While the meeting between Picasso and Einstein at the heart of Steve Martin’s play is imaginary, the location is quite real. The Lapin Agile, the quirky bar where the meeting takes place, is an actual Paris institution. It might be a tourist trap now featuring cabaret acts, but the place had a long history of being a crucible for a particular cultural scene at the turn of the century.
In the early 1900s, the Lapin Agile became a rendezvous for poor artists, musicians, intellectuals, and quirky sorts wandering around the legendary Montmartre district. “There is but one Paris and however hard living may be here, and if it became worse and harder even – the French air clears up the brain and does good – a world of good,” said artist Vincent van Gogh.
The name of the bar is French for nimble rabbit, referencing a Toussaint painting. Picasso, Braque, and Modigliani were among those drawn by Pere Frede’s cello and guitar, drinking, arguing, falling in love, and gestating artistic ideas. This early group of artists inspired a wave of ex-patriots to seek out the splendors of Paris as a place of both personal and artistic growth. “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast,” wrote Ernest Hemingway decades later.
Picasso himself chronicled a moment at the bar in a 1905 painting entitled “At the Lapin Agile.” Picasso depicted himself as a melancholy harlequin, with a local siren named Germaine standing alongside him. Frede, the owner of the bar, sits in the background strumming a guitar, ostensibly keeping an eye on the proceedings. “Since the painting would be seen across a crowded and smoky room, Picasso’s composition was of poster-like simplicity,” according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art website.
Frede sold the painting in 1912 for $20. The same painting was sold again, in 1989, for $41 million.
So much for being bohemian.