A Scotsman’s visit to the Montmartre home of Maurice Neumont, August 1915

Maurice Neumont [1868-1930]

Portrait of Maurice Neumont - 1925

was one of the leading French illustrators and poster artists of the late 19th & early 20th Century. Born in Paris in September 1868, he apparently learned his craft at an early age, charcoal or chalk in hand, drawing sketches & caricatures on the pavements & walls of sandy alleyways in the gardens & parks of his local arrondissement. According to Paul Escudier in a profile of Neumont, published in the January 1914 issue of Le Cornet, his school books were filled with nothing but pages of richly coloured sketches of fantastical scenes from history and vibrantly stained battlescapes, that drove his teachers and parents to distraction but bore testament to his all-encompassing childhood passion for art. A protegé of the academician artist, Jean-Léon Gérome [1824-1904], he subsequently studied at the Paris Ecole des Beaux Arts and first exhibited at the Paris Salon des artistes francais in 1902. At around this time he moved to a prominent house at the highest point of the Butte in Montmartre, No.1 Place du Calvaire, which would become his residence for the next thirty years. In 1904, with Willette, Maurin, Léandre and Truchet, he founded the Societé des dessinateurs humoristes. He also became a loyal and long-standing member of the artists’ Dining Club, Le Cornet, first established in 1896. Something akin to the British Savage Club, as well as holding a monthly dinner, Le Cornet, which limited its membership to a maximum of just 200, offered convivial company and mutual support, both moral and financial, for those in the often-precarious artistic professions. Like the Savage Club, the monthly dinner menus offered individual members a chance to give free rein to their artistic talents, and Neumont was probably foremost amongst the contributors to these now much-collected ephemeral items, designing over fifty during the period between 1904 and 1929.

A contributor to numerous illustrated magazines, Neumont’s artistic work traversed the whole range of genres from watercolour to lithography, offering, as Escudier described it, a captivating mix of “light and shade, grace & power, humour and tradition”. Much of his pre-war work was imbued with the carefree & erotic jollity of Edwardian Paris.

With the coming of World War One, Neumont’s mood changed as he rapidly became one of the leading proponents of French patriotic propaganda, making available his own atelier for this work, and producing a wide range of propaganda illustrations and posters.

Amongst his notable early propaganda poster works are his Journée du Poilu, dating from December 1915, raising extra funds for the French Army.

Journée du Poilu Dec 1915
Journée du Poilu
Dec 1915

In 1916-17 he became closely involved with the newly established French propaganda organisation, La Conférence au Village contre la Propagande ennemie en France. The aim of La Conférence was to try to reinforce French patriotism in the more remote rural areas of France, especially along France’s eastern frontiers and in regions close to the War front, where enemy propaganda and disinformation might perhaps more easily take root and sway the hearts and minds of France’s increasingly war-weary citizens. Through local meetings and the dissemination of patriotic leaflets, brochures and posters, it was hoped that the insidious influence of enemy propaganda might be completely eradicated and France’s patriotic spirit revived & refreshed.

Two of Neumont’s most famous posters produced with the endorsement of La Conférence, were his December 1917 design, La Guerre est L’Industrie Nationale de la Prusse, which combines arresting quotations of French  leaders Mirabeau [1788] and Pétain [1917] with the striking image of the pickelhaube-helmeted German octopus extending its invasive encircling tentacles across a map of the European continent. The map and accompanying table illustrate the record of Prussian military expansionism over the previous century and the proportionately increasing size of their armed forces, represented by the now giant armed figure of the German feldgrau.

Maurice Neumont - La Guerre est L'Industrie Nationale de la Prusse [1917-18]
La Guerre est L’Industrie Nationale de la Prusse [1917-18]

In a second poster, On ne Passe Pas!, published the following year, Neumont commemorates the resolute bravery of the French infantry in their hard-won victory at the decisive second Battle of the Marne (Aug-Sept 1918), with the image of a war-torn poilu, masked and ragged, the last man standing, almost physically rooted to the spot, amidst the desolate landscape of the battlefield. The text recalls the victories at the two battles of the Marne (the earlier one in September 1914) and exhorts French brother civilians to ignore “Boche hyprocrisy” and to avoid being taken in by the carefully orchestrated assault of the German “mock peace” offensive: like the poilu, stand firm, hold the line and attain victory, a Victory for Justice.

Maurice Neumont On ne Passe pas [1918]
On ne Passe pas

From the outbreak of war, Neumont and his wife also made available part of their home in Montmartre as a food canteen, offering free daily sustenance to the innumerable Paris artists, actors and singers left without work amid the enormous social upheaval that ensued in the French capital.

