Since I’m an art historical novelist, a lot of fans ask about my favorite art around the world…
Are you going to Paris, but overwhelmed by the AMOUNT of art to see? Want to check out a few masterpieces, but don’t want to get bogged down in museums? I mean, just one wing of the Louvre could take an entire day, right?
Here are my top 10 Must See Pieces of Art in Paris. This list doesn’t cover all the great art in the City of Lights, but if you see these, at least you will be off to a good start…
Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci at the Louvre
Any trip to Paris must begin with a visit to the Florentine lady, Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo. Her portrait seems small, especially when surrounded by the hoard of tourists snapping pictures — but the frenzy is part of her allure. Leonardo was fifty years old and at the pinnacle of his career when he painted the lady. Her bewitching smile has enchanted viewers ever since. She must have enchanted her maker, too. Leonardo never delivered this painting to the patron, Lisa’s husband Francesco del Giocondo. The artist kept the portrait with him until he died. You’ve probably seen thousands of reproductions of her in your lifetime, but there’s nothing quite like standing face to face…
The Thinker by Rodin at the Rodin Museum
There are numerous casts of The Thinker around the world, but THIS one is particularly worth seeing because it is surrounded by so many other Rodin masterpieces. At the Rodin Museum, the great sculptor seems just within your grasp. The Thinker — a representation of Dante and originally titled The Poet — was part of Rodin’s Gates of Hell sculptural group, but now it stands alone as one of the most famous sculptures in modern history. Be careful, this statue could ruin your carefree French vacation: Looking up at Rodin’s masterpiece may make YOU think about life, death, heaven, hell, and the future of us all.
Monet’s Waterlilies at l’Orangerie
360 degrees of Monet masterpieces. If you go to Paris, you should not miss being surrounded by Monet’s water lilies. The artist spent years painting in his garden at Giverny (worth a visit if you travel outside of Paris), and today, his water lilies can be found in museums all over the world (including at the Musee d’Orsay and the Marmottan in Paris). Most people are impressed by their panoramic size, but I love the extraordinary details of the paint—the textures, brushstrokes, flicks of color... As he aged, Monet admitted he became obsessed with his water lilies; when you stand in this museum, surrounded by them, you may just become obsessed, too.
Van Gogh Self-Portrait at the Musee D’Orsay
The Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh spent two formative years in Paris, living with his beloved brother Theo. A struggling artist, Vincent began to find his voice in Paris, so visiting his work while in the French capital seems like a fitting tribute to the great Post-Impressionist. The Musee d’Orsay has a lovely collection of Van Gogh’s — including the famous painting of his bedroom in Arles — but this portrait (painted the year before he died) is my favorite. Vincent’s clothes blend in with the background, his red hair jumps off the green. He seems simultaneously alone and part of the universe at large — which is appropriate for an artist who was scorned during his lifetime, but beloved today.
Winged Victory at the Louvre
Winged Victory once stood on the prow of a ship overlooking the Sanctuary of the Great Gods on the Greek island of Samothrace; she was most likely a monument to a great naval victory in the 2nd century. Today, this masterpiece stands atop a set of grand stairs in the Louvre. Pressing forward into the wind whipping through her drapery and wings, this headless lady inspires me to go out and conquer the world. Stand in her shadow; perhaps she will inspire you to achieve your own victories, too.
Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe by Manet at Musee D’Orsay
This Manet masterpiece helped kick off the modernist movement that revolutionized art forever. Luncheon on the Grass scandalized the Parisian art world when it was exhibited in the famed “Salon of the Rejects” where the public gawked and laughed at pieces rejected by the established Paris Salon. Oh how the public laughed at Manet’s painting which explodes traditional expectations by combining Old Masters Raphael and Titian with modern dress, modern style, and that nude woman staring boldly out from the center of it all. Today, viewers are not likely to laugh, but stand in awe of the painting that changed the world.
Venus de Milo at the Louvre
This is one of the most iconic images in all of history: the armless Greek masterpiece from the 1st century BCE, Venus de Milo. Her true identity is unknown: she could be the goddess Aphrodite or Amphitrite, but she has inspired modern viewers ever since her discovery on the Greek Isle of Melos in 1820. Look at her spiraling body, enigmatic expression, the drapery just slipping off her hips — this was all created with a block of marble and chisel over 2,000 years ago. What do you make of the Venus de Milo? You cannot know until you stand before her and see her with your own eyes.
Blue Dancers by Degas in Musee D’Orsay
There are countless Degas’ to choose from at the Musee d’Orsay — including an assortment of ballet dancers — but this one is my favorite. I love the blue popping off the canvas, the gathering of girls, the quick impressionist style melded with the gritty nightlife of Paris. I feel like I’m backstage in a 19th century Parisian theater. Degas was a strange and unsavory character — he was a snobby, misogynistic bigot — but his paintings give us a peak behind the curtain at those iconic dancers. Without him, we would not know THEM.
Impression: Sunrise by Monet at Musee Marmottan Monet
This is the painting that gave Impressionism its name. In 1874, Monet, Renoir, Degas, Cezanne, Morisot and other modern artists split with the established Paris Salon to display their works on their own at the first modern art exhibit in history. Art critic Louis Leroy derisively used the title of this painting to create the mocking term, “Impressionism.” The name stuck and turned from mockery to acclaim. With these artists, art permanently stepped away from the traditional establishment and fully into modernism. The painting is a beautiful depiction of the port at Le Havre; let it inspire you to break with tradition and make your own path, too.
Michelangelo’s Slaves at the Louvre
I saved my personal favorite for last. In 1505, Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to carve his tomb of Biblical proportions; it was to include 40 figures and take 40 years to complete. But other projects got in the way (the Sistine Chapel, the Medici Tombs, the Last Judgment…), and Michelangelo never completed the tomb as he imagined it. He said it was the greatest disappointment of his life. Today, a smaller version of the tomb stands in San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome (including Michelangelo’s masterpiece Moses), but the slaves — which were planned as part of the original tomb — were never finished. Some line the hallways in the Academia in Florence leading up to the David and two slaves — the Rebellious and the Dying — live in the Louvre. The Louvre is huge — you may feel rushed — but spend a few moments to contemplate the slaves; they are powerful representations of struggle and angst. They remind me that even the greatest successes — like Michelangelo — had to struggle, fight, and fail in order to ultimately prevail.
This list does not begin to scratch the surface of all the amazing art in Paris; I didn’t TOUCH Renoir, Cezanne, Morisot, Delacroix, Toulouse Lautrec… I left off countless masterpieces in the Louvre and Musee d’Orsay. I didn’t even mention Le Centre Pompidou. So START with this list, but don’t STOP with it. Go to Paris; find your own favorites amongst a sea of masterpieces.