Sweet 16 in Paris – Top art venues in the city of light

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The brainchild of Bernard Arnault, chairman of the luxury brand conglomerate LVMH (Louis Vuitton, Dior, Sephora, Dom Perignon, Givenchy et al) and France’s wealthiest man, the Louis Vuitton Foundation seems to float like a giant, glass-sailed regatta on its cascading basin of water on the edge of Bois de Boulogne.

Louis Vuitton Foundation

A 21st century counterpart to the Grand Palais (equally innovative in its time) and nicknamed “the Iceberg” by architect Frank Gehry, the building is a constant interplay between inside and outside, its multi-level terraces offering views over the treetops to the Eiffel Tower. Said Gehry: “It had to have some kind of fantasy quality that would give it gravitas. So the idea of a building that has movement. It’s like a big sculpture.”

The museum’s collection, a combination of works owned by LVMH and Bernard Arnault, includes works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Gilbert & George and Jeff Koons as well as commissioned, site-specific installations by artists such as Ellsworth Kelly, Olfur Eliasson and Adrian Villar Rojas. There is also a huge performance space.


Dalí Paris in Montmartre is the only permanent exhibition in France devoted to Salvador Dalí. Around 300 original works assembled by the Italian collector Beniamino Levi (two of which he bought directly from the artist at the Hotel Meurice in Paris) represent the variety of techniques and themes addressed by Dali in oil paintings, drawings, watercolours, engravings, lithographs and sculptures (the biggest collection in France, including three-dimensional realisations of Dali’s surrealistic paintings).

Dali Paris

It is fitting that this phantasmagorical world of artwork and furniture (a Mae West lips sofa anyone?) should be situated in Montmartre. This is where Dalí moved to after being expelled from Madrid’s School of Fine Arts (where he met Pablo Picasso) and where he joined the Surrealism group, which was based in the famous artists’ enclave. 


The Musée Jacquemart-André is an opulent, 19th century mansion stuffed with art, antiques, furniture and objets d’art. It was created from the private home of the banker Édouard André (1833–1894) and his society portraitist wife Nélie Jacquemart (1841-1912) to display the art they accumulated and bequeathed to the French Institute.

Caravaggio, ‘Boy killed by a lizard’ (Musée Jacquemart-André)

The couple’s annual trips to Italy resulted in one of the finest collections of Italian art in France, including works by Botticelli, Canaletto, Bellini, Tiepolo and Signorelli. Also dotted throughout the lavish apartments are works by Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Frans Hals, Reynolds, Gainsborough and many more as well as a stupendous sculpture collection. There are temporary exhibitions of a classical nature, and an exquisite cafe with an outside terrace overlooks the inner courtyard, where you’ll find relative calm away from the bustling Boulevard Haussmann. 


Located in a 19th century townhouse near the Bois de Boulogne, the fantastic Impressionist collection in the Musée Marmottan Monet is the result of several donations, notably from the daughter of Doctor Georges de Bellio (whose patients included Manet, Monet, Pissaro, Sisley and Renoir), Michel Monet (the painter’s second son, who bequeathed the world’s largest collection of his father’s work from his property in Giverny) and the daughter of Henri Duhem (a post-Impressionist painter who collected many of his contemporaries’ works).

The museum’s most iconic possession is Monet’s ‘Impression, Sunrise’, the painting which gave its name to Impressionism. It is deemed to be displayed at the Musée Marmottan Monet and nowhere else. Other jewels of the collection include works by Caillebotte (‘Paris Street, Rainy Day’), Canaletto (‘The Grand Canal, Venice’), Chagall (‘Bride with blue face’), two lovely Renoir portraits of Monet and his wife Alice and a roomful of Morisots.

