For a century, Montmartre was the artist’s turf. From Renoir at the Moulin de la Galette to Picasso and Juan Gris at the Bateau-Lavoir, they came for the cheap studios. Look up as you walk the streets and you’ll see huge north-facing windows on top floors, built to provide painters with the perfect light, but not much warmth or creature comforts.
In those days - and until relatively recently - there were several tiny shops selling artist’s supplies scattered over the Butte and down its slopes. Of them all, only one is left: Saint Rustique, on the narrow street that shares that name, the oldest and indeed at one time the only street in the entire village of Montmartre.
Ruling over the shop is Latifa. An easy smile, a sun-soaked accent and eyes that twinkle.
|Place du Tertre|
Visible from afar only by the sign of an easel over the door, the shop is smaller than most American bedrooms. Inside hides an Ali Baba’s cavern of anything an artist could ever need. Which is a good thing because only a block away is the tree-shaded Place du Tertre, where artists of varied talents cajole tourists into buying their canvases or having a portrait-drawn-while-you-wait. They pop in, plunk down some coins and take the paper or the colored chalk they need because they know where they are... and because she keeps them close to the door. Pas folle, la guêpe.
But today, when I went to pick up the painting she had framed for me, there were no artists popping in. Too cold. So I finally got to talk with her a little bit. I’d always wondered what her story was.
Latifa is from Tunisia (which accounts for the accent). One of ten children, she left her family behind to follow her husband to France. Neither one of them had any relatives here, except for a few distant cousins much further up the Social Ladder, so they hardly ever saw them. Her son and daughter and three young grandchildren live in the Paris region, but she didn’t mention her husband... and I was too polite to ask.
|Rue St Rustique &|
Latifa's art supply shop
(with easel sign)
It was dark and smelly and cluttered up with all the wrong things. So she single-handedly hosed everything down, and painted it, and bought all sorts of artist’s materials with money she couldn’t really spare until it was stocked from floor to ceiling, in spite of her petite size.
Latifa looks out for her artists. She orders what they need. She lets them serve themselves if she’s busy with someone else or on the phone. She counsels them. (The day I dropped by, she was advising an artist on which easel to buy, and it wasn’t the most expensive.) She lends them things.
Sometimes a tourist will wander in. And then there are some locals, like me. But it’s hard to see how she manages to make ends meet. I guess she gets by on little, although she is always dressed with true French chic.
And always smiling. Although sometimes it’s hard, she admits. It’s hard being on your feet all day, with no one to give you a break. Hard worrying about paying the bills, especially when a particularly cold February is keeping the tourists away from the Place du Tertre, the old village square. Charcoal and chalk and canvases aren’t flying off the shelves. But she’s got her health.
And her grandchildren, the mere mention of which makes her eyes twinkle.
Boutique St. Rustique
18, rue St. Rustique
Closed Wednesdays and Sundays,
and for a lunch hour at 1 pm