The village of Batignolles
By Jerry Marterer
The tapissier, or upholsterer, is one of numerous small, local businesses that help to give Batignolles its small-town feel. Images provided by the author.
In 1870, a painting by Henri Fantin-Latour entitled “Un Atelier aux Batignolles” was exhibited at the Salon, the official art exhibition of Paris’s Académie des Beaux-Arts. It now hangs in the Musée d’Orsay. The work depicts a group of artists considered to be avant-garde at the time: the Impressionists Édouard Manet, Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet and Frédéric Bazille; sculptor Zacharie Astruc; writer Émile Zola and a few others less notable. Everyone is dressed up and posed. Manet is in the process of painting Astruc while others look on. The group became known as the École des Batignolles from the village they lived and worked in at the time. The neighborhood was near the Gare Saint-Lazare, whose trains traveled north to the country villages of Normandy where the Impressionists painted on weekends, and both the station and the town figure in many of their works.
“Un Atelier aux Batignolles” by Henri Fantin-Latour.
Batignolles started as a small hamlet where well-off Parisians kept their second homes. Like most of the other villages around Paris, it is on an elevated plain that slopes down toward the Seine and the central city. The high ground was perfect for the windmills that once all but circled Paris. The name Batignolles is derived from a word meaning “country house.” It was a royal hunting ground first, then was claimed by farmers after the Revolution, and the village began to take shape. It grew from 6,000 inhabitants in 1830 to 65,000 in 1860, partly fueled by an exodus of Parisians during the revolution of 1848. Batignolles was one of 16 villages that circled Paris that were annexed into the city in 1860 when the defensive walls were torn down. Paris grew from 12 to 20 arrondissements, yet some of these villages never lost their individual identity.
To approach Batignolles, take the number 66 bus from the Place de l’Opéra to the stop Mairie du XVIIe (the town hall of the 17th arrondissement). On the way to this stop, the bus passes the Gare Saint-Lazare and the Place de l’Europe, a bridge that overlooks the railyard. It was the setting of Edouard Manet’s painting “The Railway.” His apartment window may be seen in the upper left corner.
Across from the bus stop on rue des Batignolles is the Place Richard-Baret, a small leafy square where markets are sometime set up on weekends. An eight-foot-tall, dark-green cast iron monolith stands on the square, one of the public drinking fountains known as Wallace Fountains. An Englishman living in Paris, Sir Richard Wallace, funded the building of public fountains to alleviate the scarcity of drinking water in the 1870s after the Franco-Prussian War. Water streams downward from a dome supported by four robed female statues. The fountains operate only from March 15 to November 15 to avoid the risk of freezing. Originally there were tin cups on chains attached to them, but they were later deemed unhygienic and removed in the 1950s. Today, 67 of the large fountains are scattered around the city, many of them like this one, in the squares of the old villages.
Wallace Fountain, Place Baret.
Farther down the rue de Batignolles, toward the church at the end of the street, are examples of how these villages manage to survive modernization. There is no preservation society for shops and cafés. It’s just that the rents are low, and the locals are happy to continue to shop in their neighborhood. On the side streets of these villages some all-but-lost métiers continue to apply their craft. Signs read serrurier (locksmith), ébénisterie-menuiserie (furniture making-carpentry), mercier (haberdasher), luthier (stringed instrument maker), tapissier (upholsterer) and horlogers(watchmaker). In some neighborhoods where rapid gentrification takes place, rising rents kill off these shops like the plague as luxury boutiques invade.
The entrance to the square is filled by the Greek columned church. Saint-Marie de Batignolles was built in 1826 in the center of the village. Its name is based on the legend of a worker finding a statue of the Virgin Mary during the original excavations. The exterior is plain, but the interior is a combination of Baroque and Roman influence. Above and behind the altar is a statue of the virgin and child suspended in a sky-blue grotto.
The wide, tree-covered promenade that circles the church comes alive on weekends. Cafés and restaurants on the square fill with older couples and young families who are attracted to living here by the ambience and low real estate prices. We had lunch at Chez Felixio on the square near the rear of the church where another Wallace Fountain stands guard. At our table on the outdoor terrace, we each enjoyed a salade de chèvre chaud, a warm goat cheese salad with vinaigrette dressing and slices of ham. Our table overlooked the entrance to the Square des Batignolles, one of the lesser-known works of Jean-Charles Alphand, who designed the gardens in the Bois de Vincennes, the Bois de Boulogne and the Parc Montsouris.
A typical vista in the Square des Batignolles. Image by Georges Seguin (Okki), CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
Landscaped green spaces, towering trees and lakes with swans and ducks make one almost forget about city life, but the sounds of trains from the Gare Saint-Lazare bring back reality. To the right at the back of the park is a bridge over the rail lines with a small station perched at one end, the Gare de Pont Cardinet. It was the Batignolles station for the Petite Ceinture, a beltway that once circled Paris. Today it serves the suburban RER rail line. Back at the entrance to the park by the square is the stop for the number 66 bus that runs back to the Place de l’Opéra.
Jerry Marterer is the author of Paris 201 — Uncommon Places in the City of Light. He and his wife, Suzanne, divide their time between Charleston and Paris; he may be reached at email@example.com.