Street painters are part of the romantic lure of Montmartre
By David Chazan
BBC News, Paris
In the Place du Tertre, the cobbled square at the top of the hill of the Paris quarter of Montmartre, more than a dozen artists are selling their work to tourists.
Despite the bitter cold, the square and the Belle Epoque-style cafes around it are crowded with foreign and French visitors.
More than a dozen artists have set up their easels and they are painting while they wait for customers.
This is a bigger business than it looks.
More than 10 million tourists visit this area each year. Many buy paintings of Parisian landmarks, like the nearby Sacre-Coeur basilica, to take home as souvenirs.
Street painters are part of the romantic lure of Montmartre. This was the home of artists like Matisse, Toulouse-Lautrec and Picasso.
Today, some 300 officially licensed artists work here. Almost all of their customers are tourists.
They may not produce great art but they are skilled painters.
And now they say their livelihoods are at risk because many of the souvenir shops in the area are selling cheap, mass-produced paintings from China and Eastern Europe.
"These imports have no soul, but they cost a fraction of the prices we charge," says local artist Pavlos Fassolis, a Greek who has worked here for decades.
"That's because they're produced on assembly lines, with one person painting a tree and the next one the sky," he adds.
"Another thing they do is make a print and then apply some paint by hand afterwards to make it look more real. This is very bad for the future of all the artists of Montmartre."
As we chat, other artists gather round to express their indignation.
They take me to look at a portrait of a woman displayed on an easel outside a souvenir shop.
They say it is a print with paint applied to some areas afterwards to make it seem more like a painting.
They point out that there is no paint on the woman's face.
They say that is because it would require greater skill to do that than simply adding a few brushstrokes and smudges on her clothes.
When I visit some of the souvenir shops and question the owners about the origin of their pictures, at first they deny that they are imported.
Many believe something should be done to protect the artists' livelihoods
But after a few minutes, some admit that they do buy imported pictures or prints - and even touch them up themselves.
"My wife puts a bit of paint on them to give them more of an authentic feel," says one shop owner, who asked me not to give his name.
"It isn't art, it's decoration," he says. "You can't expect anything more for this price."
But all the tourists I speak to say they would rather buy a "genuine" painting, even if it's not all that good, than an imported picture.
"Part of the whole atmosphere of Paris is the art and I think this is a great tragedy if the artists are going to lose income," says Claire Sneddon, a British tourist.
"I hope that people would look at the price of the prints and be immediately suspicious that if they're so cheap, that would be an indication that the artwork is not original."
"Something should be done to protect the artists," says another tourist, from Australia.