Marcel Leprin: Haunted genius of Montmartre

The image of the starving artist in a garret comes from Scènes de la vie de bohème, a work by the writer Henri Murger published in 1851. Turned into a play and performed with great success at the Théâtre des Variétés, two operas followed: La bohème by Giacomo Puccini (1896) and La bohème by Ruggero Leoncavallo (1897). Art imitating life.

Leprin(1)Marcel Leprin (1891-1933) was born in Cannes and brought up in Marseilles. After the First World War, he went to Paris where he wandered for a few days around Montmartre. Penniless and in a state of despair, the locksmith Achille Depoilly found him seated on a bench in the place du Tertre, half-starved and numb with cold.

The locksmith told him to come with him to the bistro Mère Catherine, where he was going with his wife and friends. A bowl of hot soup, a plate of boiled beef and a bottle of red wine (what else?) revived the unknown man from the South. Leprin told them, “I am a painter. Having heard of Montmartre from my friend, the sculptor André Verdilhan, whose brother, Mathieu, also a painter, used to live here, I wanted to work in the same place, but bad luck laid me low. I have absolutely nothing.”

Leprin(2)The painter André Utter (1886-1948) was dining there that night. He heard the stranger’s story and immediately passed a hat round to collect some money. Utter found a hotel for Leprin and the next day brought him canvas and paints. The poet Jean Vertex, who was also present that evening, described the scene: “At the next table, a dozen artists seated around Utter heard the conversation. It was like the twelve apostles gathered together at the temple of Mère Catherine.”

In a building that previously served as the church presbytery of Saint-Pierre de Montmartre, the Mère Catherine restaurant on Montmartre’s Place du Tertre was established in 1793. It is one of the city’s most historic eating places. During the French Revolution, Georges Danton met his supporters there, where he is supposed to have written the words “Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we may die” (a conflation of two biblical sayings from Ecclesiastes). A plaque at the entrance also recounts that the word “bistro” was coined here when, on 30 March 1814, a group of Russian soldiers asked for drinks “bystro” (the Russian for “quickly”).

Leprin(3)Marcel Leprin was an orphan brought up by the Don Bosco Salesian monks, who noticed his gift for drawing and lithography. Leprin fancied taking up bullfighting in Barcelona, but was called up to serve in the First World War, which he somehow survived. After moving to Montmartre, he lived by selling paintings and pastel drawings to tourists. In 1924 he signed an exclusive contract with Henri Bureau, a picture-framer living in Montmartre, who promoted his works. In 1926 Leprin travelled across France, painting numerous landscapes and village views.

Leprin(4)Despite considerable success at two exhibitions at the Druet gallery in 1928 and 1931, Leprin remained a solitary and depressive individual. He sought refuge in drink and drugs and died prematurely in 1933. He left some 700 paintings reflecting his different moods and styles. The Marseilles period is largely made up of large decorative paintings; the Montmartre period is quite dark and commercial; and the period of his travels – reminiscent of Sisley and Pissarro – more warm and creative.

Today, Leprin’s paintings can be found at the Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris, the Musée Carnavalet, and the Musée de Montmartre – all in Paris – and in Switzerland at the Petit Palais de Genève. Well worth seeking out.

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