What art travel blog would be complete without a trip to Paris? This summer I was lucky enough to live in city of art and I was able to visit most of the major museums while auditing a course at the American University of Paris.
Exploring art museums in Paris can be daunting. If you visit the Louvre or the Musée d’Orsay in the summer months, you are bound to encounter large crowds and may have to throw a few elbows to get a good look at any “famous” work by the likes of Da Vinci, David, or Monet. The crowds around such works are interesting in themselves—people in cargo pants and floppy hats (who look more outfitted for a safari then for a museum) clamor to get a quick shot of the famed painting on display. It is encouraging to see that so many people, of all nationalities and ages, are interested in getting a first-hand look at works which have helped shape our shared cultural, but it is also surprising to watch those same tourists walk past other worthy paintings and sculptures that have not been included in textbooks or coffee-table compilations. It is understandable, of course. If you were visiting the Louvre for one day, you would probably not have time to even fully explore one single gallery. As a visitor, it is easier to pare down your itinerary and stick to the trusted crowd-pleasers. However, in my few months in the museums of Paris, my favorite pieces and exhibits have been those, which have been just a little bit off the beaten path. Art is best observed in quiet, open spaces, not in exhibition halls that resemble airport terminals. I hope to suggest some of my favorite spots in the capital of the art world.
Some of my favorite spots in Louvre are the Northern European galleries exhibiting works from the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Rembrandt, Rubens and Vermeer are often overshadowed by their Italian contemporaries, but that leaves this part of the museum relatively quiet and still (suitable for a Vermeer painting). The gallery displaying the Marie de Medici Cycle by Rubens is particularly impressive, with lots of light and space to get to know the former Queen of France (or at least the romanticized version she wanted you to know). Rubens’ thick, gestural stokes and mythical pastiches are quite captivating, and so it not unusual to see people lingering in this gallery for an hour.
Peter Paul Rubens, Marie de Medici Cycle (1624), Louvre
If venturing to the Musée d’Orsay, you must of course visit the top level of the acclaimed Impressionist works, but once you have had your fill, head downstairs and wander. The Musée d’Orsay (an old train station built for 1900 Exposition Universelle) is certainly a striking work of art in itself. The museum’s main space is immense and sunlit—perfect for the exhibition of sculptures (all worth a good look). On either side of this large space are floors of small, meandering galleries. I recommend the Art Nouveau galleries, where I was able to stand in intimate rooms filled with Guimard’s organic furniture and imagine what it must have been like to live in a French bourgeois home at the turn of the century.
ACT Architecture, Musée d’Orsay (completed in 1986)
Art Nouveau gallery, featuring Hector Guimard’s Bench for a Smoking Parlor (1897), Musée d’Orsay
The Rodin Museum is by no means an undiscovered treasure, but it is nonetheless one of my favorite museums to visit, and it is rarely noticeably crowded in the gardens. Visitors amble through the shaded gardens and sit on benches, enjoying a rare glimpse of the Parisian summer sun. Rodin’s figures conjure up a wide array of human emotions, perhaps most notably a profound sense of desperation. Rodin’s sculptures in and of themselves are arresting, and their quiet home in the middle of the bustling Paris only emphasizes their singularity.
Auguste Rodin, Adam (1881) with Les Invalides visible in the background, Musée Rodin
Perhaps my new favorite museum is the Musée d’art moderne and the Palais de Tokyo, a pair of modern art spaces, which are often overlooked by tourists in favor of the Pompidou. The buildings are another of a World’s Fair and its exhibits are often more experimental and contemporary than its fellow art institutions’ offerings. While I was in Paris, I was able to see the Lucio Fontana exhibit. I walked in the exhibit with relatively no idea of his work and left thoroughly won over. The museum had managed to collect a significant portion of his oeuvre (from the 1930s through the 1960s) and I was immediately interested in his efforts to corrupt the canvas. He slashed at his canvases, ripping open theirs surfaces and redefining the art world’s conceptions of what constitutes a “painting.” When I visited the show, it was fairly new, and I was happily surprised to discover that the galleries were populated by a steady stream of Parisian residents. The galleries were open and spacious and the only noise was that of whispered comments and clicking heels. I returned to this museum several times during my stay, and I know it will be my first stop if and when I return to Paris.
Poster for Lucio Fontana Retrospective at the Musée d’art modern, featuring his typical “slashes”
Of course, this is just a small list of “hidden” riches within Parisian museums. I also recommend visiting exhibitions at the Petit Palais, Cité de l’Architecture, Quai Branly and the Musée Gustav Moreau, among others. The truth is, if you visit Paris, you can never see everything. I was fortunate enough to be their studying art for more than two months, and I still feel as if I have a lot more to discover. If I have learned anything from my hours in museums, it is that it is important to remember your experience of the artwork and not just what the painting or sculpture looks like. Anyone can memorize the names of artists and their works, but it is a rare gift to be able to visit a painting in person and to assimilate it into your own experiences and memories. To see a work of art is in part to possess it, even for just a moment.