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Today the works of Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse fetch vast sums but, for several years at the beginning of the 20th century, these artists struggled to overcome humiliation and ridicule.

In 1907, after Picasso finished “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”, he decided to show it off to his artistic circle. The initial response was cool: one of Picasso’s rivals, André Derain, predicted wryly that the proud Catalan would one day be found hanging behind his own canvas. For a fauvist such as Derain, who prized colour above form, the carved figures of the painting that opened the way to cubism contained an affront.

Three years later, at the annual Salon d’Automne in Paris, Matisse – who was 12 years Picasso’s senior – presented his large decorative panels “La Danse” and “La Musique”. “At the sight of Matisse’s work,” writes Sue Roe in In Monmartre, “old friends were dismayed, fellow artists outraged”. One of the reviews called the panels “primitive, diabolical, barbaric, even cannibalistic”.

It is into this pungent atmosphere of invention and backbiting that Roe plunges her reader. After her best-selling The Private Lives of the Impressionists (2006), Roe’s focus this time is on Montmartre and its combustible community of Modernists in the first decade of the last century. Located outside Paris’s city limits, the commune of Montmartre could boast cheap rents, tax-free wine and a bohemian lifestyle that attracted the avant-garde. A foreign contingent including Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani and Kees van Dongen found homes (often hovels) at the summit of its famous butte, which had retained the air of a rural village.

With evocative imagery Roe sketches out the intensely visual spectacle on which Montmartre’s artistic community was able to draw: “It had hung on to its vineyards and scrubland,” she writes, “the water carrier still trudged through the streets, buckets suspended from a wooden pole across his shoulders . . . ”

Matisse, who was already a familiar figure in Montmartre when Picasso arrived in 1900, could often be found “sketching at street corners, drawing horses, cabmen and passers-by . . . capturing the atmosphere of crowds and single figures in animated motion by reducing forms to a few essential lines”. Roe is particularly good at communicating the extraordinary devotion of Matisse and Picasso to their work. We learn, for example, that Picasso filled some 16 sketchbooks with drawings in preparation for “Les Desmoiselles”.

While the rivalry and one-upmanship of these two artists is at the heart of Roe’s book, there is also an impressive congregation waiting in the wings. Others who converged on Montmartre at the beginning of the century included the burly fauvist Maurice de Vlaminck, whom Roe credits with introducing African statuary to his artist friends; the cubist Georges Braque; the couturier Paul Poiret; the art dealer Ambroise Vollard; and the writer Gertrude Stein.

“The new goal for the modern artist was to find ways of expressing the interior life,” writes Roe. Their hero was Cézanne, whose emphasis on “breaking forms” was preferred to the Impressionism of Monet, Sisley or Pissarro. Unlike the Impressionists, who were generally supportive of each other’s efforts, the Modernists were highly competitive. Unfortunately, while Roe writes well about the nature of this competition, she has found little in the way of testimony from the artists themselves about their nascent rivalries.

One of the most intriguing questions that Roe leaves dangling is why Paris at the beginning of the last century should have produced such a fertile environment. Gertrude Stein, whose writing was massively influenced by Picasso’s cubist revolution, suggested that “in her attitude to incomers France displayed the detachment of an artist”. But this does not really seem to be borne out by Roe’s book.

Time and again, we see how artistic innovations in France were discouraged. Indeed, the early artistic movements of the 20th century, beginning with fauvism and continuing with cubism, were viciously attacked by the intelligentsia as unworthy. It seems curious to accuse the country of Revolution and Enlightenment of knee-jerk conservatism but, nonetheless, that is precisely the atmosphere artists such as Picasso and Matisse had to contend with as they sought to disturb the status quo and create new ways of seeing.

In Montmartre: Picasso, Matisse and Modernism in Paris 1900-1910, by Sue Roe, Fig Tree RRP£20, 365 pages

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