crimson. (…) Red-hot bars and gratings through which flaming coals gleamed appeared in the walls within the red mouth. (…) Near us was suspended a cauldron over a fire, and hopping within it were half a dozen devil musicians, male and female, playing a selection from “Faust” on stringed instruments, while red imps stood by, prodding with red-hot irons those who lagged in their performance.

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A cauldron at l’Enfer. Note the devils lighting the fire beneath it. You can see the walls and ceilings were covered in sculptures of the damned.

“Crevices in the walls of this room ran with streams of molten gold and silver, and here and there were caverns lit up by smouldering fires from which thick smoke issued, and vapors emitting the odors of a volcano. Flames would suddenly burst from clefts in the rocks, and thunder rolled through the caverns.

“Numerous red tables stood against the fiery walls; at these sat the visitors. Mr. Thompkins seated himself at one of them. Instantly it became aglow with a mysterious light, which kept flaring up and disappearing in an erratic fashion; flames darted from the walls, fires crackled and roared. One of the imps came to take our order; it was for three coffees, black, with cognac; and this is how he shrieked the order: ‘Three seething bumpers of molten sins, with a dash of brimstone intensifier!’”

The glasses glowed with “phosphorescent light,” and dapper man dressed as the devil would make the rounds and tell the guests which of their sins had led them to eternal damnation. From there, you could go to “the hot room,” where a contortionist would change from snake to devil and back again. Morrow writes that he was disappointed to find that although the walls appeared to be half melted, the hot room was disagreeably chilly.

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Antonin Alexander, professor turned devil, owner of literally the hottest club in Paris. Dapper AF.

If it seems like these clubs go together a little too well, it might not surprise you to hear that le Ciel and l’Enfer were owned by the same man, former literature professor Antonin Alexander. Alexander himself appeared as the devil in l’Enfer. (right)

After Néant was moved to the Boulevard de Clichy in 1892, le Ciel and l’Enfer joined it in 1896. Jules Claretie, then director of the Théâtre Français, viewed the clubs as essential to understanding Belle Epoque Paris and described them as “Putting Dante’s poem within walking distance.”

Even after its heyday at the turn of the century, l’Enfer continued to be a place of interest. André Breton’s Surrealists met above it in the 1920s. Eerily enough, serial killer Guy Georges was caught at the site in 1998 and confessed inside the same building where a costumed devil once confronted visitors with lists of their sins.

In case you’re curious, le Ciel and l’Enfer were at 53 Boulevard de Clichy, and Néant was at number 34. Today, 53 is a Monoprix, and 34 is a “fully naturist swinger sauna.” Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…

Jessica Cale

Further Reading

Bohemian Paris of To-Day by William Chambers Morrow and Édouard Cucuel (1899)

*Yes, really. 
**You thought you were so original.
***I really hope it’s holy water.

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Bohemian Rhapsody: Toulouse-Lautrec’s Montmartre

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“A woman’s body, a beautiful woman’s body, is not made for love, you see… it’s too beautiful, isn’t it?”

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Toulouse-Lautrec, dressed as a clown

Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa was born on November 24th, 1864 at the Hȏtel du Bosc at Albi to Count Alphonse de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa and Countess Adèle Tapié de Céleyran. The counts of Toulouse could trace their lineage back to Charlemagne, and by the late nineteenth century, they lived in genteel comfort in estates across the south of France. They had maintained their fortune largely through the intermarriage within the family, and Toulouse-Lautrec’s parents were first cousins.

He suffered from pycnodysostosis, a hereditary disease that rendered his bone structure sensitive and weak. After he broke both of his legs as a child, they stopped growing altogether, leaving him permanently stunted at 5’1”. It was during his convalescence that he first began to develop his skill as an artist. Even after he could walk again, his condition kept him from many of the leisure pursuits enjoyed by his family, particularly hunting and riding, so he spent his time drawing and painting. When he decided to pursue a career as a painter, his family was supportive.

Toulouse-Lautrec moved to Montmartre in 1884 at the age of nineteen. As he wrote to his family:

“Of course Papa would think me an outsider… It has cost me an effort, and you know as well as I do that leading a Bohemian life goes against the grain and taxes my will sorely in the attempt to get used to it, since I still bear with me a load of sentimental considerations that I shall have to throw overboard if I am to get anywhere…”

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A rare profile of van Gogh, 1887

Throw them overboard he did. In his quest to develop his art and understand his subjects, he threw himself into the thriving bohemian culture of Montmartre. It was a hard-partying world of absinthe, revolutionary politics, brothels, and nightclubs open at all hours and filled with notable figures like Oscar Wilde and Renoir. Edgar Degas’ studio was in the same house as Toulouse-Lautrec’s first apartment, and they painted some of the same people. Vincent van Gogh was also an outsider in Paris and the two became friends.