Meditate with Monet 

The museum’s real jewel is in the lower level, dedicated to Monet, where you can sit surrounded by some of the most recognisable scenes in all of art, including garden scenes at Giverny (with waterlilies, of course) and floral studies


Located right in the heart of Paris in the Tuileries Gardens, the Musée de l’Orangerie houses two prestigious Impressionist and post-Impressionist collections. (The Orangerie itself was originally built to shelter the gardens’ orange trees.) Hugging the gently curved walls of two rooms on the main floor are eight huge decorative panels of waterlilies by Claude Monet that he donated in the 1920s as a monument to the end of WWI. Permanently displayed there under diffused light, as the artist intended, they create an atmosphere of quiet contemplation.

Part of the Walter-Guillaume Collection in the Musée de l’Orangerie

Sharing the building is the astonishing Walter-Guillaume Collection amassed by the art dealer and promoter Paul Guillaume and his wife Domenica. Guillaume’s premature death in 1934 at the age of 43 ended his dream of transforming his private collection into a museum of modern art. His wife, remarried to the architect Jean Walter, completed and modified the collection around modern Classicism and Impressionism. Donated to the French State in 1960, it is a virtual Who’s Who of early 20th century art, with works by Modigliani, Matisse, Brancusi, Picasso, De Chirico, Apollinaire, Soutine, Renoir, Cézanne, Matisse, Utrillo and many more. 


Constructed for the 1900 Universal Exhibition are two buildings facing each other on Avenue Winston Churchill which are grandiose even for Paris.

Held up by more iron than the Eiffel Tower, the Grand Palais is awesome in proportion with a main space almost 240 metres long. Soon after its opening it became the place where any budding artist had to exhibit to catch attention. This is where Cubism made its first appearance, spearheaded by a then unknown Pablo Picasso, and where a roomful of stridently coloured paintings by the likes of Matisse and Derain shocked the establishment. One critic called it “la cage aux fauves” (the wild beast cage), thus giving the Fauvist movement its name. The Grand Palais still hosts around 40 exhibitions and events a year.

Grand Palais

Across the street is the Petit Palais (which is only ‘petit’ when compared to its big cousin), where a wide-ranging collection links the main artistic movements from ancient Greece to WWI. The architect Charles Girault wanted to give his building the grandeur and dignity of an official palace which would glorify the city of Paris. The result is a work of art in itself, with specially designed decorative murals and sculptures, wrought ironwork, stained glass and mosaics, all topped off with a soaring dome.

Petit Palais

The collections of fine art, furniture, decorative items, sculpture and artefacts are grouped into ten themes or periods: the Classical World; the Western Christian World; the Eastern Christian World; the Renaissance; the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries; Paris 1900; Graphic Arts; and the Photographic Collection.

The highlights are so numerous, it is almost pointless to mention them. This writer particularly admired Georges Clairin’s ‘Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt’, Leon Lhermitte’s enormous ‘Les Halles’, depicting the famous Paris fruit and vegetable market which was demolished to make way for the Centre Pompdou, and Jan van Beers’ ‘Funeral of Charles the Good’, in which every one of hundreds of faces has its own unique characteristics. 


Reopened in its Marais district mansion in 2014 on October 25 (the artist’s birthday) after a five-year renovation programme, the Picasso Museum Paris has over 5,000 works from the artist’s personal archives (he once said, “I am the greatest collector of Picassos in the world”), forming the only collection in existence which spans his complete painted, sculpted, engraved and illustrated oeuvre and offers a precise record of his creative process through sketches, studies, drafts, notebooks, etchings, photographs, films and documents.

Picasso meets Calder at the Picasso Museum Paris

A largely chronological route takes the visitor from Picasso’s earliest works as a teenager in Spain (including ‘Little Girl in a Red Dress’, painted in 1895 when he was about 14) to paintings produced shortly before his death in 1973. Some works are grouped thematically – self-portraits, guitars, bullfighting, portraits of women – tracing recurring subjects in countless styles. Also on display are pieces from Picasso’s own collection, including works by Cézanne, Renoir, Modigliani, Matisse, Calder and Miró. 


Occupying the east wing of the monumental 1930s Palais de Tokyo on the right bank of the Seine and entered through monumental doors, the Museum of Modern Art houses the municipal modern art collection. It is particularly strong on the fauvists, cubists and the Paris School. These are mixed with Art Deco furniture, ceramics and an international display of contemporary art. There is a regular series of focus exhibitions.

