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How Did Starving Artists Pay for Their Drinks at the Cafe de la Rotonde?

Many known artists in the early 1900s struggled to earn a living. Many of them flocked to the city of Montparnasse to live out their dreams and enjoy the company of other artists in the same situation. But did you know that a cafe owner in Paris developed an ingenious way to help out artists who couldn’t afford food or coffee?

Café de la Rotonde, the famous cafe in Paris, is where artists, writers, and other creative minds spend their time. Cafe owner Victor Libion helped them by accepting paintings and drawings as payment back then.

Café de la Rotonde

Cafe de la Rotonde, located on the Carrefour Vavin at the corner of Boulevard du Montparnasse and Boulevard du Raspail, opened in 1911. Victor Libion was the founder of the said establishment. The cafe replaced a previous shoe shop and became one of the most famous cafes before the world wars.

The cafe gained popularity as it was frequented by artists and intellectuals, all of whom were not well-off as Cafe de la Rotonde catered to poverty. Artists like Pablo Picasso, Diego Rivera, Federico Cantú, Ilya Ehrenburg, and Tsuguharu Foujita visited and worked in the cafe almost daily.

The cafe also inspired these artists, noting that one of Picasso’s works, In the Cafe de la Rotonde, is a familiar scene inside the cafe. It shows two women seated beside each other and a waiter standing on their right.

Many surrealists like Gustave Moreau, André Breton, and Man Ray were frequent customers of La Rotonde. These intellectuals met in the cafe daily to discuss their ideologies and spread them to others. These meetings attracted new members, who happened to be in the restaurant too. (Source: Omeka)

Soon, Libion sold the cafe and moved further south of the city to Denfert-Rochereau after the authorities closed down the cafe. Libion refused to cooperate with the police and become their informer to Russian revolutionaries Ilych Lenin and Leon Trotsky, who were his regular patrons.

Today, the cafe maintains its 1930s design. It still displays the paintings of Amedeo Modigliani on its walls, and its red theme is apparent all around the cafe, matching its sign outside the building. The table’s placemats have signatures of artists like Picasso, Man Ray, and Ernest Hemingway, and some items on the menu are named after other intellectuals like Kiki. (Source: A Woman’s Paris)

How Did Artists Pay the Cafe? 

Libion was a kind person. He allowed artists to sit in his cafe for hours with only one cup of coffee. Libion even pretended not to notice when a croissant or the end of a baguette went missing, understanding the struggles of the artists that frequented his shop.

Libion would also help artists by subscribing to foreign newspapers for his broke regulars and even went as far as buying cigarettes for them. When an artist was entirely out of cash, he would often ask for one of the artist’s works.

The payment came in many forms, usually as a painting or a sketch on a napkin. Libion would then hold onto the piece and hang it on the cafe’s walls, returning it once the artist can already pay. (Source: A Woman’s Paris)

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