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Ten Must See Artworks in Paris and Amazing Stories Behind Them

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Paris has thousands and thousands of incredible artworks in its collections. It’s impossible to see them all during your visit to Paris, no matter how much you love art and how hard you try.

It’s therefore a good idea to prepare a list of paintings and sculptures you’d want to see during your visit ahead of time. You can later head to the museums knowing exactly what you are looking for. Everyone’s list will be different: it will depend on your taste, background and other factors.

Below, I present ten must see artworks in Paris which are displayed in various museums: Versailles, Louvre, Musee d’Orsay and Musee d’Orangerie.

Each one of the masterpieces listed here has an interesting story behind it. I’ve included both paintings and sculptures to ensure that you have a good mix. You’ve probably heard about some of these artworks since your childhood, so you might need to pinch yourself when you see them for real. Indeed, they are real, and they are in Paris waiting for you to look at them and take some photos!

The Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci (1503)

The Mona Lisa painting is one of the most famous art works in the world. It’s on display in Louvre. I’m sure all the experts (and visitors) will agree that this is a must see art work in Paris!

This masterpiece featuring a young lady was painted by Leonardo Da Vinci around 1503. The full name of the painting is Ritratto di Monna Lisa del Giocondo.

This piece of art had always occupied a special place in the heart of its creator, Leonardo Da Vinci, although he created plenty of other masterpieces. Similarly, many people had also been greatly affected by Mona Lisa.

The many admirers of Mona Lisa

History tells that the first French King to own this painting was Francois I who reigned from 1515 till 1547. The king was a big admirer of Renaissance art and Leonardo’s works. After Leonardo’s death in 1519, Francois I purchased The Mona Lisa from his assistant and placed on the wall at his luxurious bathhouse.

As time went by, the painting went from one French king to the next, until French Revolution arrived. In order to prevent destruction and theft, the painting had to temporarily stay in a warehouse. Later, it became part of collection in Louvre so that everyone could admire it. That is, until Napoleon got to it.

After his meteoric rise to the top, Napoleon was greatly enjoying his success. He was free to get whatever he desired. Possessing the incredible Mona Lisa painting was one of the things on his to-do list. He had always greatly admired this artwork. He used to call it “The Sphynx of the Occident.” Once he got the power to do it, he selfishly took it out of Louvre and hung in his private bedroom.

Well, this behavior does not come as a big surprise, given the insecurities Napoleon had. After Napoleon’s reign ended, the Mona Lisa was proudly returned to its museum home for others to enjoy.

Napoleon was not the only one who didn’t want to share. In 1911, an Italian janitor stole the Mona Lisa painting. Eventually the authorities found it and returned to the museum. Since then, several people tried to damage it, but so far, it has survived.

Nowadays, the Mona Lisa sits behind the bullet-proof glass and even has bodyguards keeping it safe. Seems like a good idea.

The value of this painting is incredible. In 1962, it received the insurance valuation of $100 million which is roughly $840 million in today’s money.

If you visit the Louvre, you will encounter the largest crowds right in front of the Mona Lisa portrait. Everyone wants to take a picture of this incredible masterpiece. So, get in line and see if you can snatch a photo as well!

Venus de Milo (2nd century BC)

Another must see artwork in Paris is the Venus de Milo. This is the most famous ancient Greek sculpture in the world!

This incredibly beautiful statue is over 2 meters tall. It is made of Parian marble.

There are a lot of things we know about this masterpiece, but even more things which we don’t.

Who created this statue and when?

Experts consider that the statue was created during the Hellenistic period, sometime around 2nd century BC, but the exact date is uncertain. We also do not know for sure which sculptor created this masterpiece. The consensus is that it was Alexandros from Antioch on Meander, but there is a chance it could be some other author.

How was is discovered?

The sculpture was discovered in Greece on April 8, 1820 by a Greek farmer in the island of Milos. A French sailor with interest in archeology, Olivier Voutier, witnessed the discovery and helped with digging the fragments out. The statue was broken into 3 pieces, and later experts reassembled it. The sculpture’s arm fragments were laying in the same area, but experts made a conclusion that they were unoriginal. So, they did not attach them to the overall structure. Apparently, the amateur archeologists also found a base with an inscription, but again, this was not original.

Is this actually Venus or some other goddess?

Well, as it turns out, the missing arms have created a bit of ambiguity as to which goddess this sculpture actually represents. Usually, one could tell that by what the goddess was holding in her hands. But here we had no original hands to work with.