Maurice Neumont's home No.1 Place du Calvaire Montmartre c1900
Maurice Neumont’s home
No.1 Place du Calvaire

Whilst undertaking background research into Neumont for my recent World War One Maps Exhibition, I was excited to come across a first-hand account of a visit to Neumont’s house in Paris made by a Scottish Red Cross official, in August 1915 , on the exact anniversary of the outbreak of war.

This moving & evocative description appears in the book, War Pictures behind the Lines [1915], penned by the Scottish laird (head of the Clan Malcolm) and Conservative politician, Sir Ian Zachary Malcolm, MP, KCMG [1868-1944]. An M.P. for Croydon between 1910 and 1918 and Croydon South, 1918-19, Malcolm served as a Red Cross Officer during the First World War and was later Balfour’s Private Secretary at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919. It was whilst serving with the Red Cross in France that he had occasion to visit Neumont’s house in Montmartre in August 1915.

cartoon of Malcolm ("North West Suffolk") by Spy (Leslie Ward) Vanity Fair - May 1898
Caricature of Malcolm   
Spy (Leslie Ward)
Vanity Fair – May 1898

 August 4th 1915

It is midnight and I am standing on the roof terrace of a well-known artist’s house at the very top of Montmartre. We have had an extraordinary evening downstairs in the “canteen”, where night after night Monsieur and Madame Neumont cater and care for the wants of countless poor artists in all the talents, who have been thrown out of work by the War. The ground-floor of the house is set apart for this work of friendship, and there we supped with some fifty fellow guests, drawn from the deserted studios and concert-halls, the cabarets and theatres of Paris. The fare is simple, the prices are low, but the heart is high. On the walls are pinned sketches and portraits which, in better days, would have found a ready market and a satisfactory price. Here is a likeness of the sad-eyed poet who, with a wreath of blood-red roses on his brow, recited his verses to us to the accompaniment of a guitar; there a sketch of the picturesque old tenor in breeches and stockings whose patriotic songs with choruses warmed the hearts of his audience and, for the moment, drowned their cares in a flood of melody. So, with music and recitations and tobacco, artists and actors, models and musicians, passed a joyous evening and allowed me in the intervals of conversation to learn something of their altered lives. But what touched me most was a picture in crayons, drawn especially for me by Widopff the Russian artist and pinned upon the wall opposite to my seat. It represents the story of the Canadian sergeant found crucified upon a door after the second battle of Ypres, but it beautifies and sanctifies that dark tragedy by a touch of genius.

The Martyr by Russian artist D O Widhopff drawn for Ian Malcolm August 1915
The Martyr by Russian artist D O Widhopff drawn for Malcolm,
August 1915

That picture haunts me still as I stand upon this lofty terrace with the cloudless sky above me and Paris quietly sleeping at my feet. The time and place induce the spirit of meditation upon the latest Crime of the World and all the misery and suffering that the German War has inflicted upon humanity in the course of one short year.

But a mysterious throbbing sound, as of wings invisible, and the vision of brilliant star-lamps passing across the silent heavens, recall us from reflections upon the past to the more insistent considerations of the present and the future. The aeroplanes are keeping a ceaseless watch above us. We know, my host and I, what France and England have escaped and suffered in the year that is gone, and as we gaze out into the starry night, we pray with aching hearts for the early dawning of the Day of Victory and Peace.

Ian Zachary Malcolm: War Pictures behind the Lines [1915], pp 225-226

 After the war, Neumont returned to mainstream work as a commercial artist and illustrator, in November 1920 establishing with several other artists, the so-called “Republic of Montmartre”. This was a non-political philanthropic organization aimed at preserving Montmartre’s distinctive community identity, artistic character and festive traditions and at holding back the advance of ever-increasing urbanization, affecting so much of the rest of the French capital. It also included in its founding statutes the provision of social services and support for its residents which led to the establishment of a public dispensary to assist with the provision of local healthcare, food and clothing.

A chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur, Neumont died at his home in Montmartre in February 1930 and was interred at the Cemetery in Batignolles (26th Division). Exactly a year after his death, a special commemorative medal & plaque was unveiled by his friends & admirers outside his home on the Place du Calvaire, where it can still be found today:

Memorial Plaque to Maurice Neumont - Place du Calvaire - Montmartre
Memorial Plaque to Maurice Neumont – Place du Calvaire – Montmartre