Museum of Modern Art

If current renovations are complete by the time you visit, don’t miss (as if you could) Raoul Dufy’s vast mural ‘La Fée Electricité’ (‘The Electricity Fairy’) and the Salle Matisse, with its two versions of the artist’s ‘La Danse’.


Next door, claiming to be the largest centre for contemporary in Europe (its exhibition halls are certainly vast), the Palais de Tokyo describes itself as ‘an anti-museum in permanent transformation’ and ‘a space from which the unexpected springs forth’.

Palais de Tokyo

Emerging and established artists from France and abroad are given carte blanche to take over the entire space to express the whole gamut of disciplines, from large scale installations, performance and fashion to sound, language and video. A challenge to traditionalists, it unsurprisingly attracts a predominantly young crowd. A bonus: sweeping views of the Eiffel Tower from the Monsieu Bleu restaurant. 


At the splendid address of 1 Place de la Concorde, the Jeu de Paume specialises in photographic exhibitions. Located in the northwest corner of the Tuileries Gardens, the building was constructed in 1861 as a twin to the Orangerie across the park and originally housed tennis courts. (‘Jeu de paume’, or palm game, was a precursor of modern tennis played without a racquet.)

Jeu de Paume

The Jeu de Paume has had a chequered past. In the early 1940s it was used to store Nazi plunder, and so called ‘degenerate art’, including works by Picasso and Dalí, was destroyed on a bonfire in its grounds. After the war it housed many important Impressionist works (now relocated to the Musée d’Orsay), during which time it was widely considered the most famous museum of Impressionist painting in the world, with rooms bearing names such as the Salle Degas, Salle Cézanne and Salle Monet. Today it shows a series of temporary exhibitions spread over three floors.


Housed in a former 19th century foundry, the Atelier des Lumières uses a state of the art sound and projection system to turn a concrete and steel industrial shell with eight metre high walls and two thousand square metres of floor space into a totally immersive digital art museum in which viewers become enveloped by the images and surround-sound music.

Atelier des Lumières © Culturespaces/E. Spiller

Showing until December 31, 2019 is Van Gogh: Starry Night, in which some of the artist’s most famous paintings are brought to cinematic life. Giant moving images put you in the picture. You are at the table with the potato eaters, putting your face in a vase of irises or standing in the bedroom of the Yellow House at Arles. Accompanying this is a short programme, Dreamed Japan: Images of the Floating World, in which Japanese prints are shown as an influence on Van Gogh’s work. The walls and floor seem to move as blossoms flutter down and across the carpet and lanterns float up into the sky. 

Originally installed in the Luxembourg Palace, the Luxembourg Museum was opened in 1750 as the first public painting museum in Paris with a hundred or so Old Masters which went on to form the nucleus of the Louvre. In 1818 it became the first museum of contemporary art, with much of the work first shown there finding its way into other Paris museums, including the Jeu de Paume, the Orangerie, the Museum of Modern Art and the Musée d’Orsay. Now located in the former orangery of the Palace, it has no permanent collection of its own, but stages a series of themed exhibitions, between which the museum is closed.

Luxembourg Museum © Rmn Grand Palais, Photo: Didier Plowy

If you only have time to see one museum during your visit, the Musée d’Orsay is it. If you were not aware of the building’s original use, its vast expanse, glass roof and massive, ornate clock offer a few clues. Opened in 1900 for the World Fair, this former railway station once saw 200 trains a day serving southwestern France. Since then it has seen a variety of uses, including as a set for Orson Welles’ 1942 film of Kafka’s ‘The Trial’ and a clearing-house for WWII prisoners of war.