All in all, experts had two theories. The strongest one is that this is indeed Venus, the Roman goddess of love (Aphrodite is the Greek counterpart). The second theory is that it was Amphitrite, the goddess of the sea. She was a prominent figure in the island of Milos where the statue was discovered. In addition, a Parian marble apple was laying somewhere near the statue, and this apparently was one of Amphitrite’s symbols.

After the discovery, the statue was loaded on a ship and given to the French King Louis XVIII who then donated it to Louvre in 1821. Since then, it has been on display there.

Originally, museum workers intended to restore Venus’ arms, but eventually abandoned this project. The thing is, nobody had any idea of how to position her arms, as there were endless possibilities.

In the end, they decided to just keep the statue the way it was. And she looks absolutely stunning, don’t you think?

Marie Antoinette and Her Children by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1787)

This painting is one of the most emblematic in the Versailles collection as it depicts Marie-Antoinette, the ill-fated queen who was executed during the French Revolution. Although it might not be as famous as the portrait as Mona Lisa or sculpture of Venus de Milo, I still believe it’s a must see art work in Paris. Marie-Antoinette’s name is so closely connected with Paris that it’s impossible to visit this city and not get involved with Marie-Antoinette’s tragedy.

The story behind this painting is quite remarkable. When public trust in Marie-Antoinette declined due to various factors (including the famous Affair of the Diamond necklace), the royal family started looking for a way to improve the Queen’s image. One idea was to paint a portrait of Marie-Antoinette with her children, as a devoted mother and a caring woman. The official portrait was commissioned by King Louis XVII from the French artist Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun.

In order to encourage the public’s sympathy, the portrait included not only the three living children of the royal couple, but also an empty cradle. This cradle belonged to the youngest child, Sophie-Helene-Beatrix, who died shortly before this artwork was completed.

The painting depicts Marie-Antoinette in a red velvet gown, deliberately wearing little jewelry. In the corner of the painting is a jewelry cabinet which hints at the story of Cornelia, an ancient Roman who had said that children were her jewels. The painting was modeled after Rafael’s Holy Family. This masterpiece was exhibited in the Paris Salon, the official art exhibition of the Beaux-Arts in Paris, the same year it was completed. Unfortunately, this painting did not help save the image of Marie-Antoinette, and we all know the sad ending to her life.

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun

The artist who painted this masterpiece, Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, is a famous French portraitist. Her works include about 900 paintings, 660 of which are portraits.

During her career, Élisabeth Louise painted many wealthy aristocrats. Her popularity was not only the result of the superb skill in painting, but also her extraordinary social talents and incredible charm, which all together created a pleasant experience for her clients. In particular, she painted about 20 portraits of Marie-Antoinette in different settings, the sister of Louis XVI, Madame Elizabeth, Countess du Barry (Mistress of Louis XV), Princess de Lamballe and Countess de Polignac (Marie-Antoinette’s friends).

Élisabeth Louise and Marie-Antoinette developed close friendship. The Queen’s assistance was instrumental in enabling Élisabeth Louise to become a member of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. Interestingly, the same year she painted Marie-Antoinette and her Children, Élisabeth Louise also painted the self-portrait with her daughter Julie. Both were displayed at the Paris Salon, and it was the self-portrait which got a lot of recognition.

Élisabeth Louise loved her profession. Her memoirs say that she barely put her brushes down during childbirth and then quickly resumed painting.

It is worth noting that Élisabeth Louise was a devoted royalist. As the French Revolution commenced, she sensed that her life was in danger. This prompted the artist to take her only daughter Julie and leave France disguised as a worker. It turned out a wise decision. She was devastated to hear about the execution of people who were dear to her heart, but at least she and her daughter were in safety. After a long exile in Rome, Vienna, London and Saint-Petersburgh, Élisabeth Louise returned to France in 1800. She passed away at the age of 86.

Madame Rimsky-Korsakov by Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1864)

I’ve always admired paintings by Winterhalter and I absolutely love this one. This might not be the most famous painting in the world, but it’s gorgeous and definitely a must see when you come to Paris.

This is a painting of a Russian aristocrat lady. Who exactly she is, we do not know. While some people believe she is the wife of the famous composer with the same last name (Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov), experts do not have full evidence to substantiate this claim.

