Le lapin Agile

The Characters of the Lapin Agile: how genius and wine made a painter out of a donkey

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Le lapin Agile
Au Lapin Agile, a little 1860s house with many stories to tell…

Père Frédé wasn’t the only manager of the cabaret of the Lapin Agile. It was a piece of the craziest hill in Paris, one of the embodiments of the generous, tormented, rebel spirit of Montmartre. Poor Père Frédé was always broke because of his patrons, artists who were rarely able to pay the bill if not with paintings worth almost nothing at the times (one of those was a young Pablo Picasso!). It is said that between generous hearts misery is rapidly contagious, but there were things that not even Frédé could give up. One of those was Lolo, his faithful donkey which, on one day of usual Montmartrian madness, actually became a proponent of an artistic movement!

Père Frédé and the faithful Lolo in front of the Lapin Agile

(To know more about the extraordinary manager of the Lapin Agile, warden to an incredible fortune, and about the origin of the name of this strange cabaret, read: The Characters of the Lapin Agile: an alert sectioned patient and an unaware millionaire“)

The dear animal had his fifteen minutes of fame under the nom de plume Boronali, an anagram of Aliboron, one of Lolo’s names, in homage to the fairy tale donkey of the tales by Jean de la Fontaine.
The idea was of Roland Dorgélès (1885-1873), journalist and writer who became famous for his war stories, and also a great prankster.

Dorgélès was a customer of the cabaret and wanted to mock the new artistic avantgardes of the time and in general, all the movements ending in “-ism” (cubism, expressionism, futurism, surrealism…)

Roland Dorgélès, journalist and writer, and one of his quotes. Dorgélès fought in the trenches during WWI. The memory of the men who didn’t come back never abandoned him, so much that it urged him to write about them.

His friend André Warnod (1885-1960), illustrator, painter, writer and art critic (another impressive curriculum vitae), wanted to be part of the party. Together, they planned a prank that the avantgardes wouldn’t have forgotten for some time.

André Warnod
André Warnod illustrator, painter, writer, art critic: the accomplice.

They put their hands on a clean canvas and they tied a brush to Lolo’s tail. Then, they offered him some carrots. As a result, wagging his tail Lolo painted “Sunset on the Adriatic”, the opera that would have launched the new movement of the “Excessivism”. For the occasion, Dorgélès even wrote down a manifest while the canvas, considered by everyone as the first masterpiece of an emerging Italian painter called Boronali, was exposed at the Salon des Indépendants (Salon of the Independents) of 1910, raking up some good critic.

“Let’s devastate the absurd museums, let’s kick the heineous habits. Hooray for the scarlet, the royal purple… etc.”, read the manifest of Excessivism, a clear parody of the Futurism’s that had appeared on French newspapers the years before.

When the prank was revealed, Dorgélès could brag he had been able to demonstrate that even a donkey could start a new avantgarde. Practical butte jokes!

L'Affaire Boronali
The Boronali Affair and its actors: (Lolo the Donkey, Warnod, and Dorgélès) with the opera “Sunset on the Adriatic”, today preserved at the museum ‘”Espace Culturel Paul Bédu” at Milly-la- Forêt.

This story is a nice taste of what the spirit of Montmartre – or Mont-Mad as I rebaptized it – was. Dorgélès and his accomplices surely got a nice fat laugh out of it, and probably together with the same vanguardists they had pranked, since they all went to the same cabaret: Au Lapin Agile. Nobody was overly mad: if Mont-Mad had a password that would have surely been LUDBRIUM (prank, trick…).

Boronali joke
A compromising photo of the Boronali Affair…

I think now’s the right time to full up the glasses and get to know the extraordinary patrons of the Lapin Agile. While Genius, Art, and Madness bring their children by the mand to Père Frédè’s worn-out counter, I’ll tell you some gossip about them. Some are not very well-known outside France, but I can assure you they’re unforgettable people once you get to know them, screwed up and disreputable maybe, but never lame. Here’s some of them:

  • Emmanuel Poiré (1858-1909), artist, better known as Caran d’Ache, nom de plume coming from the Russian word karandash, “pencil”. I feel the need to point out that’s the brand that takes its name after it, and not the other way round.
Caran d’Ache
Caran d’Ache, illustrator and humorist, with one of his drawings.
  • His friend Jean-Louis Forain (1852-1931), a painter not so well known abroad but not less of an impressionist than others!
Jean-Louis Forain
Jean-Louis Forain, painter, lithographer, water-colorist and engraver with his masterpiece “The Acrobat” (1880-1885)
  • Jules Jouy (1855-1897), irreverent poet and songwriter, died at 42: bets are still up for what had killed him: syphilis, alcoholism or tobacco dependence?
Jules Jouy, poet and songwriter, and one of his quotes.
  • That irresistible funny guy who was Courteline (1858-1929), painter, writer, and playwright.
Courteline, painter, writer, and playwright, with one of his quotes
  • The likewise bucket of laughs who was Alphonse Allais (1854-1905) his colleague
Alphonse Allais, writer, and humorist, with one of his quotes
  • But we couldn’t leave out the political personalities who despised not the crazy but authentic company of the small cabaret? Here’s Georges Clémenceau (1841-1929), who we find in every history book in the chapter about WWI.
George Clémenceau two-times Prime Minister, and one of his quotes
  • Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918), the poet who invented the “calligrams” mixing drawing and thought
Apollinaire, poet, writer, art critic and playwright with some of his “calligrams”.
  • Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1875-1876) who lived right next to the cabaret
Renoir, painter and his painting “la Liseuse”
  • Pablo Picasso who, at the times of the Lapin Agile, wasn’t nor rich nor famous. He was one of those who only could pay Père Frédé with their worthless paintings. One of them, particularly, had been put on the wall of the cabaret: it was called At the Lapin Agile (or Harlequin with a glass, 1905), a self-portrait of Picasso dressed as a Harlequin sitting at one of the cabaret’s tables, with a girl beside him and Père Frédé playing. It was the same owner of the Lapin Agile, always broke since he was paid in paintings and gratitude, who sold the painting for almost nothing. The same masterpiece will then be auctioned in New York, many years later, for 42 million dollars…
Picasso with his painting dedicated to the Lapin Agile, self-portrait in a Harlequin costume, with Père Frédé playing in the background.
  • In the end, there had to be between the customers the symbol of the ostracized, depraved, crazy, troubled Paris who gave poetry a new life: Paul Verlaine (1844-1896), alcoholic, lecherous in any possible way and suffering from a very unshakable case of chronic poverty. After all, how could he be any different: he was an authentic poète maudit!
… and decency, someone could have added: Paul Verlaine, poét maudit and one of his quotes

(If you’re interested in becoming a cursed and bohémien literary genius, read the recipe that the Mad Hatter entrusted me with in the article: How to become a poét maudit?”)

But here, now enters the Lapin Agile a shy, introverted, scanty man. When he appears, the wine is hidden. The curses aren’t gone, it appears: this man is Maurice Utrillo, and he brings with him the story of the Infernal Trio, another worthy of this crazy hill I rebaptized Mount-Mad.

(To understand the nature of this mysterious man, we first have to meet the apex of the Infernal Trio, his incredible mother Suzanne Valadon: The Infernal Trio: the terrible Suzanne“)

Utrillo Lapin Agile
Utrillo, painter and also… the bottle of Mount-Mad!