So many galleries, so little time

The Frank Gehry-designed Louis Vuitton Foundation

Offering a comprehensive round-up of the top Paris art galleries may seem a Herculean task, but several visits to the “city of light” have enabled us to give it a go.

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

Nicknamed “the Iceberg” by its 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.”

Louis Vuitton Foundation

The museum’s permanent collection includes works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Gilbert & George, Jeff Koons and many more. Revolving selections are shown accompanied by a series of changing exhibitions. There are also commissioned, site-specific installations by artists such as Ellsworth Kelly, Olfur Eliasson and Adrian Villar Rojas.

In the Montmartre district Espace Dalí is the only permanent exhibition in France devoted to the eccentric Spanish surrealist. 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 tackled 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).

Espace Dali with Mae West lips sofa

It is fitting that this phantasmagorical world of artwork and furniture 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 and his society portraitist wife Nélie Jacquemart to display the art they accumulated and eventually bequeathed to the French Institute.

The sumptuous interior of the Musée Jacquemart-André

The couple’s trips to Italy resulted in one of the finest collections of Italian art in France, including works by Botticelli, Canaletto, Bellini and Tiepolo. 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. A bonus: An exquisite cafe with an outside terrace overlooking the inner courtyard, where you’ll find relative calm away from the bustling Boulevard Haussmann. PLEASE NOTE: The museum will reopen in September 2024 after a year’s maintenance work.

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) and Michel Monet (the painter’s second son, who bequeathed the world’s largest collection of his father’s work from his property in Giverny).

A roomful of Monets at the Musée Marmottan Monet

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 works by Berthe Morisot. The lower level is 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 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 garden’s 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. Displayed under diffused light, as the artist intended, they create an atmosphere of quiet contemplation.

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, 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.

On the other side of the Tuileries Gardens at the splendid address of 1 Place de la Concorde, the Jeu de Paume specialises in photographic exhibitions. The building was constructed in 1861 as a twin to the Orangerie and originally housed tennis courts. (The original French name of the game is ‘jeu de paume’, or palm game.)

The Jeu de Paume was originally a tennis (or ‘palm game’) court

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.

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.

Grand Palais

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 hosts dozens of exhibitions and events throughout the year. PLEASE NOTE: The Grand Palais is closed until 2024 for extensive renovations.

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 building itself 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 themes or periods with highlights so numerous, it is almost pointless to mention them. We 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 Pompidou, and Jan van Beers’ Funeral of Charles the Good, in which every one of hundreds of faces has its own unique characteristics.

Occupying a mansion in the Marais district, 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, it offers a precise record of his creative process through sketches, studies, drafts, notebooks, etchings, photographs, films and documents.

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, the Museum of Modern Art houses the city-owned collection. It is particularly strong on the Fauvists, Cubists and the Paris School. These are mixed with Art Deco furniture, ceramics and contemporary art. There is a regular series of focus exhibitions. The museum hit the headlines in 2010 after the theft of five masterpieces. The €100 million haul netted paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Modigliani and Léger. While the culprits were apprehended and jailed, the works are still missing and feared destroyed.

Museum of Modern Art

In the adjacent building and 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, unsurprisingly it attracts a predominantly young crowd. A bonus: Sweeping views of the Eiffel Tower from the Monsieur Bleu restaurant.

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 2.000 square metres of floor space into an immersive digital art experience which envelopes viewer with images and surround-sound music.

A starry night in the Atelier des Lumières

Previous exhibitions have included Van Gogh: Starry Night, in which some of the artist’s most famous paintings were brought to life, putting viewers at the table with The Potato Eaters or in the bedroom of The Yellow House in Arles. In another show, Dreamed Japan: Images of the Floating World, the walls and floor seemed to move as blossoms fluttered down and across the carpet and lanterns floated 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 collection. 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.

Luxembourg Museum

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.

Visitors admire a group of Gauguin paintings in the Musée d’Orsay

Saved from demolition thanks to the efforts of the novelist André Malraux (then the Minister of Culture), it was reborn in 1986 as a ‘museum without walls’ to showcase fine ar 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 Louvre is the world’s largest museum, with visitor figures unmatched anywhere (over ten million a year). 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 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 in the Napoleon Courtyard at the 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.

The first major example of an ‘inside-out’ building in architectural history, the Pompidou Centre is encased in colour-coded piping like like giant veins and arteries – 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 shopping mall. (A bonus: Sweeping views of the Paris skyline.)

The familiar inside-out design of the Pompidou Centre

As well as changing selections from the permanent collection, several major exhibitions are organised each year, such as monographs on Dali, Kandinsky, Koons, Bonnard, Pollock and many more. Placed in front of the building is Alexander Calder’s ‘Horizontal’, a free-standing, 7.6 metre tall mobile, while nearby don’t miss the Stravinsky Fountain, which features whimsical, mobile, water-spraying sculptures by Jean Tinguely and Niki de Saint-Phalle representing themes and works by the Russian composer. On the piazza opposite is an exact reconstruction of the studio of the Romanian-born sculptor Constantin Brancusi, who lived and worked in Paris and bequeathed his entire studio to the French state.

Constantin Brancusi’s reconstructed studio

The newest major art museum in the French capital is the latest to display works from the collection of Francois Pinault, the billionaire owner of luxury fashion brands such as Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent and Boucheron. Joining his Palazzo Grassi and Punta Della Dogana in Venice, ten exhibition spaces in the magnificently restored Bourse de Commerce in the former commodities building are dedicated to art from the 1960s to the present. A series of themed exhibitions draws from a collection of 10,000 works by around 400 artists of all generations, from internationally recognised names to emerging talents.

Bourse de Commerce

Created by the wills of the pioneering photographer and his family, the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation shows changing selections of his own work along with special exhibitions by contemporary photographers.

Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation