The Café du Dôme opened its doors in 1898, as the first café of its type in Montparnasse. Today the café is the oldest and one of the most famous cafés in Montparnasse. Guillaume Apollinaire coined the term Dômiers to refer to the international rat pack of writers, artists, and other creative types who patronized the café. While the term originally described a specific group of artists who patronized the Café du Dôme, it is now widely used to describe the plethora of creative patrons of the café. The Dômiers include many well known artists such as Robert Capa, Henri Cartier Bresson, Paul Gaugin, Ernest Hemingway, Wassily Kandinsky, Pablo Picasso, and Amedeo Modigliani.
The Café du Dôme, was a meeting place for intellectual discussion and artistic creation, frequented by artists and writers, in addition to serving as a meeting place for Lenin, Trotsky and other likeminded revolutionaries. French writer, known for his documentary work on Montparnasse, Jean-Marie Drot said of the café: “Within a very small area you could find bohemians, priests, students, mystics and ladies of easy virtue. Before the outbreak of war in 1939, I remember sitting on the terrace of Le Dôme at certain times of day and hearing every language in the world being spoken.” During the interwar period, Café du Dôme was patronized by expatriates such as Gertrude and Leo Stein, Ezra Pound, and Man Ray.
In the early 18th century, before the outbreak of World War I, the Café du Dôme became a meeting place for German artists associated with the Fauvism and avant-garde movements. The group was founded by Rudolf Levy, Hans Purrmann and Walter Bondy. Guillaume Apollinaire coined the term Dômiers for the group. The group would spend hours at the café praising Henri Matisse’s work, discussing their reactions to the 1905 Fauves Exhibition at the Salon d’Automne, and debating other happenings in the Fauvism and avant-garde movements. The Dômiers founded the ‘Académie Matisse’ at the café, as a result of intense intellectual discussions about Matisse between Hans Purrmann and Margarethe and Oskar Moll. The Dômiers exhibited their work together throughout Europe until the outbreak of World War I and drew the attention of many prominent art dealers and collectors including Wilhelm Uhde.
The Café du Dôme in particular was favored by the artistic crowd throughout the interwar period as well. Author Chris Monks described the atmosphere of intellectual debate at the Café́ du Dôme in his book, Writing the Lost Generation: Expatriate Autobiography and American Modernism: “It is the place where discussions of art and America and the artistic soul were undertaken… The table held for Surrealists of various nationalities at the same establishment was invariably the noisiest of all.” Man Ray, an avid Surrealist, was a frequent customer at the Café du Dôme, after his arrival in Paris in July 1921. It was at the Café du Dôme that Man Ray first met his long time muse Kiki de Montparnasse. Kiki de Montparnasse had her own cabaret in the neighborhood, and had her own permanently reserved table at the Café du Dôme. He saw her from across the café while he was sitting with Russian artist Marie Wassilieff, and immediately asked her to pose for photographs, ensuing a long term artistic collaboration and love affair between the two. It was at the Café du Dôme in 1933 that Swiss artist Méret Oppenheim first met Alberto Giacometti, a meeting that she credits as her first introduction to Surrealism. Oppenheim created the piece, “Giacometti’s Ear” at the café and Giacometti immediately invited her to attend Surrealist meetings.
The Café du Dôme was also frequented by the literary crowd. Ernest Hemingway was a frequent patron. He mentioned the café in multiple pieces of his works. In his novel, The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway’s character Jake Barnes laments the increased popularity of the café and its closest competitor: "No matter what café in Montparnasse you ask a taxi-driver to bring you to from the right bank of the river, they always take you to the Rotonde, ten years from now it will probably be the Dôme.” Hemingway also mentioned the Café several times in "A Moveable Feast.” The novel is a memoir of Hemingway’s time as a struggling writer in Paris during the interwar period. One chapter titled, “With Pascin at the Dôme,” describes an afternoon with the Painter Jules Pascin at the Café du Dôme where they flirt with models and have a good time. Jules Pascin later painted a watercolor based on the experience titled “Ernest Hemingway at the Dome Café.”
As a hub of artistic activity, the Café du Dôme was a common subject among painters, photographers, and even writers. André Kertész’s 1925 gelatin silver print titled “Le Café du Dôme” captures the epitome of the stereotypical scene of a Montparnasse café. A homogenous clientele of well dressed Parisians fill up the outdoor tables of the Café du Dôme. They appear to be unaware of the camera, engrossed in conversation or captivated by the newspaper. It is a sophisticated scene, of people with intellectual sensibility. Kertész emigrated to Paris earlier that year in 1925 from Hungry, and probably wanted to capture the Montparnasse café aesthetic as an expatriate. Eugene Atget’s photograph of Café du Dôme is in striking contrast to Kertész’s photograph of the same café, in a state of complete emptiness. Both photos were taken in 1925 around the same time of the year, yet Atget’s photograph depicts a very different scene. At the height of the Café du Dôme’s popularity among the artists, Atget chose to capture the café in a moment of abandonment. There almost appears to be a sort of haze that develops in the background of the photo, adding a mystical quality to the image.
In Paris on Parade, published in 1924, Robert Forrest Wilson presents a guidebook to Paris and devotes a chapter to the newly extended Latin Quarter, reaching to Montparnasse:
"The new Latin Quarter is completely centralized around one spot—the corner of the Boulevards Raspail and Montparnasse. Here stand the Café́ du Dôme and the Café́ de la Rotonde; and you can no more know the present Latin Quarter without knowing these two café́s than you can know an Ohio county-seat without knowing its public square and court-house. They are half its life."
The Café du Dôme was a place of interaction between creative types, it was the starting point for collaboration, and the meeting place for intellectual debate.