Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci
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 Museum, where it has dominated the permanent display as the most popular attraction since 1797.
Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix
If there’s one art exhibition you should check out this year in Paris, it is Delacroix at the Louvre in Paris. The iconic 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.
Still Life with Lobsters by Eugène Delacroix
While Liberty Leading the People might be the most famous painting of this artistic legend, he has other more inventive masterpieces on show called Still Life with Lobsters (1827) at The Louvre. ‘Nature is a dictionary’, Delacroix said, ‘one draws words from it’ – but he also invented anew. Often referred to as a hybrid piece, the contents of this landscape still-life seem fairly random, satiating 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 his seductive play with scale and expectation.
The Coronation of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David
Of course, there’s the Mona Lisa and Delacroix, which you must check out, but there’s another masterpiece with a historic legacy hidden within the epic collection at the Louvre. The painting has reigned thanks to its significance for centuries, so it would be a crime not to include it on the list. Painted in 1807 by the official painter of Napoleon I, the ultimate hero of French history, it’s impossible to not be impressed by the epic dimensions of this painting. The canvas flaunts the ruler’s pride as he is being coronated in Notre-Dame de Paris across a breathtaking and glorious 10-metre wide and six-metre tall canvas.
Self-Portrait by Van Gogh
The Louvre might draw in art-lovers with its plea to being 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. If you’re a fan of his Impressionist approach, then you can discover some of his most famous works at the Van Gogh Gallery in the Musée d’Orsay, like his poignantly melancholic Self-Portrait from 1889.
The Church at Auvers by Van Gogh
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 only be appreciated at the Van Gogh Gallery in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. This sinister portrait depicts Place de l’Église in Auvers-sur-Oise, located northwest of Paris in France, and what’s so striking about his unique approach is that the vibrant strokes make everything seem alive, even a building made of stone.
Impression, Sunrise by Claude Monet
When you think of seeing art in Paris, the name Claude Monet probably comes to mind. The famous tableau, Impression, Sunrise (1872), by the masterful painter 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 the work to really take on a new dimension.
Poppy Field by Claude Monet
Currently on display at the Musée d’Orsay, it would be unfair to include Claude Monet’s Impression, Sunrise, without also including Poppy Field on this list. 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. This 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.
Little Girl in a Blue Armchair by Mary Cassatt
The Impressionist art movement easily conjures up names like 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, infusing the world of Impressionist art with a feminine touch thanks to the delicacy of her brush strokes.
The Luncheon on the Grass by Édouard Manet
No artistic masterpiece has ever gained its legendary status without a little scandal at one point or another. 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 more precisely, because of her 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 somewhat threatening.