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Why the Louvre and Musee d'Orsay are Paris' Best Museums

There are scores of museums in Paris. But two are so grand in scope and ambition, so profound in their impact upon the visitor that they have to be counted as iconic experiences.

As I've noted before, there are scores of museums in Paris. But two are so grand in scope and ambition, so profound in their impact upon the visitor that they have to be counted as iconic experiences.

Culture and Kings

The best way to thoroughly visit The Louvre, (34 quai du Louvre, 1st arrond.; tel. 01 40 20 50 50;; permanent collection: 8.50 € adults, after 6pm 6 €; temporary exhibits: adults 8.50 €; combined ticket 13 €, after 6pm 11 €; free under 18; tickets to the permanent collection also include entrance to the Musée Eugène Delacroix; Mon, Thurs, Sat-Sun 9am-6pm, Wed and Fri 9am-9:45pm; Métro: Palais Royal-Musée du Louvre) would be to move in for a month. Not only is it one of the largest museums in the world, with over 35,000 works of art displayed over 60,000 sq. m (645,835 sq. ft.), but it's packed with enough artistic masterpieces to make the Mona Lisa weep. Rembrandt, Reubens, Botticelli, Ingres, and Michelangelo are all represented here; subjects range from the grandiose (Antoine-Jean Gros' gigantic Napoleon Bonaparte Visiting the Plague-Stricken in Jaffa) to the mundane (Vermeer's tiny, exquisite Lacemaker). You can gape at a diamond the size of a golf ball in the royal treasury, or marvel over exquisite bronze figurines in the vast Egyptian section. There's something for everyone here, even the crankiest member of your party who insists he or she "doesn't like art."

Today, the building is divided into three wings, Sully, Denon and Richelieu, each one with its own clearly marked entrance, found under I.M. Pei's glass pyramid. Get your hands on a museum map (there's an excellent interactive map on the museum's website), choose your personal "must-sees," and plan ahead. There's no way to see it all, and you'll be an instant candidate for early retirement if you try. Mercifully, the museum is well-organized and has been very reasonably arranged into color-coded sections. If you're really in a rush, or you just want to get an overall sense of the place, you can take the introductory guided tour in English (1½ hr.; 11am, 2pm and 3:45pm daily; 5 €). You won't see as much as you would on your own, but at least you'll know what you are seeing.

The museum's three biggest stars are all located in the Denon wing. La Joconde, otherwise known as the Mona Lisa, now has an entire wall to herself, making it easier to contemplate her enigmatic smile. Visitors are funneled towards the painting so that everyone has a chance to get a closer look without getting an elbow in the eye. Another inscrutable female in this wing is the Venus de Milo, who was found on a Greek Island in 1820. Possibly the most photographed woman in the world, this armless marble goddess gives no hint of the original position of her limbs or her exact identity. The Winged Victory of Samothrace, another magnificent Greek sculpture, is the easiest to locate. Standing at the top of a majestic flight of stairs, her powerful body pushing forward as if about to take flight, it's easy to imagine this headless deity in her original location: overlooking the Sanctuary of the Great Gods on the island of Samothrace.

Because a complete listing of the Louvre's highlights would fill a book, below is a decidedly biased selection of favorite areas:

13th-18th century Italian Painting: The immense Italian collection is conveniently arranged in chronological order so that you walk from the iconic, two-dimensional art of the early Renaissance into the ever-increasing realism and perspective of later artists. A few standouts include the delicate fresco by Botticelli Venus and the Three Graces Presenting Gifts to a Young Woman, Veronese's enormous Wedding Feast at Cana, and of course, the Mona Lisa. The Divine Miss M is in a room packed with wonders, including several Titians and Tintorettos. Once you've digested this rich meal, stroll down the endless Grande Galerie, past more da Vincis (Saint John the Baptist, The Virgin of the Rock), as well as works by Raphael, Caravaggio, Gentileschi, etc.

Greek and Roman Sculpture: While the Winged Victory of Samothrace and the Venus de Milo are not to be missed, the Salle des Caryatides (the room itself is a work of art) boasts marble masterworks like Artemis hunting with her stag and the troubling Sleeping Hermaphrodite, an alluring female figure from behind -- and something entirely different from the front.

The Galerie d'Apollon: Recently restored, this gold-encrusted room is an excellent example of the excesses of 17th century French royalty. Commissioned by Louis XIV, aka "The Sun King," every inch of this gallery is covered with gilt stucco sculptures and flamboyant murals invoking the journey of the Roman sun god Apollo (ceiling paintings are by Charles Le Brun). The main draw here is the collection of crown jewels. Amongst necklaces bedecked with quarter-sized sapphires and tiaras dripping with diamonds and rubies are the jewel-studded crown of Louis XV and The Regent, a 140-carat diamond that he used to decorate his hat.

The Egyptians: The largest collection outside of Cairo, thanks in large part to Jean-François Champollion, the 19th century French scientist and scholar who first decoded Egyptian hieroglyphs. Sculptures, figurines, papyrus documents, steles, musical instruments, and of course, mummies, fill numerous rooms in the Sully wing, including the colossal statue of Ramses II, and the strangely moving Seated Scribe. He gazes intently out of intricately-crafted inlaid eyes: a combination of copper, magnesite, and polished rock crystal create a startlingly life-like stare.

