Paris is packed with sublime sculptures. And not all of them are in galleries or museums. There is another way of experiencing some of the best sculpture that Paris has to offer. Visit the city’s monumental public cemeteries and you’ll see just what I mean.
Parisians of the late 1800s sometimes went to great lengths to memorialise their loved ones in marble and bronze. Some of the most notable artists of the time were engaged to create memorials. In doing so, they created an artistic legacy that many years later we can still admire. Just as they intended.
Montmartre Cemetery, officially known as the Cimitière du Nord, it opened in 1825 on the site of a former quarry. It had already been used as a makeshift grave during the French Revolution. After Père Lachaise cemetery and Montparnasse cemetery it is the third largest necropolis in Paris. The Pont de Caulaincourt, a metal bridge built in 1888, spans over the 11-hectare cemetery which is below street level, underneath the busy Rue Caulaincourt, close to the Basilica of Sacré-Coeur. The cemetery has 20,000 burial plots. Among the famous people buried there are Alexander Dumas, Degas and Dalida, whose grave is the most visited and has the most flowers.
There is also a memorial to the French artist Gustave Guillaumet. He found fame as a painter of scenes of Algerian life. Unusually for the time, his paintings avoided decorative and exotic ‘Orientalism’. Instead they focuson the challenges of life facing ordinary Algerians surviving in an unforgiving arid environment.
Upon Guillaumet’s death in 1887, his monumental sculpture was created by Louis-Ernest Barrias. You’ll also find his work at the Musée d’Orsay and the Paris Opera. Typically for the era, the sculpture is both literal in its realistic depiction of Guillaumet’s profiled head on a large central disc and symbolic. It depicts a well-used sketch book and ink well (to the left of the disc) and the artist’s palette and paint brushes to the right.
But it’s the focal point above that actually provides the sculpture’s title, Young Girl from Bou-Saada. Showing a youthful Algerian woman sitting on a woven rug strewing flower petals upon Guillaumet’s profile and the tools of his artistic craft. The dignified figure of the mourning girl is not derived from one specific Algerian painting by Guillaumet, but is characteristic of the figures in many of his paintings.
The cats of Montmartre cemetery
Montmartre cemetery is a tranquil place and home to a community of cats. It’s estimated around 50 cats have made this their home and you’ll often spot them sunning themselves on the monuments and making friends with visitors. No one knows why they chose this place as their home but some locals put food out for them, so we know why they stay!
Entrance to the cemetery is from 20 avenue Rachel.
Written by Brad Allan, writer and wine tasting host in Melbourne, Australia and frequent visitor to France.
More on unusual visits to Paris
Promenade Plantée, the most unusual park in the city
Opera Garnier – like a mini Versailles chateau
Rue Mouffetard – the oldest street in Paris