Recently we spent a long weekend in Paris – our first trip back to that city since the pandemic. Since we like to look at art, we bought a Museum Pass, and visited 7 museums in 4 days. Yeah, we’re a little nuts.
Here’s a short summary of our trip – with lots of pictures of art.
Musée de Cluny (Musée Nationale du Moyen Age)
This museum of the Middle Ages, on the location of ancient Roman baths, was reopened the day before our visit after an extensive two year renovation. The museum includes many works of art from medieval churches all over France, many of which no longer exist. Although the collection has always been stunning, the renovation has improved the display of the art so it can now be more easily seen.
One room featured small works of medieval stained glass, previously parts of large windows high above the ground, which can now be seen at eye level. Here is St. Martin of Tours sharing his cloak with a poor man (a popular medieval subject).
The collection of high-quality statuary included this stunning altarpiece and a statue of a Reading Pilgrim (always good to see readers in history).
This 14th C golden rose was designed for a French pope by a Sienese artist. The museum caption noted that the rose was an annual award, with a different artist chosen each year. I wonder what happened to the rest of them.
The museum’s most famous works, though, are the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, which were executed in Flanders from French designs around 1500.
There are six tapestries – one for each of the five senses. Some of the depictions of the senses are easily understood (musical instruments for Hearing), but I was glad to have the museum captions to explain that the depiction of the Lady serving sweets to her animals represented Taste.
The tapestry illustrating Vision was particularly interesting because it depicts a unicorn looking at his own reflection. Medieval mirrors were polished metal, not glass (the first crystal mirrors were not available until the late 16th C), and the images by our standards were kind of fuzzy. So this unicorn gazing at his own reflection was a flight of fantasy, imagining a technology that did not yet exist.
A sixth tapestry contains the words “a mon seul desire.” The exact meaning of this tapestry and its relation to the others is unknown, although it was clearly done at the same time – the same wonderful collection of birds and animals, the same Lady – and the same little dog.
This is another museum that, as with several prior visits, seemed a bit less crowded than other more well-known sights. Highly recommended.
This is one of our favorite museums in Paris. It’s got a stunning collection of paintings by Monet, from different periods of his life. These landscapes are from the 1880s.
This painting of Water Lilies was completed around 1919.
The museum also has a wonderful collection of works by Berthe Morisot. Here’s a self-portrait (1885) and a portrait of her husband Eugene Manet on the Isle of Wight (1875).
I was also charmed by this portrait of Berthe’s daughter, Julie Manet, with her dog in the Bois de Boulogne.
Somewhat surprisingly, this museum has never been crowded when we’ve visited (although admittedly we’ve never tried to go there in midsummer). That may be because it’s in the 16th Arrondissement, a 15-minute Metro ride from central Paris. Whatever the reason, this museum is well worth your time.
The Musée d’Orsay is one of the best known museums in Paris and there were plenty of people here. Fortunately our purchase of the Museum Pass allowed us to skip the line, with only a brief salute to the guarding elephant.
Obviously there are dozens of famous paintings in this museum – here are a few of our favorites.
Manet’s Olympia is one of the most reproduced paintings in the world. Every time I see it, though, I notice something new. This time, I realized how much of this painting was in shades of black and white, making the few points of color all the more striking.
Berthe Morisot, a student of Édouard Manet, eventually married Édouard’s brother Eugene, in part so she could continue to paint with Édouard. We don’t know Édouard’s true feelings for Berthe – you be the judge.
More shades of white, in this Monet.
The Impressionists were famous for their landscapes – here are examples from Monet (Poppies, 1872), Morisot (Chasing Butterflies, 1874), and Pissarro (Landscape at Eragny, 1870).
Some wonderful portraits by Renoir of Claude Monet (1875) and Julie Manet (1887)
I’ve always loved this painting by Caillebotte.
And there’s a whole room full of Van Goghs, including these flowers (1887) and a self-portrait (1889).
In addition to the regular collection, there was a special exhibit of furniture designed by Antonio Gaudi. For some of his private clients, he was both architect and interior designer.
Musée Nissim de Camondo
In the mid-19th C, the family of Moises de Camondo, Sephardic Jews from Istanbul, moved to Paris to take advantage of economic opportunities in a city relatively open to foreigners. They were spectacularly successful – so much so that in 1911, Moises built a new home, at the entrance to the Parc Monceau. The home had a modern floor plan (including hallways instead of one room following another), modern kitchen facilities and bathrooms, even an elevator.
But the living quarters were filled with Moises’ spectacular collection of 18th C French art – not just paintings, but furniture, carpets, screens and tableware. Most of the pieces were executed in the latter part of the 18th C – the reign of Louis XVI. As a result, there is an artistic unity of design in the house that makes is particularly pleasing to visit.
This room, at the center of the house, is in the shape of an octagon.
This Sevres porcelain service features paintings of birds – each a unique piece.
Moises moved into his new home in 1914, with his two adult children, Nissim and Beatrice. (Moises’ wife Irene had left him many years before. ) But they had been living in the house as a family for only a few months when World War I intervened.
Nissim, a member of the French Air Force, was shot down in 1917. Beatrice, who had little interest in her father’s art collection, eventually moved to a Paris suburb with her family Moises, living alone, spent the rest of his life donating generously to French art institutions, while seeking out and adding pieces to his personal collection. When he died, in 1935, he left his magnificent home, with all its furnishings, to the French state as a museum.
