The best art worth travelling for: Paris - Art to stir your soul and get you travelling
Few cities have more museums, galleries and artistic masterpieces than Paris. It’s been both a haven and muse for artists for centuries. To list all the amazing art and galleries in Paris would take some time, but we’ve selected some key pieces from our favourite museums which we think are worth making the effort to see.
For centuries the elite of Europe would engage in the Grand Tour, in which they journeyed across the Continent, taking in the many sights and sensations – in particular the art. Today we can view artistic treasures on our smartphones but there’s nothing quite like seeing them ‘in the flesh’… the brush strokes, the sculptor’s thumb prints or the tiny imperfections – a result of countless hours of devotion. And Paris is right up there as one of the best places to start.
Many of the museums mentioned here are extremely popular tourist destinations. As such they can be difficult to navigate and there’s little chance of escaping the swarms of selfie sticks. For our LuxuryBARED PLATINUM members we can arrange private tours at many of them to offer you a much more pleasant and peaceful experience. Find out more about our PLATINUM Member benefits here.
Here goes with the list…
The Venus de Milo, Alexandros of Antioch – The Louvre
The collection of art in The Louvre is overwhelming. Most visitors will make a beeline for Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and flash past the other wonderful paintings, sculptures and antiquities, which is a real shame.
In the Greek, Etruscan and Roman section of the vast museum stands one of the most beautiful and iconic pieces of Ancient Greek sculpture in the world: the Aphrodite of Milos, or as she is commonly known, the Venus de Milo. Discovered in 1820 on the island of Milos by a peasant named Yorgos Kentrotas, the statue took the world by storm.
The piece is the culmination of classical sculpture. The face, depicting a visage of aloof authority, evokes sculpture from the 5th century BC, while the hairstyle and modelling of her curves are decidedly 4th century BC. The iconic twist of her spine is characteristic of Hellenistic sculpture of 3rd to 1st century BC. But the most recognisable aspect of the statue is her missing arms. Greek statues of deities would often hold icons or characteristic items in their hands to denote who they were, and without them the true identity of the figure is a mystery.
Due to her beauty and wanton nudity, she’s been given the name Venus, the goddess of love, but what she may have held in her hands could change the meaning of the entire piece. Is she Artemis, the virgin goddess of the hunt, rising from her bath, bow in hand to confront the voyeur Actaeon? She could be Hera, queen of the gods and wife of Zeus, her hands filled with bounties of fertility. She could be any other goddess or figure of myth, and the mystery only adds more to the allure of this stunning statue.
While you’re there, don’t miss: Winged Victory of Samothrace, The City Gates Sarcophagus, Ancient Greek pottery
Starry Night Over the Rhône, Vincent van Gogh – Musée d’Orsay
In any city other than Paris, the Musée d’Orsay would be the finest, most celebrated institution of art but the colossus of The Louvre steals the limelight somewhat. So set foot inside this gorgeous building and you’ll discover the largest collection of impressionist and post-Iimpressionist art in the world.
In a museum overflowing with masterpieces, van Gogh’s Starry Night Over the Rhône stands out. At the time of its painting in 1888, van Gogh was obsessed with depicting light on canvas, and this piece is arguably his greatest triumph in this respect. Light in this painting is an examination of humanity’s place in the world, a cosmic study of the perception of beauty, reflected in the twin trinities on display in the painting.
The first trinity is the physical spheres, the classical states of land, water and sky. Land, the world of humans, is reduced to a tiny spur at the bottom of the painting and a thin strip across the centre, where the city of Arles is almost lost in the heavy blues of the night. Sky and water are the dominant spheres in the painting, and at the time of its creation they were spheres that humanity had yet to have any kind of meaningful control over.
The second trinity is that of light, where there are three sources spread out across the spheres. The lights on the land are the gas lamps that run along the harbour of Arles, and van Gogh depicts them with a harsh, artificial yellow. This light is softened and beautified when it touches the water, the reflections removing the sharpness of their artificial source. But above all it’s the lights in the sky that draw the eye, the bold explosions of colour that stab through the heavy darkness, each point emboldened by dazzling white points. The lights of the sky are purer and more beautiful than any found on Earth or sourced from manufacturing. Starry Night Over the Rhône is a wonderfully romantic view of the power of nature to move us in ways that the artificial human world never could.
