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‘Aristide Bruant in his Cabaret’ by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1892)

The namesake for the street on which our hostel sits, Aristide Bruant was a character known to all in Montmartre. Today, Bruant is most recognised for his likeness in Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s iconic post impressionist prints. But what of the man behind the felt hat and red scarf?

From Bourgeois to Bellevilloise

Aristide Bruant was born Louis Armand Aristide Bruand in the small village of Courtenay in 1851. The son of a landowner, Briand was raised in a bourgeois family and learned Greek and Latin as a child. However, the sudden loss of his family’s fortune sent a 15-year old Aristide to Paris in search of work. Moving from one working-class neighbourhood to the other, an impressionable Aristide became immersed in the ways of the poor. Taking jobs where he could, he subsequently developed a fascination with the poetry of working-class speech. So taken with the slang, he would wander the streets of Belleville and Montmartre trying to harness the cynical and colourful language.

Called to the aid of France in the Franco-Prussian war, Bruant then returned to Paris after his military service. Taking a job as a clerk in the day, his passion for plebeian parlance would take him back to working-class neighbourhoods at night. Mastering the metaphors and colloquialisms of the poor, Bruant began to write songs in his new assumed vernacular.

Testing out his compositions in local establishments, Bruant’s quick success took his new act to café-concerts across the city. Impersonating a range of working-class characters, Bruant’s routine and setlist was popular with both the working and middle-class audiences. Such broad appeal was a rarity for café-concert performers of the era.

The Original Montmartre Hipster

Bruant was recognisable for his black suit tucked into his boots, red shirt and scarf and his trademark black hat. However, not appearing like his performing peer, or his audience, was no hindrance. Abandoning his café-concert repertoire for a more artistic crowd, Bruant then entered the company of le Chat Noir in 1883.

The centre of bohemian life in Montmartre, le Chat Noir was the area’s leading artistic cabaret. Aristide took the opportunity to create a new kind of performance, sentimentalising the lives of the poor locals in song. This ‘chanson réaliste’ used the language of the working class to create a realist, Vaudeville satire showcase. Bruant quickly became a local favourite, especially with the upper-class guests who he would mock riotously, to their delight.

Bruant recorded the cabaret’s signature song « Autour du Chat Noir » in 1884, however, most of Bruant’s songs concerned Parisian deprivation. Singing tales of pimps, prostitutes and criminals, Aristide Bruant became a local celebrity in Montmartre. When le Chat Noir moved to a former mansion nearby, Bruant took over the location and renamed it Le Mirliton. Retaining his bourgeois audience, Bruant delighted in recounting tales they could not understand, yet would gleefully paid for.

Le Mirliton by Louis Anquetin (1886/87)

Aristide Bruant would became a wealthy man by imitating the poor and insulting the rich. By 1890 he began to take his famed Mirliton routine to clubs across Paris, notably the Eduardo and Les Ambassedeurs. The posters illustrated for these performances, painted by his friend Toulouse-Lautrec, would subsequently outlive Bruant himself. Continuing to perform up until his death in 1924, Aristide Bruant as one of bohemian Montmartre’s most influential figures. A pioneer of satire and song, his work endures today as remnant of the Belle Epoque.