Paris Museums

Paris France is one of those places to which we frequently return. In fact, we have spent more time here than in any other non-U.S. city. This time we only had 3 days in reacquaint ourselves with some of our favorite museums. Rather than repeat or rephrase all that we have written before, this post references previous posts and focuses on new discoveries at Paris museums.


The highlight of L’Orangerie are the eight huge murals that Monet left to France in honor of the men who died in WWI. Our 2015 post gives more background on these murals). On this visit, much of the museum’s exhibition space was closed in preparation for a new exhibition. But it did have had an exhibition based on the collection of art critic and gallery director Felix Feneon. Feneon admired the scientific basis, the technical rigor and the sensual colors of the Pointalists (a technique of painting in which small, distinct dots of color are applied in patterns to form an image) and championed the work of a number of Neo-Impressionists, especially that of George Seurat. He organized major shows of the works of Seurat and Signac, and the first public exhibitions of Matisse and, in 1912, works of the highly controversial Italian Futurists—a group whose work was so controversial that a fist fight broke out at its opening.

Paris L'Orangerie - Matisse - The lectureParis L'Orangerie - Seurat (2)Paris L'Orangerie - Bonnard Woman on a bed

Musee d’Orsay

Musee d’Orsay is on the left bank of the Seine. It one of our favorite museums for its beautiful facility (it used to be the Orsay railway station) and its superb collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masters. But it is also one of our most disliked museums due to its confusing layout and poor signage.

Adding some of our own interpretation to the indecipherable layout, we think the layout is intended to begin with an overview of the early- and mid-19th-century Romaticists (such as Delacroix and Ingres and Emil Levy), sculptors and the artists of the French government-sponsored Salon (including Eugene Carnere, Jons-Karl Huysmans, Emile Verhaeren), and Post-Impressionists, before eventually embracing some such as Renoir and Vuillard.

The museum’s highlights are its huge, superb collection of Impressionist works with particularly strong representation of Monet, Renoir, Cezanne, Caillebotte and others. The exhibit begins with these artists’ early years, when they were shunned by the Salon and forced to stage their own exhibitions and find more open-minded dealers to sell their works. It traces the evolution of their works through the late-1880s when the group broke up as some of its most influential members began to evolve their styles. It traces:

  • Renoir’s blending of his impressionist styles with some of the traditional techniques of the Old Masters;
  • Cezanne altering the perspectives and rearranging the subjects of his works in a way that helped lead to Cubism;
  • Pissaro evolving toward the Neo-Impressionist Pointillist style; and
  • Monet creating series of works (such as his London, Rouen Cathedral, grain stacks and eventually waterlily) as a means of experimenting with the effects of light.

Paris - Musee D'Orsey - Monet - Rouen Cathedral

Then came the advent of Neo- or Post-Impressionism:

  • Seurat’s and Signac’s pioneering of color theories and optical (versus traditional physical) color mixing and use of more geometric shapes to redefine the psychology of art; and
  • Van Gogh and Gauguin experimenting with simpler drawing, a greater use of more vivid, primary colors, approaches.

This led to “Synthacism” in which artists such as Paul Serusier produced vividly-colored flat areas separated by dark outlines. Others, including Redon used abstraction, unrealistic colors, setting and random arrangements to create impressions of a dream-like world.

Paris - Musee d'Orsey - Redon

These forms of experimentation, in turn, led to the birth of Post-Impressionism, whereby artists including Bonnard, Vuillard, Denis, Maillot and Vallotton the other “Nabis” used flattened perspectives, distinct, sinuous lines, and pure colors to represent intimate family scenes, religion and more esoteric theses in dreamy, symbolic ways.