Large-Format French Paintings: There's an entire floor full of French paintings in the Sully wing, but these three rooms (rooms 75, 76, and 77) pack the biggest punch. Enormous floor to ceiling (and these are high ceilings) paintings of monumental moments in history cover the walls. The overcrowded and legendary Coronation of Napoléon by Jacques-Louis David depicts the newly minted Emperor crowning Josephine, while the disconcerted pope and a host of notables look on. On the facing wall, Madame Récamier (also by David), one of Napoleon's loudest critics, reclines fetchingly on a divan. Farther on are several tumultuous canvases by Eugène Delacroix, including Liberty Guiding the People, which might just be the ultimate expression of French patriotism. In the painting, which evokes the events of the revolution of 1830, Liberty -- breast exposed, a rifle in one hand, the French flag in the other -- leads the crowd over a sea of dead bodies. High ideals and gore sort of sums up the French revolutionary spirit.

Scaling the Pyramid

There are several ways to avoid the lines that often snake around the glass pyramid that serves as the primary entrance to the Louvre. You can enter directly from the Palais Royal-Musée du Louvre Métro stop. If you are above ground, there are two staircases on either side of the Arc du Carrousel that lead downstairs to the ticketing area. Two other accesses, one at 99 rue du Rivoli and the other at the Porte des Lions (in the Denon Wing), include elevators for wheelchairs and strollers. The addition of ticketing machines (cash only) and advanced ticket sales online or by phone at Fnac (tel. 08 92 68 36 22;; in person in any Virgin Megastore; and on the Louvre website, has diminished the lines at the ticket windows, and even at the Pyramid entrance. So you might end up passing easily through I.M. Pei's intriguing geometry after all.


Consider an evening visit to the Louvre. Not only are tickets 1.50 € to 2 € cheaper after 6pm, but the tour buses have all left and the crowds thin dramatically. On Friday nights, the museum is free if you are under 26 and there are a number of thematic tours and workshops (4.50 €-8.50 €; see website or ask for a brochure; all activities in French only) for young people. You'll also get to see one of most magical sights in Paris when you leave the building: the Louvre lit at night. Be sure to pass through the Cour Carrée -- the eerie, yet elegant lighting makes you half expect to see gilded carriages with ethereal footmen passing under the archways.

Next Stop -- Impressionism

What better setting for a world-class museum of 19th-century art than a beautiful example of Belle Epoque architecture? The magnificent Gare d'Orsay train station, built to coincide with the 1900 World's Fair, has been brilliantly transformed into the Musée d'Orsay 555 (62 rue de Lille, 7th arrond.; tel. 01 40 49 48 14;; museum and temporary exhibits 9 € adults, 7 € 18-25, free under 18; permanent collection only 7.50 € adults, 5.50 € 18-25, free under 18; Tues-Wed, Fri-Sun 9:30am-6pm; Thurs 9:30am-9:45pm; Métro: Solférino, RER: Musée d'Orsay), a true pleasure to visit. The huge, airy central hall lets in lots of natural light, which has been artfully combined with artificial lighting to illuminate a collection of treasures that were once scattered among the Louvre, the Jeu de Paume, and the Musée National d'Art Moderne. The collection spans the years 1848-1914, a period that saw the birth of many artistic movements, such as the Barbizon School and Symbolism, but today it is best known for the emergence of Impressionism. Seeing them all together in one place makes it instantly obvious what a fertile time this was. All the superstars of the epoch are here, including Monet, Manet, Dégas, and Renoir, not to mention Pissaro, Cézanne, and Van Gogh.

Paintings are organized both chronologically and according to artistic trends. The ground floor is devoted to the era leading up to 1870, when artists like Ingres, Delacroix, and Millet set the stage for the first steps of Impressionism, like Edouard Manet's masterpiece, Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe. Though Manet's composition of bathers and friends picnicking on the grass draws freely from those of Italian Renaissance masters, the painting shocked its 19th century audience, which was horrified to see a naked lady lunching with two fully-clothed men. Manet got into trouble again with his magnificent Olympia, a seductive odalisque stretched out on a divan. There was nothing new about the subject; viewers were rattled by the unapologetic look in her eye -- this is not an idealized nude, but a real woman, and a tough cookie, to boot.

The upper floors get into the major Impressionist period. There are so many highlights here that you might feel the need to put on sunglasses. A few standouts:

  • Renoir's Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette, Montmartre -- the dappled light and the movement of the crowd in this joyous painting are such that you wonder if it's not going to suddenly waltz out of its frame. The blurred brushstrokes that created this effect rankled contemporary critics.
  • Monet's La Gare St-Lazare -- here is another train station when steam engines were still pulling in on a regular basis. The metallic roof of the station frames an almost abstract mix of clouds and smoke; rather than a description of machines and mechanics, this painting is a modern study of light and color.
  • Van Gogh's Church at Auvers-sur-Oise -- after spending time in an asylum in Provence, the artist moved to this small town north of Paris, where he painted this ominous vision of the town church -- one of some 70 paintings he produced in the two months leading up to his suicide.

There are also sculptures and decorative arts on display here, including a remarkable collection of Art Nouveau furniture and objects. Photo fans will appreciate the fine examples of early photography, including Félix Nadar's portrait of Charles Baudelaire; there are also some interesting works by nonphotographers like Edward Dégas and Emile Zola.

Touring the Station

Confronted with so many famous paintings, even the most stalwart museum-goer is likely to feel a little overwhelmed. Fortunately, there are a variety of guided tours (6.50 € adults, 4.70 € ages 13-17) in English; ask for the brochure at the entrance, or look at the one on the website). For a good overview, try "The Masterpieces of the Musée d'Orsay" (1½ hr., Tues-Sat 11:30am), and for a closer look at the Impressionists pick "In-Depth Tours: 19th Century Art" (Impressionist tours usually last 1½ hours, Tues-Sat 2:30, Thurs 4pm.) If you want to go it on your own, but with a bit of help, multilingual audioguides rent for 5 €.

This article is an excerpt from Pauline Frommer's Paris, 1st Edition, available in our online bookstore now.

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