A Tour of 19th-Century Art in Paris

My last trip to Europe before the pandemic was in January 2020. I traveled to Switzerland to negotiate loans for Private Lives: Home and Family in the Art of the Nabis, Paris, 1889–1900. Now that overseas travel is becoming possible again, I look forward to returning to the city that was home to the Nabi artists whose works of art are the subject of Private Lives. Meanwhile, let’s take a tour of Paris focusing on 19th-century French art by the Nabis and their contemporaries, as well as their forefathers. 

For me, no trip to Paris is complete without a visit to the Musée d’Orsay. Victor Laloux’s beautiful turn-of-the-century building was originally commissioned by the Orléans railway company to be its terminus in the heart of Paris. In 1986, 47 years after it had closed as a mainline railway station, the building was reopened as the Musée d’Orsay. Much of the original architecture was retained, and the museum was arranged to present fine and decorative arts created between 1848 and 1914. 

The first time I visited the Musée d’Orsay was as a graduate student when I was studying at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London in 1994. I was taking a course with Impressionist scholar John House and Victorianist Caroline Arscott. The professors took our class on a field trip to Paris, and we spent a day at the d’Orsay, discussing the evolution of modern art in France, beginning with Gustave Courbet’s monumental paintings Burial at Ornans (1849–50) and The Artist’s Studio (1854–55). We continued with Edouard Manet’s masterpieces of 1863: Luncheon on the Grass and Olympia, paintings that shocked contemporary Parisians with their candor and inspired the Impressionists. The collection is rich with paintings by Claude Monet; from that trip, I remember discussing the artist’s Women in the Garden (1866), a painting of four different views of the artist’s future wife, Camille, in the dappled light of a spring garden. Monet’s Gare Saint-Lazare (1877), depicting the famous Parisian train station, was particularly thrilling to see in the setting of the Musée d’Orsay, itself a converted train station. 

If I were at the Musée d’Orsay this summer, I would revisit my favorite paintings by the Nabis, such as Pierre Bonnard’s Twilight (1892), a painting of the artist’s family playing croquet in the garden of their country home, Le Clos (The Orchard) in the Dauphiné, a rural region between Lyons and Grenoble, and surely the artist’s coy nod to Monet’s Women in the Garden. Next would be five panels from Édouard Vuillard’s The Public Gardens (1894), the series to which the Cleveland Museum of Art’s painting Under the Trees belongs, and then I would seek out Félix Vallotton’s The Ball (1899), a painting of a little girl chasing a red ball that embodies the enigmatic menacing qualities that made this artist so singular among his contemporaries. 

For admirers of Monet’s paintings, a trip to Paris must include a visit to the Musée de l’Orangerie to see the artist’s Water Lilies, known as the Nymphéas, which fill two ground-floor rooms of the museum. My favorite way to immerse myself in the eight panoramic views of the artist’s water garden at Giverny is to walk around the oval rooms while listening to Claude Debussy’s La Mer or Clair de Lune—with earbuds, of course! While there, don’t miss the collection of Jean Walter and Paul Guillaume’s Impressionist paintings, particularly strong in works by Auguste Renoir and Paul Cézanne. 

To continue your experience of Monet’s paintings, be sure to visit the Musée Marmottan, west of the city center near the Bois de Boulogne, a large public park that was a favorite of the Impressionists. The 19th-century mansion that houses the museum’s collection was owned by art historian Paul Marmottan, and today is home to 65 paintings by Claude Monet bequeathed by the artist’s son, Michel. The collection includes Impression, Sunrise (1872), from which the term Impressionism was derived, as well as Rouen Cathedral, Sunlit Effect at the End of the Day (1892) and numerous Water Lilies. He also gave the museum paintings collected by his father, including works by Monet’s friends and fellow Impressionists Gustave Caillebotte, Berthe Morisot, and Renoir. Morisot’s descendants have also given generously to Marmottan, so this is an essential place to see paintings by the only French woman artist who exhibited consistently with the Impressionists. 

If you have time for a day trip outside of Paris, take a train to Saint-Germain-en-Laye in the Île-de-France region to visit the Musée departmental Maurice Denis. The museum, which showcases the work of Denis as well as that of many of his Nabi friends, is the largest collection of Nabi art in France. In 1910, Denis rented the building and the grounds, which was a hospital dating from the 1700s. He acquired the property in 1914, renamed it the Priory (Le Prieuré) after a neighboring street, and lived there until his death in 1943. 

Back in Paris, to continue your tour of 19th-century French paintings, visit the Petit Palais. The jewel of a building, now home to the Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris, was built for the Universal Exhibition of 1900 to stage a major display of French art. Arranged around a pretty, semicircular courtyard and garden, the building houses paintings by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Eugène Delacroix, and Courbet, as well as landscapes by Barbizon School artists and the Impressionists.

A small museum that many visitors to Paris may have missed is the Musée Gustave Moreau, where one can find paintings and drawings by the Symbolist known for his imaginative works depicting biblical and mythological fantasies. The museum is home to one of Moreau’s most important paintings, Jupiter and Semele (1894–95), an intricate, intense, and startling work in which Jupiter reveals himself in all of his divine splendor to his lover, the mortal Semele, who is overcome by his power and dies in his arms. 

If Symbolism captures your imagination, visit the Panthéon to see the frescoes depicting Sainte Geneviève (1874) by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, the great 19th-century French fresco painter. Denis particularly admired Puvis’s work and praised his painting in the essay “Definition of Neo-Traditionalism.” Upon his first visit to Paris in 1900, Pablo Picasso was captivated by the murals of Sainte Geneviève and copied them. 

The works of the great Symbolist French sculptor Auguste Rodin are on view in the Hôtel Biron, a rococo mansion designed by Jean Aubert and built in 1732; it had been practically abandoned when Rodin discovered it in 1908. He initially rented four ground-floor rooms, then in 1911 took over the whole building. It became a museum in 1919, a year after his death. Eighteen rooms, bathed in natural light, are filled with clay studies, plaster casts, and bronze and marble sculptures that illustrate Rodin’s artistic evolution. Continue your visit in the magnificent seven-acre garden where you will see how Rodin’s bronze sculptures interact with their natural surroundings. 

One cannot return from a trip to the French capital without gifts for family and friends. I always make time to stop at Mariage Frères to buy bags or sachets of fragrant loose tea. My personal favorites are Marco Polo and Earl Grey French Blue. For weeks after a trip to Paris, I relish the memories over a cup of tea. 

This summer, visit Private Lives: Home and Family and the Art of the Nabis, Paris, 1889–1900, where you can travel not only to Paris but back in time to the 1890s to see how four young Nabi artists recorded their experiences of domestic interiors and private life in their paintings, drawings, and prints.