Complementary exhibits addressed new forms of artistic expression that were taking place about the same time, from the 1890s through the 1910s. Among these are:

  • Chat Noir Cabernet, where cutouts and shadow figures were incorporated with music into fully scripted shows;

Paris - Musee d'Orsey - Chat Noir 02

  • The emergence of moving pictures as an experimental and increasingly, commercial art form;
  • The emergence of elaborate Art Nouveau-styles in the decorative arts;
  • Orientalism, and the growing fascination with Northern African, Palestinian and later, Japanese themes and techniques into European art;
  • Women impressionists, especially Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassat, who applied Impressionist techniques to new subjects; and
  • The modernization of French Architecture, as exemplified by the Garnier Opera house.

The museum was also staging several particularly interesting special exhibits, including:

Yan-Pei Ming: A Burial in Shanghai. The French-Chinese artist, deeply influenced by French Realist, Gustave Coubet’s “A Burial at Ornans”, showed an everyday funeral as a heroic event on a large canvas, represented his mother’s funeral in a similarly magisterial way. This time, however, on three, huge canvases. The first, “Celestial Mountain” represents a dreamlike vision of the afterlife in a semi-abstract, expressionistic style. This is followed by the adoring, representative portrait of “My Mother” as a monumental-sized tribute and the solemn “The Farewell” as a precisely detailed portrayal of the service.

Paris - Musee d'Orsey - Yan Pei Ming Celestial MountainParis - Musee d'Orsey - Yan Pei Ming - My MotherParis - Musee d'Orsey - Yan Pei Ming Burial in Shanghai 03

Degas at the Opera. This huge, very crowded exhibit effectively celebrates the 350th anniversary of the Paris Opera with roughly 200-piece exhibits of an artist who was virtually obsessed with opera. He used it as a laboratory that allowed him to focus on and represent all types of scenes and activities, from the audience, to the orchestra and conductor, to the on-stage action and especially, his passion, what went on backstage and between performances. He portrayed people and objects from straight on, from above, from below and from any other perspective he could dream up.

Degas particularly focused on the dancers, their bodies, their attire, their positions and especially their movements. He represented them in meticulous sketches, in watercolors, in pastels, in oils, in photographs, in monotypes and in hundreds of sculptures where interestingly, “Little Dancer Aged 14”, a composition made with a combination of wax, human hair and textile, was the only one that was publicly shown during his life.

Paris - Musee D'Orsey DegasParis - Musee d'orsey - Degas ballerinaParis Musee d'Orsay - Degas Little Dancer

The exhibit shows a broad range of all of his representations. While most of this work examined the effects of different lighting conditions, many of his later works focused on the “synthesis of the female body” and different ways of expressing its movements and rhythms. This was increasingly done by showing sequences of motions on the same canvas: sometimes in charcoal, sometimes in pastels and increasingly in paroxysms of unreal and imagined colors.

Pompidou Center

Appreciating the Collection

Paris’s premier modern art museum has French works beginning with Matisse and the early 20th-century Russian Avant Garde. It provides a high-level review of most significant artists and movements of the last hundred years, ending with pieces from the last few years.

Since we just visited the museum and wrote an overview of the primary movements four years ago, we spent this visit as casual, art-appreciating tourists, scanning all and focusing on those pieces that we particularly enjoyed or found especially intriguing. Among these were Fauve-like paintings from Picasso, as well as from the Matisse, Chagall’s blending of turn of the 20th-century Russian rural heritage and religion, the humor of Picaba’s Adoration of the Calf, Giacometti’s mysterious woman at a table, Henry Lauren’s image evoking a melting woman, Cesar’s colorful mix of compressed scrap metal, Anselm Kiefer’s tank of rusting submarines (railing against the inevitability and futility of war) and the Niki de Saint Plalle’s acerbic parody of sculptures of beautiful women.

Pompidou Center - Picasso - JeannePompidou Center - Picaba Adoration of the CalfPompidou Center - Giacometti - WomanParis - Pompidou Center - LaurensParis - Pompidou Center -Cesar

Although we found fewer works from the museum’s contemporary collection (from 1960 to the present) that we found intriguing, we enjoyed a number of works that ranged from entertaining (such as Ben’s “Ben’s Store and Dubuffet’s walk-in cave) to haunting (especially Erna Rosenstein’s recollection of an escape from a WWII Jewish Ghetto). Others, like Apostolos Georgiou’s untitled painting, combine pathos and humor in a single work.

