Walking about the Place des Vosges in the early morning, criss-crossing the park before the dogs and the children arrive and people start spreading blankets on the grass for lunch, one encounters a haven of old-world serenity. The windows facing the park all around in those glorious brick and stone villas are mostly shuttered for the August vacation. But the vaulted arcades below offer an array of cafes, art galleries and boutiques, most of them open for business despite the summer doldrums. One even encounters a museum there, the former home of Victor Hugo comprising a vast suite of rooms featuring walls of porcelain plates and Asian knickknacks along with the novelist’s own artwork and various furniture he designed. Who knew the author of Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame was a weekend painter, an aspiring decorator?
Paris has so many grand and quirky museums to visit it can be exhausting taking them in, so one must be focused and organized. Indispensable is the Paris Museum Pass Book, opening a door not only to the mighty Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay but many small, intimate, out-of-the way house museums and artist studios perhaps only dimly known. The only question is: which ones to choose?
Starting right here in the Marais made perfect sense.
Musée national Picasso
On the way I passed a used bookstore with a shabby exterior and paused to have a closer look. Its windows were filled with old film magazines and art books, many of them in English, ragged and musty, the shelves a chaotic, overflowing mess. It was a thrilling sight to behold. Antiquarian bookstores like this, once so common, have all but vanished, and even the market for rare books seems collapsing. But I was not in Paris to buy books and reluctantly moved on.
The Picasso Museum, in the imposing Hôtel Salé, is, of course, a shrine. And why shouldn’t it be? Is there any artist greater than Picasso in the 20th century, one more prolific and restless, more charismatic and shocking? Truly the current generation of contemporary artists, many of them so manufactured in their accomplishments and fame, seem so small in comparison to Picasso. One has only to read John Richardson’s massive, encyclopedic biography (A Life of Picasso, still unfinished after three volumes) to grasp the wondrous, never-ending creativity of Picasso over his ninety-one years.
The current exhibition offered a fascinating chronicle of Picasso’s marriage to the Russian ballerina Olga Khokhlova, his first great muse. Apart from the many paintings and sketches of Olga by Picasso, the exhibition featured something remarkable: a treasure trove of forgotten photographs and letters, many of them discovered by Olga’s family in a Goyard trunk long after her death. I found myself mesmerized by these black-and-white snapshots of family life with Picasso. They made his paintings of Olga all the more lyrical, providing a sort of back-story narrative to this tormented marriage.
Among the most striking of these many snapshots were ones of Olga in her youth as a dancer with the Ballets Russes, a career foreshortened by her marriage. One could see in these grainy images how Picasso, a brutish little man of much fire and venom, so willful and controlling, must have fallen hard under the spell of this enchanting swan when first they met.
This baronial stone villa, built in 1876, is on bustling Boulevard Haussmann in the 8th arrondissement. As one passes through the porte cochere and up a winding driveway to the front of the house it is suddenly much quieter, and one feels transported back a century. The villa reminded me, curiously, of the imposing “cottages” in Newport up and down Bellevue Avenue; but those dazzling houses are mostly empty of furnishings and leave much to the imagination of visitors. Here, the house remains unchanged from the gilded age, each room a still life of period paintings and furniture.
Édouard André, the owner, was a member of the imperial elite, and the Hôtel André was thus designed for him as an 18th century pleasure palace. His family, from Nîmes in southern France, had been collectors for many generations. Hence after brief careers in the military and then in politics Édouard devoted himself to acquiring great works of art, with the idea of turning his mansion into a museum. In 1883 he married the prominent portrait painter Nélie Jacquemart, after which the couple began expanding the collection almost feverishly. This endeavor was aided by a network of scouts all over Europe who provided the couple with “useful information.”
Wandering about the house feels like a pictorial course in European art history. The Florentine and Venetian galleries, for example, encompass “one of the finest Italian collections in France.” Monumental frescos by Tiepolo, removed from a villa in Italy, seem to adorn an acre of marble walls. Here is an entire room filled with a set of tapestries on a theme of “Russian Games” woven at the royal manufactory at Beauvais between 1767-1770. There is a formal Picture Gallery with many treasures, but in truth the whole house is bursting with them, the library alone displaying three portraits by Rembrandt and another three by van Dyck. There are sculptures everywhere. As a result of all these fine art riches one hardly notices the French furniture collection, with pieces by the most renowned 18th century cabinet makers, a collection so refined and sleek and yet rather overshadowed here.