Part of the Impressionist collection in the Musée d’Orsay

Saved from demolition, it was reborn in 1986 as a ‘museum without walls’ to showcase the whole range of fine art from from 1848 to 1914, encompassing Impressionism (some works are among the movement’s greatest hits), Post-Impressionism, Naturalism, Symbolism and Art Nouveau. All levels of the d’Orsay are open and spacious, and it has none of the Louvre’s madding crowds. Its answer to the Mona Lisa is Courbet’s ‘L’Origine du Monde’, a provocatively posed female nude that only the French would emblazon on buses to promote the museum’s opening. The main restaurant, formerly that of the Orsay hotel, has retained all its fin de siecle magnificence with glittering chandeliers and painted ceilings. 


The Louvre is the world’s largest museum, with visitor figures unmatched anywhere (over ten million in 2018). This makes it a victim of its own success. Where to start? What to see? How to come away from, say, a half-day visit – about as much time as an average tourist has to spare – with any sense of satisfaction? And is it really necessary to make a pilgrimage to the world’s most over-hyped artwork, the surprisingly diminutive ‘Mona Lisa’, which can barely be seen through a forest of selfie sticks?

The late Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei’s once vilified, now beloved glass pyramid has become a symbol of the revitalised Louvre.

Of course, the Louvre has got the lot, from ancient antiquities, Classical artefacts, Islamic art and sculpture to decorative arts, paintings, prints and drawings, all shown in ongoing re-displays of its collections and guarded over by no fewer than 1,200 custodians. Recent developments include a restructured entrance hall and – hallelujah! timed ticketing via the museum’s website, designed to reduce the waiting lines. 


The first major example of an ‘inside-out’ building in architectural history, the Pompidou Centre houses not only an art museum (the National Museum of Modern Art), but also the Public Information Library and a centre for music and acoustic research.


The revolutionary ‘inside out’ design of the Pompidou Centre

Encasing the structure like giant veins and arteries is colour-coded piping – green for plumbing, yellow for electrical and so on. Navigating the six floors via exterior, glass-enclosed escalators is rather like entering a sports stadium or a labyrinthine, multi-storey shopping mall. A bonus: sweeping views of the Paris skyline. As well as changing selections from the permanent collection, several major exhibitions are organised each year. These have included monographs on Dali, Kandinsky, Koons, Bonnard, Pollock and many, many more.

Placed in front of the building is Alexander Calder’s ‘Horizontal’, a free-standing, 7.6 metre tall mobile, while nearby be sure to see the Stravinsky Fountain, which features whimsical, moving and water-spraying sculptures by Jean Tinguely and Niki de Saint-Phalle representing themes and works by the Rissian composer. 


Want to stay where Victor Hugo would buy his baguette? Occupying the building in the Marais which housed the first bakery in Paris, the Hotel du Petit Moulin (Little Mill Hotel) exudes old world charm. Behind the original shop frontage (protected by law), the rooms are individually and exquisitely designed by Christian Lacroix. 

Hotel du Petit Moulin

Bibliophiles will want to head for Le Pavillon des Lettres a couple of hundred metres off the Champs Elysees, where each room is named after a writer (Goethe, Joyce, Proust, Kafka et al) with text from their works on the wall coverings. Throughout the hotel there are photos of authors reading books and the staff will even suggest a title from from the in-house library to match your cocktail. 

The Hans Christian Andersen junior suite in the Pavillon des Lettres

In a quiet street on the Left Bank in the endlessly fascinating Saint-Germain-des-Pres district (Seine-side booksellers, Paris’s oldest church, the Muse d’Orsay), the Hotel Le Saint will help you wind down from a day’s gallery-hopping with complimentary use of the hammam or a cocktail by the fireplace. There is also a fitness centre and masseurs are on hand to help ease the aches. 

A fireside chat at the Hotel Le Saint?

The five-star jewel in the crown is the Pavillon de la Reine in the Marais district (the city’s oldest) on the Place des Vosges, perhaps the beautiful square in Paris and once the centre of high society. Named after a former resident, Anne of Austria, who was queen of France as the wife of Louis X111, the 17th century building combines the understated sophistication of a private home with the elegance of a palace. A bonus: Contemporary art galleries all around the square. 

The Arthur Rimbaud Suite in the Pavillon de la Reine

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