While you’re there, don’t miss: Bal du Moulin de la Galette, L’Origine du Monde, Tahitian Women on a Beach
The Kiss, Auguste Rodin – Musée Rodin
Auguste Rodin was one of the most pre-eminent sculptors of all time, and his vast catalogue of work contains some of the most iconic pieces of modern sculpture in the world. Working in both bronze and marble, his works can be found in cities all over the globe. But it’s in Paris, his home town, that you can find the largest concentration of his work, at the Musée Rodin’s twin sites: Hôtel Biron and its grounds, and his old home at Villa des Brillants on the outskirts of Paris.
While Rodin’s The Thinker is perhaps his most iconic work, it is The Kiss that is his most sublime. Like The Thinker, The Kiss was originally created for a position on his vast masterpiece, The Gates of Hell. The lovers were to represent Francesca da Rimini and her brother-in-law turned lover, Paolo Malatesta. Having been discovered in the throes of passions by the husband, Giovanni, they were killed by him, and in Dante’s Inferno the lovers were condemned to eternal torture for the sin of lust.
Rodin wanted to depict the joy of passion before the condemnation, and to some extent he succeeded too well as he replaced the pair on The Gates of Hell since they clashed with the miserable suffering of the other figures. Removed from this context, the true beauty of the sculpture can shine forth as a celebration of love, passion and tantalising emotion as the lovers reach for a kiss that remains frozen in time, their lips eternally close but never touching.
Of particular note is the active role of the female figure, who pulls her partner towards her passionately, taking control over her own emotions, with the male behaving hesitantly, placing the barest, timid touch of his fingers on her hip. Such a depiction of female lust and eroticism was hugely controversial at the time of its creation.
While you’re there, don’t miss: The Thinker, The Gates of Hell, Camille Claudel’s Shakuntala
La Danse Paris, Henri Matisse – Musée Nationale d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou
Few museums in Paris better reflect their contents than the Musée National d’Art Moderne. Home to the second-largest collection of modern and contemporary art in the world and housed in the stunning Centre Georges Pompidou, the bold, striking architecture challenges the grandiose palaces and mansions that house Paris’s other museums, just as the art within defies the conventions of centuries of artistic tradition.
Dancing figures were a frequent theme for Matisse, and his piece in the Musée Nationale d’Art Moderne, aptly known as La Danse Paris, is perhaps even more impressive for both its size and even more heightened sense of dynamism than his most famous pieces on this subject, both entitled Le Danse and housed in the MOMA New York and the Hermitage in St Petersburg. Matisse used warped shapes and inhuman colours to display the intensity, vigour and movement of dancers in ways that would be impossible in more traditional European art. And the huge triptych of La Danse Paris, with its figures abstracted from human proportion and colour, conveys passion, movement and celebration on a monumental scale, making a brilliant centrepiece in the room dedicated to Matisse.
While you’re there, don’t miss: The Frame, The Electric Fairy, Nude in the Bath
Impression, Sunrise, Claude Monet – Musée Marmottan Monet
Once a hunting lodge belonging to the Duke of Valmy, subsequently purchased by the Marmottan family in 1882, this building and the art collection in it was bequeathed to the Académie des Beaux-Arts, which opened it to the public in 1934. It now houses more than 300 impressionist and post-impressionist pieces, including the largest single collection of Monet’s work in the world.
To call Monet’s Impression, Sunrise influential would be an understatement, as it became the inspiration and namesake for an entire artistic movement. Displaying a landscape of the harbour at Le Havre, in modern times it’s praised for the ability to convey an incredible depth of perception and atmosphere through a minimal colour palette. Appreciating it requires a willingness to abandon classical notions of finding beauty in landscapes, dealing as it does with murky water, indistinct figures and a ruddy, baleful sunrise above the distant spectre of an industrialised world.
Yet at the time of its initial display, critics were rather dismissive of it. Even Monet himself didn’t give much importance to it, claiming that the murky colours were simply a result of his poor vision, and the title was a result of cataloguers’ unwillingness to categorise it as a depiction of Le Havre, as the subject is so indistinct. With characteristic bluntness, Monet later said: ‘They asked me for a title for the catalogue. It couldn’t really be taken for a view of Le Havre, and I said: “Put Impression.”’
While you’re there, don’t miss: The Wildenstein Illuminations, Paris Street; Rainy Day, Eugène Manet on the Isle of Wight
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