After her husband’s death in 1894, Nélie André seems to have embarked on a series of epic buying sprees to assuage her grief. As the museum catalogue recounts:
In 1902 she explored India and Burma on a trip punctuated by dazzling parties and celebrations. But the lavish receptions by the Viceroy of India, the British governors and the maharajas did not wholly take her mind off her beloved collections. She still found time to have crates full of ancient weapons, art objects and furniture shipped back to France.
Passing through the Winter Garden, with its palm trees and exotic plants amidst all that marble, ormolu, satinwood and red silk saturating the house, I left in a daze. Walking back down the driveway I half expected a chauffeured 1927 Bugatti with black-tie revelers to come roaring past me in the porte cochere.
Musée de Louvre
Feeling ready to face the Louvre in all its vastness, I soon found myself in the Denon Wing before a long wall of enormous paintings, 19th century scenes of battlefields littered with bodies, of lavish court ceremonies and heroic allegories of patriotism and valor. It’s an eye-popping extravaganza.
Positioning myself before The Coronation of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David, a hulking history painting of sweeping spectacle and drama, it was all I could do to notice small details here and there. Amidst all the fur and finery, there in the center of things is Napoleon, a haughty look on his face as he raises a crown above the head of a kneeling Empress Josephine. In another, The Death of Sardanapalus by Eugène Delacroix, a grim tableau of butchery in a harem based on a poem by Byron, I’m held equally spellbound. What splendor and savagery in these 19th century Salon warhorses!
Wandering along, I come upon the star attraction of the Louvre, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.
But it was a scene of mayhem. The large enclosure that flares out from the painting corralled a horde of visitors waving about cell phones and cameras, shooting away at a picture they could barely see. For the painting is far away, in a deep buffer zone, hung on its very own wall and shielded by bullet-proof glass. The guard sitting nearby is thus unfazed by the mob scene that plays out before him all day long, for Mona Lisa dwells safely in a sort of isolation ward, a bubble within a bubble.
What a surreal and jarring experience watching this scene unfold within the vast, ancient, staid halls of the museum. But then, thinking about the current art market, I realize: it’s so perfectly fitting.
After all, the Mona Lisa is an art celebrity, one of the greatest of all time, standing at the very pinnacle of an art world that has exploded into a global colossus of fame, riches and power. Just look at this roiling scene of adulation! People are running toward this particular painting, among the many hundreds at the Louvre, and they are spinning with glee the closer they get. How many museums in all the world can claim to have a painting with this kind of star power? Wouldn’t the Met love to have such a peerless, mob-gathering icon?
Oh, but that’s not all. In keeping with the trend of luxury retailing that has overtaken the art world, Mona Lisa now even has her own handbag line.
You may have seen it already. It’s the one with her face bursting forth like a full moon on the sides of a Louis Vuitton leather bag, the centerpiece of a lofty-sounding “Masters Collection.” This is a collaboration with the artist Jeff Koons that (as the Vuitton website so helpfully explains) remixes the iconic artworks of the old masters and presents them in a way that encourages new interpretations. What struck me the most about this fascinating and cheesy commercial venture was that it seems to enable Jeff Koons, a master art market pitchman with few rivals today in the key areas of branding and bulk merchandising, to presume something truly brazen even for him: being the equal of Leonardo da Vinci himself.
This is laughable, I know, but one has to admire the marketing boon for Koons, the Louvre and especially Louis Vuitton, which in the bargain seems to have anointed itself the official handbag of the Louvre.
Standing there observing the swirling scene around the Mona Lisa I can’t help wondering if anyone is really looking at the painting. Maybe that isn’t even the point here; and yet the clamor reflects how much the Louvre has radically reimagined itself from stodgy cultural shrine into something more hip, edgy and profitable. It’s a business model other museums must find compelling, if impossible to copy.
