What Do Vincent Van Gogh and Johnny Depp Have in Common?

They are two of Paris’ most famous expats.

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “As an artist, a man has no home in Europe save in Paris.”

This was certainly true during a 100-year period in the 19th and 20th centuries, when the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris became a home away from home for artists, writers and performers including painters Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso and writers Henry Miller and James Joyce.

Though the City of Light’s popularity has dimmed somewhat since then, it’s hard to think “artist” without picturing a black-fedora’d poet sipping coffee at a sidewalk café. That’s an image for which the world has Paris—and its famous expats—to thank.

Here are 4 such expats and their biographies, all of whom once called France’s capital city “chez moi.”

1) Vincent van Gogh

Post-impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh was born in 1853 in Zundert, Netherlands. Van Gogh spent much of his adult life struggling as a poor and troubled artist, suffering from bouts of anxiety and depression that eventually drove him to commit suicide when he was just 37.

Portrait of Van Gogh.

Why he moved to Paris:

Van Gogh spent two years living in the artist quarters of Paris, during which time he completed over 200 paintings. Though he originally moved to Paris to live with his brother and attend art school, Van Gogh befriended a number of artists (most famously Paul Gauguin, Camille Pissarro and Claude Monet) whose avant-garde painting style had a lasting influence on his work.

Of the city of Paris, Van Gogh said, “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.”

A number of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings were of Paris street scenes, including this painting of the Restaurant De La Sirene.

2) Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway, born in 1899 in Oak Park, Illinois, was a noble prize-winning novelist and journalist. He wrote seven novels over the course of his life, drawing from his experience working as an ambulance driver in Italy during World War I and as a reporter in Spain during the Spanish Civil War.

Like many of his American peers in the literary world, Hemingway spent a number of years in Paris, moving there after taking a position as a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star.

Ernest Hemingway in Paris, circa 1924. Photo: Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, Boston.

Why he moved to Paris:

Hemingway’s first biographer, Carlos Bake, claims that Hemingway moved to Paris because of the favorable exchange rate and because Paris was home to, as Hemingway’s friend and author Sherwood Anderson put it, “the most interesting people in the world.”

Of his experience in Paris, Hemingway wrote in his autobiography, “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.”

Hemingway lived in Paris with his wife, Hadley, for 20 months in 1923 and 1924. While there, he befriended the American poet Ezra Pound, whom he met at the famed Shakespeare and Company bookshop.

This photo of the Rue La Fayette was taken in 1927.

Montmartre, Paris, 1900. Photo: Brooklyn Museum. Artists (Hemingway included) regularly gathered at cafes in this bohemian quarter of Paris.

3) Josephine Baker

Born in 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri, Josephine Baker grew up to become an international singing sensation as well as the first female African-American movie star. But her race, combined with her provocative, topless performances, multiple failed marriages and rumored lesbian affairs, made her a tough sell to American audiences.

Thus, Josephine garnered the bulk of her fame and fortune in the more progressively-minded Europe, where she toured with and headlined for an erotic variety show in Paris.

In 1934, Josephine Baker performed in an opera at the Théâtre Marigny, which was located on the famed Avenue des Champs-Élysées.

Josephine Baker, posing in her famous banana costume in Paris, 1927.

Why she moved to Paris:

“One day I realized I was living in a country where I was afraid to be black. It was only a country for white people. Not black. So I left. I had been suffocating in the United States. . . . A lot of us left, not because we wanted to leave, but because we couldn’t stand it anymore. . . . I felt liberated in Paris.”

Avenue des Champs-Élysées about 20 years before Baker arrived in Paris.

After marrying a Frenchman in 1937, Baker permanently relinquished her U.S. citizenship, claiming she’d felt accepted in France in ways she’d never experienced in the more racially-divided United States.

Because of Josephine Baker’s fame and her aid in the French resistance movement during World War II (Baker worked as a spy for the French government, smuggling secret messages written in invisible ink on her sheet music), a street was named in her honor in the Montparnasse Quarter of Paris.

Place Joséphine-Baker. Photo: Mbzt.

4) Johnny Depp

Actor Johnny Depp moved to Paris after meeting the French actress and singer Vanessa Paradis, in 1998. The couple and their two children currently split their time between their house in the suburbs of Paris, their vineyard in the South of France, their residences in California and their private island in the Bahamas.

Though Depp owns two homes in Los Angeles and has told reporters that he’s “not ready to go give up my American citizenship,” he prefers the relatively simple and anonymous life he leads in France to what he sees as a frantically-paced, celebrity-obsessed Los Angeles. 

Johnny Depp has lived in Paris since the late 1990s. Photo: Arnold Wells Photography.

Why he moved to Paris:

Depp has stated in the past that he believes that Europe, and France in particular, has a culture and history that the United States lacks. “People there know how to live!” he said of France. “In America they’ve forgotten all about it. I’m afraid that the American culture is a disaster.”

He was once quoted, “Fame, celebrity—it’s not such a big deal in Europe. People seem to understand that you just have a weird job. They’re not running after you, trying to carve chunks out of you. It’s strange in the states.”

The neighborhood of Meudon where Johnny Depp lives with his singer/actress girlfriend, Vanessa Paradis.

Perhaps writer and current expat Roman Payne summarized Paris’ magnetism best when he wrote, “People wonder why so many writers come to live in Paris. I’ve been living ten years in Paris and the answer seems simple to me: because it’s the best place to pick ideas. . . . If you want to pick opium poppies you go to Burma or Southeast Asia. And if you want to pick novel ideas, you go to Paris.”

Writers and painters would often gather in restaurants and cafes to discuss ideas, write or paint. Photo: Vintage Lulu.

Have you experienced life in Paris as an artist? Let me know in the comments.

If you liked this, you might also like: Hippies, Hashish and Banana Pancakes: The History of Backpacking.

Main image: Josephine Baker by carbonated.

2 thoughts on “What Do Vincent Van Gogh and Johnny Depp Have in Common?”

  1. Interesting. I’d love to visit Paris sooner or later. France is one of my dream travel destinations and I’ve been long saving up to travel there one day.

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