The story has a tragic ending. When the Nazis invaded, Beatrice decided not to try to leave France, assuming that her father’s significant philanthropic contributions to the French state would protect her from Nazi genocide. That decision was catastrophically wrong – she and her entire family were murdered at Auschwitz in 1944. Today, the museum, intended as a gift to the French state, also functions as a memorial to the de Camondo family.
Pionnières, Musée de Luxembourg
We went to a special exhibit at the Musée de Luxembourg featuring women painters of the 1920s and 1930s. Although all the paintings were done in the same era, there were quite a variety of styles.
This one, by the self-taught painter Suzanne Valadon, appears to be a send-up of all the faux exotic “odalisques” of 19th C male artists.
Many of the paintings featured female subjects – here are portraits by Anna Quincuaud (1933) and Tamara de Lempicka (1935).
I particularly liked these works by Romaine Brooks: a portrait of Natalie Barney (1920) and Au Bord du Mer (By the Seashore 1914).
This portrait by Danish artist Gerda Wegener depicts her partner, born Einar, later known as Lily Elbe, one of the first recipients of what we now call transgender surgery. Lily died in 1931 from complications of the surgery, and a devastated Gerda died herself a few years later. Their story was dramatized in the recent movie A Danish Girl.
Musée de l’Orangerie
We visited a special exhibit at the Orangerie called “Le Décor Impressioniste” which we thought from the description was going to feature decorative pieces (glassware, ceramics) in Impressionist style. Instead, they were mostly paintings that noted Impressionist painters did for their own apartments or those of their friends, often designed for specific wall panels or doors. It was a treasure trove of mostly unknown works, many from private collections – quite a pleasant surprise.
Here are some floral still lifes by Monet, both done in 1864, quite early in his career.
Two landscapes by Pissarro (1875)
Decorative panels by Caillebotte, some done for his own apartment
There were two paintings of women picking cherries, one by Mary Cassatt (1892) and the other by Berthe Morisot (1891). This was not a coincidence – the subject was regarded as an allegory for women acquiring knowledge.
I love the exuberance of these Bathers by Renoir
The museum’s permanent collection is pretty interesting too. I love the biplane in this painting by Rousseau – a very brief historical moment.
Maurice Utrillo, the painter of this work, is the son of Suzanne Valadon, whose work was features in the exhibit of women painters we saw previously.
I also liked the deliberately off-center perspective of this work by Matisse.
Musée du Louvre
We saw a special exhibit, Pharaoh of Two Lands, documenting a brief period in the 8th C BC when the Egypt was ruled over by the Kings of Napata, in modern Sudan. The artifacts of this era were incredible, joining traditional Egyptian symbols with more unusual Nubian ones – for example the baboon in the middle photo.
The Louvre has a vast collection, and with only a few hours there was no hope of seeing all of it. So we concentrated on the art we know we liked – art of the Italian Renaissance, Spanish art, and some works from northern Europe.
We skipped the Mona Lisa and its Disney lines in favor of another portrait by Leonardo, one of the three other Leonardo’s in the Louvre’s collection, just one room over. To my mind, this painting is just as lovely and interesting as the Mona Lisa, and you didn’t have to fight crowds to see it.
The Louvre has an excellent collection of Italian Renaissance paintings. Here are two depictions of the Virgin Mary: The Virgin of Victory by Mantegna (1498) and Virgin and Child by Giovanni Bellini (1487). The Bellini quite interestingly depicts Mary with a yellow cloak. Yellow was often used to depict Jews in Renaissance paintings, but Mary is usually shown wearing red, the color of royalty (as in the Mantegna) or in blue. I found the depiction of Mary as a simple Jewish woman particularly affecting.
This painting of an old man with his grandson by Ghirlandaio is irresistible.
This unusual portrait by Caravaggio of the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta reminds me, in a very strange way, of Manet. I think it’s the face of the young boy on the right, who is probably more prominent in the finished painting than he was expected to be. His face is certainly more interesting than that of the pompous Grand Master.
The Louvre’s collection of Spanish art is fairly small, but of very high quality. Here is a depiction of the medieval French King Louis IX by El Greco (1590) and a portrait of the French Ambassador to Spain by Goya (1799).
The galleries featuring the northern European collection are a little quieter, but no less amazing. Durer and Rembrandt were masters of the self-portrait. The clothes are different, and the hair, but they share a psychological perceptiveness that is rare in any era.
Similarly, this portrait of Erasmus by Hans Holbein seems to capture the great humanist’s entire personality in a single frame.
Notre Dame is of course still being renovated. They have protected the construction site with large barriers, far enough away so that the facade of the great cathedral can still be easily seen. It looks like it’s been cleaned, too.There were many people at the site, catching what glimpses they could. But there were nowhere near the mob scenes we often encountered in previous visits. No pickpockets or street grifters, either. There was even a guy on his knees, praying – not something I’ve encountered i previous visit. For a brief moment in time, Notre Dame is a spiritual sight again – not a tourist attraction.
There are many other churches in Paris, of course.
St. Germain de Prés, with its original colors.
St. Germain Auxerrois, with its wild gargoyles on the facade and, equally strange, its medieval Madonna flanked by 19th C frescoes.
The church of Saint Eustache had some unexpected treasures, including a Supper at Emmaus by Rubens and an imaginative depiction of the life of Christ by Keith Haring.
We did a lot of walking around on this trip – partly because were staying in the 14th Arrondissement, and partly because, even though the Metro goes everywhere in Paris, the weather was so nice we chose to walk.
We had a few good meals, too, mostly Asian influenced food that we don’t get in Italy.
And of course – oysters!
Until next time!