The Mona Lisa was drawn between 1503 and 1517, initially as a portrait of Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo. The masterpiece has risen to world fame, not because its brushstroke patterns are the most artistically accomplished nor the most beautiful, but because the twist of the smile is entwined with mystery – not to mention the mysterious lack of eyebrows. The painting entices millions of visitors to Paris each year and you can marvel at it yourself at the Louvre, where it has dominated the permanent display as the most popular attraction since 1797.
If there’s one art exhibition you should check out this year in Paris, it is Delacroix at the Louvre. The masterpiece shows Parisians being led over the barricades and bodies of the fallen by the empowering Goddess of Liberty, who is victoriously holding up the French flag. It’s a fine example of how Delacroix drew inspiration from dark historic events such as the Revolution, betraying a fascination for tragedy and turbulence, and the image has inspired many, from Victor Hugo to Coldplay. It’s one of the famous works in French art history.
While Liberty Leading the People might be the most famous painting by this artistic legend, he has other, more inventive, masterpieces on show. This one is called Still Life with Lobster (1827) and can also be seen at the Louvre. It’s often referred to as a hybrid piece, and indeed the contents of this landscape still life seem random, inducing a sense of perplexity. Along with the lobsters, there is a lizard lurking, for example, with little explanation. Even the distance between the background and the foreground is difficult to gauge, demonstrating Delacroix’s seductive play with scale and expectation.
Of course, you have to check out the Mona Lisa and Delacroix, but there’s another masterpiece with a historic legacy hidden within the epic collection at the Louvre and it would be a crime not to include it on the list. It was painted in 1807 by the official painter of Napoleon I, the ultimate hero of French history, and it’s impossible to not be impressed by its epic dimensions. The breathtaking, gigantic canvas flaunts the ruler’s pride as he is being crowned in Notre-Dame de Paris.
The Louvre may be the world’s largest art museum, but it’s not the only museum where you can marvel at unique masterpieces in Paris. Dutch Post-Impressionist painter Van Gogh is one of the most influential figures of Western art, and if you’re a fan of his Impressionist approach, you can discover some of his most famous works at the Van Gogh Gallery in the Musée d’Orsay, such as his poignantly melancholic Self-Portrait from 1889.
It’s not just sunflowers and self-portraits that make Van Gogh world-famous: he was also a master of architectural depictions. The Church at Auvers (1890) is another Impressionist masterpiece that can be appreciated at the Van Gogh Gallery in the Musée d’Orsay. This sinister portrait depicts Place de l’Église in Auvers-sur-Oise, located northwest of Paris, and what’s striking about Van Gogh’s unique approach is that the vibrant strokes make everything, even a building made of stone, seem alive.
When you think of seeing art in Paris, the name Claude Monet probably comes to mind. His famous tableau Impression, Sunrise (1872) depicts the port of Le Havre, Monet’s hometown, illuminated by a fleeting red sunrise. Initially unveiled in Paris in April 1874, this painting is considered to have pioneered the Impressionist movement with its animated brushstrokes. It marks a transition from traditional painting, which preceded this work, allowing painting to take on a new dimension.
It would be unfair to include Claude Monet’s Impression, Sunrise, without also including Poppy Field, currently on display at the Musée d’Orsay. Not only were they both shown together at the very first Impressionist Exhibition in April 1874, but this painting has equally captivated people’s hearts. The delicate and beautiful painting, set in the Paris suburb of Argenteuil where Monet lived from 1871 until 1878, was unveiled in 1873 to awe-inspired delight. It depicts what is largely believed to be the artist’s wife Camille and their son Jean, though the sense of mystery keeps art critics enthused.
The Impressionist art movement easily conjures up names such as Vincent van Gogh and Claude Monet, but there’s a hidden talent on display in Paris that history forgot about. Mary Stevenson Cassatt (1844–1926) was the only American member of the Impressionist movement. She was fascinated by the social and private lives of women, placing emphasis on the intimate bonds between mothers and children, and infusing the world of Impressionist art with a delicate touch thanks to the subtlety of her brush strokes.
No artistic masterpiece has ever gained legendary status without a little scandal. In the case of The Luncheon on the Grass, displayed at the Musée d’Orsay, the hugely famous painting by Édouard Manet was actually rejected by the jury of the Salon, meaning that Manet exhibited it at the Salon des Réfusés (‘Exhibition of Rejects’). The scandal wasn’t provoked because of the nudity, but because of the subject’s challenging gaze. It’s almost as though she is overruling the spectator’s authority as they gaze upon her naked body, which at the time was perceived as threatening.