Paris - Pompidou Center - Ben's store

Bacon: Books and Painting

This special exhibition consists of roughly fifty of Bacon’s primary pieces from the last 20 years of his life. Most paintings focused on how authors and books provided inspiration and imaging for his often disturbing works. And given that these works include the tragedies Aeschylus, Nietzse’s nihilist philosophy and themes of disillusionment, despair and death in T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland”, it’s hard to imagine that his work’s wouldn’t be disturbing—particularly after sitting in the six listening rooms in which passages from these books are being read and then exploring galleries with wall-to-wall images of disfigured bodies and faces, writhing bodies, blood and gaping, screaming mouths.

Paris - Pompidou Center - Bacon (8)Paris - Pompidou Center - Bacon (1)Paris - Pompidou Center - Bacon (2)Paris - Pompidou Center - Bacon (6)

This, however, is not how Bacon sees it. He believes these authors are realists and that his works re-realize this realism and express it with intensity. Intensity, but balance—a balancing of creative energy and destructive forces, of beauty and excess and of life and death. And he expresses these competing forces with raw imagery and intensity. This is particularly true during the years covered by this exhibit—the period after his lover committed suicide and Bacon became preoccupied with death and he himself suffered mental and physical breakdowns.

Marmottan Museum

Marmottan is one of our favorite smaller Paris Museums. As the last time we were here, pictures are not allowed. While the rooms, the furnishings and the religious art are certainly worth seeing, it is the museum’s Impressionist offerings—especially the largest collection of Monet’s and Morisot’s in the world—that brought us back. Berthe Morisot’s oils of gardens and of children (especially her daughter) are charming.

Monet’s late Giverney works, with pure, deep colors and abstracted subjects are not his favorite works. The exhibit, however, does include several lovely, more subtle works. Then there is his 1872 painting: Impression: Sunrise. It is the most intriguing Monet, and one of the most arresting of any Impressionist work we have ever seen. This paintings, on its own, is enough to bring us back to the Marmottan.


We did, however, have another motivation for this visit. A special exhibition of Piet Mondrian’s figurative works provided an additional incentive.

The Lesser Known Mondrian

We have seen many of Piet Mondrian’s geometric compositions. We have, however, not seen his earlier “struggling artist” phase, the early stages of his career, before he discovered abstraction and what was to become his trademark geometric drawings, and when he was reliant on the commitment and funding of one patron, Salomon Slijper. The exhibit traces the path of an artist trying to find his voice. It begins with some of his early, somewhat abstracted landscapes where, even at this very early stage, he focused more on lines and atmospheres, using a muted palette to convey impressions, rather than the details of the scene. It was then, in 1909, that he had his first show and began to experiment with portraiture (especially self-portraits in what, in the 1960s would be called his “hippie” phase).

Then after recognizing that paints on canvas could never truly express the colors in nature, he fell under the influence of the fauvist and symbolist movements, where his style evolved to large sweeps of pure, bright, contrasting colors. By 1910, he began reading about (but had not actually seen) cubism, and began to paint flat figures, in contrasting colors with a focus on angular forms–moving more and more toward abstraction and the use of subdued, gray palettes.

By 1913, his work had become more and more abstract and he again expanded his palette, but this time toward softer colors. And, as a forerunner to his future work, he began to organize his work around and in conjunction with grids. By the end of the 1910s he had begun to create his first truly abstract works based on colored grids. By the mid-1920s he had, contrary to the urging of his long-time patron, shunned figuration to focus exclusively on abstraction—especially grid-based patterns based on strong, pronounced black lines and vivid, contrasting primary colors—the types of works for which he is now best known.

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