Le Lit - Henri Toulouse Lautrec (1892)
I may as well accept it now: just like I'll never have the time (or money) to eat in all the restaurants in Paris, I'll barely make a dent in the bounty of museums this city has to offer either.
Just how many museums does Paris have, you ask? Well, I looked it up, and according to worldcitiescultureforum.com, Paris leaves New York in the dust with 313 compared to 143 in 2015; only Moscow has more. Yet, between five previous visits and up to the present day, I've racked up visits to a whopping seven museums in Paris, a few of those several times (I'm looking at you, irresistible Musee Rodin!). My objective on this extended time in Paris then has been to explore the hitherto unseen while still allowing for a few of my favorites.
With that objective in mind, I recently visited the never-before-seen Petit Palais and did a fourth go-around at the Musee D'Orsay, which I prefer to the Louvre. The Petit Palais caught my attention after reading numerous articles about the "hidden" and "off-the-beaten-track" spots in Paris. There's no shortage of these sorts of articles, by the way, and just to digress for a moment... While I (and many people, clearly) relish such articles, isn't there the element of a secret blabbed, the proverbial cat let out of its bag? Like everyone else, I lean in close to hear the secret, but I'm far from the only one being let in on it. As an example, the Petit Palais... What appealed to me when I read about it were several things: (1) because it's a city museum (Musee des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris--a mouthful!), entrance is free; (2) presumably, hardly anyone goes there; (3) there's a great cafe in a beautiful and tranquil garden/courtyard--where I could write. Sign me up! First of all, someone needs to tell the well-meaning people at Apple Maps where the Petit Palais is, because once I got out of the metro and crossed the street to the Place de la Concorde, my iPhone was completely disoriented--so much so that every time I walked one minute and looked at my screen, the map showed me to be in a completely different place than I had been just 60 seconds ago and would sometimes even tell me I'd arrived, which was definitely not so. Anyway, I walked miles out of my way--that's not an exaggeration--but I finally found it by taking out my paper map (wished I'd done that way sooner) and by now I was starving.
Alas, the Petit Palais had a line and there were several tour groups in that line! So much for "off-the-beaten-track." The line went quickly, however, and I was through the security check and into the main hall. Let me tell you this, unequivocally: there is nothing petit about this palace! I have to assume it's smaller than the Grand Palais across the street, but the magnitude and the magnificence (nothing but the "magni" words will suffice) are jaw-dropping. When your mind has been told to expect petit and off-the-beaten-track and free, the sheer scale of the building takes you by marvelous surprise.
But first things first, j'avais faim (I was hungry), so the dozens of sculptures giving me their come-hither looks would have to wait while I headed to that tranquil cafe for a very late lunch (thanks, Apple maps!). The garden was indeed stunning, but it was brimming with hordes of people and I waited 25 minutes in line to order my lunch and then had to hover another 10 minutes until a table freed up. This was disappointing as the online gushing about this supposed haven had me believing I was going to spend an hour or two there writing before or after poking around the museum. Definitely wasn't going to happen.
If the writing-in-the relaxing-garden scenario had disappointed, though, the museum itself did not. While the great majority of painting and sculpture were by artists with whom I'm not familiar, that means little since I never had much art education. For that very reason, I've taken to getting the audio guides when I go to museums for the much richer experience, but this particular afternoon I decided just to look and absorb. The front hall was chock full of sculpture, followed by sky-high walls lined with gigantic oil paintings. One of the most notable was mentioned/pictured in my previous blog--Les Halles by Leon Lhermitte (love the surname)--but there were other eye-catching oils, including these two that really struck me:
Homeless - Fernand Pelez (1883)
The 14th July 1880 - Alfred Roll
There were more treasures begging to be seen down a gorgeous, spiral staircase with filigreed wrought iron banisters, not only paintings, but also timepieces from the 15th and 16th centuries and a hall of exhibits documenting the city's massive beautification projects commissioned in the late 1800s-early 1900s that resulted in such monuments as that at Place de la Republique, a couple of blocks from where I'm staying.
Two days later, I braced myself for the crowds at the d'Orsay. Luckily, I didn't have to wait in line, having bought a special combo ticket when I visited the Musee Rodin several weeks ago. I breezed through security and into the main hall, catching my breath, as always, when confronted by that first glimpse of the old train station now packed with some of the world's greatest artwork. The grandeur of the d'Orsay is overwhelming, but in the best possible way.
This time, I had the audio guide to talk me through my visit. (I'd like to be able to say that I took it in French, but that would have been a waste of five euros. I'm definitely not there yet and have to resign myself to the reality that I don't think I ever will be.) In addition to the high-level education in art that I get from these guides, I am always so intrigued by the scandals these works caused in their day. Notably, the d'Orsay has one of the largest collection of impressionist paintings and the fifth floor is almost entirely devoted to a timeline of the period. In narrating the rise of the movement, the art historian in my ear shared the harsh criticism of paintings that today we view as beautiful yet benign. The term "impressionism," in fact, was coined after critics described the paintings as "unfinished," as if the painters were just slapping on a few brushstrokes to suggest what they would paint. Given this frosty reception, it's incredible to think that artists like Monet, Renoir, Degas, Manet, Cezanne et al are among the most well-known painters 130 years later or so.
Before peeking in on the Impressionists, though, I strolled around the second floor, where in addition to more gorgeous sculptures than the eyes can feast on in a day, I elbowed among the crowds to see the many Van Goghs. These galleries were absolutely jammed, so lingering was impossible, and in many ways, the constant bumping was kind of harshing my mellow. Still, from the few moments I got to spend in front of some of the Dutchman's most revered works, I decided that he is absolutely one of my favorite painters. I'd always been fascinated by his personal story, a fascination deepened by the debate over whether he really committed suicide and the recent live animation film, Loving Vincent. (The good news is, before coming back to the States, I'll get the chance to visit the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam!)
The voluptuous paintings of Gaughin were on this floor, too, as were the works of Toulouse-Lautrec. Though much of Toulouse-Lautrec's art doesn't appeal to me, his painting, Le Lit, has always been a favorite--a print of which I bought the first time I ever visited the d'Orsay (back in 1995) and which has moved with me from apartment to apartment for more than 20 years.
I took a pit stop after the second floor to fortify myself for the Impressionists yet to come, treating myself to a relaxing lunch of swordfish and wine in the museum restaurant, though the food was not quite as stunning as the space. If I'd known there was also a cafe up on the fifth floor--one with a view that was not to be believed--I might have gone there instead, but this is a quibble as it was really impossible to go wrong.
In three-plus hours, I'd still seen just a fraction of the collections, but less is more, as they say, and it was an afternoon very well spent. I emerged blinking into the sunlight and walked across the street to the Seine, deciding on where to go next...