For example, there’s the labyrinthine Carrousel du Louvre shopping mall that rambles below the museum, a cyclone of luxury commerce through which one must pass on entering the museum from the Palais Royal-Musée du Louvre Metro stop in a manner similar to the way travelers at an airport are funneled through security into a duty-free shopping maze—thus necessitating a long, meandering walk through a carnival midway of enticements before actually entering the museum.
I move away from the Mona Lisa to have a look at the many glorious paintings by Titian and Tintoretto that hang nearby, yet seem to go unnoticed.
Alas, no hand bags for them.
Musée national Eugène Delacroix
Paris is a city filled with artist studios, and you can’t help noticing their tall and slanting windows as you pass along the streets. I purchased a guide book showing their locations throughout the city and decided to visit a couple.
One of the most intriguing of these is the Delacroix Museum, tucked away on a courtyard in the 6th arrondissement. You first have a walk through several exhibition rooms that illustrate the life and career of Delacroix in sketches, photographs, letters and paintings before moving on to the studio.
In this large red-painted room, with a period easel in the center, a chaise longue in the corner and many paintings on the walls as well as sketch books in vitrines, the skylight above partially covered by a tarp, one immediately feels immersed in the quiet sanctuary of an artist’s atelier. This was apparently Delacroix’s last studio, and while he had no pupils at the end of his life he was an inspiration, oddly enough, to the Impressionists, thus bridging two very different styles of painting. His most famous painting, Liberty Leading the People (1830), now in the Louvre, shows Parisians taking up arms and marching behind the French tricolor symbolizing equality, liberty and fraternity. The Impressionists wouldn’t have bothered with such romantic sentimentality, but they revered Delacroix for his skill and style.
Down in the garden facing the studio a large group of people, having toured the museum, was now sketching.
The Louvre Again: Dior!
I won’t try to describe the scene outside the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, as a very long line of people queued down the Rue de Rivoli waiting (and hoping) to enter the blockbuster exhibition Christian Dior: Couturier du Rêve. As my companion had credentials from the Met we were able to zip into the building and were soon immersed in this spectacular and monumental homage to Dior on the occasion of the fabled House of Dior’s 70th anniversary. It was a dreamscape the likes of which I have never experienced.
Somewhere along the way, in the endless, head-spinning, color-saturated, music-throbbing and disco-like aura of this vast and devouring exhibition, a sign announced somewhat blandly:
Reflecting the fact that Christian Dior was a knowledgeable art lover who adored museums, designs from over 70 years interact with a selection of paintings, furniture and objets d’art.
This bit of information became a guiding theme for me as we made our way through the packed and artfully-staged rooms of the exhibition, through which the joyous crowd moved slowly, as if watching a Hollywood costume drama frame by frame. What theatre! I kept thinking what an amazing visionary Dior was, and what a mighty empire he built from sketches and cloth.
The exhibition is really the story of an artist who proved to be a marketing and promotional genius, and how contemporary is that! After a brief career as a painter and then an art dealer, Dior served an apprenticeship with various designers before launching his own fashion house in December 1946. His very first collection, with the entrancing name Corolle (flower petals), appeared the following February and quickly launched a revolution in the fashion business as “The New Look.”
What fascinated me the most about this grand, sprawling exhibition, apart from the drum song of relentless global branding of the Dior name in so many lines of apparel and accessories through the years—truly an astounding story all its own—was the archival aspect. For excluding the loans from museums on both sides of the Atlantic, nearly everything on view was from the Dior Heritage Collection and never before seen in Paris. What an astonishing achievement, I thought, as the House of Dior has done what many great artists so often fail to do in any systematic way: preserve their own work. This show, then, was a sort of pop-up museum. As the last great Dior show was in 1987, I suppose the next will be in another thirty years, when the House celebrates its 100th anniversary.
Exhausted, no doubt, from the crush of exuberant visitors for hours on end, guards starting herding them out of the glittering exhibition at closing time. We had barely finished the first half of it! But I was pleased that Paris had surprised me once again with a new collection to see, even if this particular one will soon go back into storage.
(Image: Designer Christian Dior working on a new collection in his studio, Paris, France, 1957. Photo by Loomis Dean/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images).