Toulouse-Lautrec’s art is characterized by a love of life and empathy for his subjects. In confident strokes and bold colors, he captured movement and mood like no other, recording the vibrancy and ugliness of the Montmartre nightlife with unflinching honesty and near spiritual devotion. His sketches, paintings, and lithographs portray the intangible — innocence in immorality, truth in the theatrical — with playfulness and startling simplicity.

Toulouse-Lautrec had the advantage of being born wealthy. He was not dependent upon his art to survive, so everything he did, he did for love — love of life, love of his art, and love of his subjects. While many others were obliged to take commissions, Toulouse-Lautrec haunted bars, brothels, and dance halls in his relentless pursuit of life itself. He was fascinated by physical prowess due in no small part to his own limitations, and as such, he painted dancers, acrobats, and even jockeys.

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La Toilette, 1896

He was particularly fond of prostitutes, and the feeling was mutual. They adored him and allowed him to stay with them. He felt most at home in brothels, and even lived in one for some time. Prostitutes were his favorite models. He explains: “Professional models always seem to have been stuffed, whereas these girls are alive… They loll and stretch on the divans like animals… They are utterly without affectation.” His Elles album captured the details of their daily lives — washing, dressing, waiting, talking — with affection and empathy, bringing out the nuanced beauty in the mundane.

His love of life unfortunately contributed to his tragically early death at the age of thirty-five from complications related to alcoholism and syphilis. Although his life was short, his contribution to modern art cannot be overemphasized. While he may not have the name recognition of van Gogh, his work was no less influential. His at times unnerving realism and choice of subjects has influenced generations of artists, and his posters made a mark on pop art and advertising that can still be felt today.

Toulouse-Lautrec saw himself as an observer, and most of his subjects were real people. Although many of them were notable at the time, they achieved a degree of immortality through his work. Let’s take a look at some of the figures of Toulouse-Lautrec’s Montmartre:

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(Left) La Goulue Arriving at the Moulin Rouge, 1892. (Right) La Goulue

La Goulue: Dancer Louise Weber was known by her stage name La Goulue (“the glutton”) for her habit of finishing off customers’ drinks as she danced past their tables. The “Queen of Montmartre” embroidered hearts on her knickers and kicked men’s hats off with her toes.

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Moulin Rouge: La Goulue, 1891

Valentin-le-Désosseé (Valentin the Snakeman, or Valentin the Boneless) was the stage name of wine merchant Jacques Renaudin. He is the distinctive-looking man in the foreground of this lithograph, and he danced at the Moulin Rouge in his spare time.

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(Left) Ambassadeurs – Aristide Bruant, 1892. (Right) Aristide Bruant

Aristide Bruant was a popular singer fond of abusing the audience at Le Mirliton, his cabaret club in Montmartre. Standing on top of the tables, he would sing songs about life in the working-class suburbs wearing dramatic costumes of his own design and punctuating his works with a cane he didn’t need. Toulouse-Lautrec was a big fan, and was known to sing his songs in his studio. You can find many of his recordings on YouTube today.

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(Left) Yvette Guilbert Taking a Curtain Call, 1894. (Right) Yvette Guilbert

Yvette Guilbert was also a singer of chanson réaliste, a predecessor of Edith Piaf, and she sometimes sang Bruant’s songs. She was a tall, slender woman and her trademark long black gloves appear in the background of some of Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings. She despaired of the way he portrayed her, but saw value in its honesty whereas other artists had been kinder. She was actually rather lovely. Many of her recordings still exist, and you can listen to them here.

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(Left) Jane Avril Leaving the Moulin Rouge, 1893. (Right) Jane Avril by Paul Sescau, 1890.

Jane Avril was a famous cancan dancer and a friend of Toulouse-Lautrec. While he made many promotional images of her, this painting shows a more intimate side to her, lost in thought as she is walking home through Montmartre.

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The Clownesse Cha-U-Kao at the Moulin Rouge (1895)

Cha-U-Kao: Cha-U-Kao was a female clown at the Moulin Rouge and an open lesbian. Toulouse-Lautrec opened his Elles series with her image. Many of the prostitutes he met were involved in lesbian relationships, and he found this to be quite moving: “When you see the way they love…(it is) the technique of tenderness.”

Jessica Cale

Further reading
Arnold, Matthias. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Taschen, 2000.