Franz Xaver Winterhalter is a famous German painter known for painting portraits of royalty and upper-class society in the XIX century. He has painted many famous women, including Queen Victoria, Empress Eugenie and Princess Leonilla. Some of his most famous works are paintings of Elizabeth “Sissi”, the Empress of Austria.

Winterhalter has been able not only to brilliantly reflect the features of all the people he painted, achieving close resemblance, but also make their portraits somewhat idealized, which obviously appealed to the royalty. The artist paid tremendous attention not only to the face, but also the composition, the outfit and the jewelry.

During his career, Winterhalter served as the court painter by King Louis Philippe of France and Queen Victoria. His works are available for viewing at Musee d’Orsay in Paris, National Portrait Gallery of London and also J. Paul Getty Museum in LA.

Empress Marie Louise and her son Napoleon, King of Rome, by François Gérard (1813)

Marie-Louise was the Austrian archduchess and the second wife of Napoleon.

Although Napoleon was known to be passionately in love with his first wife, Josephine, he was forced to divorce her as she could not have any more children (when Napoleon married her, she was 32 and already had children from the previous marriage). They parted on good terms, and Napoleon started looking for a new wife. He originally wanted to marry the youngest sister of the Tsar Alexander I of Russia. When that did not go through, he began negotiations with the Austrian ambassador about Marie Louise and eventually got a consent.

Importantly, Marie-Louise had grown up despising the French, which was no surprise. Marie-Louise was close to her grandmother, Maria Carolina, who was the sister of Marie-Antoinette, executed during the French Revolution.

Nevertheless, Marie-Louise married Napoleon as she put duty ahead of everything. This was a gentle, shy and devoted woman, very different from Napoleon’s first wife who was very outgoing and had affairs on the side. About one year after the wedding, Marie-Louise gave birth to their son, Napoleon II (Napoléon François Joseph Charles Bonaparte). She was a loving and devoted mother.

Athena of Velletri (1st century AD)

This sculpture in Louvre’s collection is estimated to be created in the 1st century AD. The name Veñletri comes from an Italian town where the sculpture was discovered back in the 18th century. This classical marble statue stands 3 meters high and is a Roman copy of the lost Greek statue by Cresilas- a famous Greek sculptor of the classical period. 

Athena is the Greek goddess of war, wisdom and crafts (like cooking and sewing). She was the daughter of Zeus, often referred to as his favorite child. Although Athena is a goddess of war, she did not support conflict; she believed that people should only fight as the last resort and exclusively for a noble or a just cause.

Arearea by Paul Gauguin (1892)

By now, we have looked at a number of classical works and it’s time to look at the must see paintings of a different art movement.

In front of you is one of the most famous paintings of French impressionism, Arearea, which is on display in Musee d’Orsay. It was inspired by Gauguin’s first trip to Tahiti.

The author mixes reality with imagination to display the beauty of idyllic Polynesia. At the forefront, two women are seated in the center. Experts believe that the painter observed this scene in reality. In the back, an invented scene shows women worshipping a statue.

Arearea was first shown to the public at the exhibition in Paris in November 1893. Although Gauguin hoped for great success, the reaction to the first exhibition was cold. People did not like the titles in Tahitian and even made sarcastic remarks about the red dog. I must say, I also have trouble writing and pronouncing a difficult word like Arearea. However, by no means does this impact my appreciation of the painting. And I definitely like the dog. In any event, Gauguin considered this painting one of his best and disregarded the criticism.

Good example to follow for current writers and artists. Today, millions of art enthusiasts from all over the world admire this painting.

Winged Victory of Samothrace (220 and 185 BC)

This famous Greek sculpture can be seen on display in Louvre. It is a very large statue (5.57 m high), made of white Paros marble. The Winged Victory depicts the Greek goddess Nike landing on the prow of the ship with her wings open, announcing the victory in a hard-fought battle.

Nike is the Greek goddess of victory in any field, not just war – music, art, athletics etc. She is often described in literature in close connection with the gods Zeus and Athena.

Charles Champoiseau, an amateur archeologist, discovered this statue in 1873 on the small island of Samothrace which at that time was part of the Ottoman Empire. The statue was broken in 118 pieces (reportedly, this was the practice among the Greek sculptors to assemble after finishing all of the parts). Unfortunately, the arms and the legs of the sculpture have not yet been found. Champoiseau got a permission to transport the statue to France and it arrived in Paris in 1874.

As one would expect, the exact date of the creation of this masterpiece is unknown. However, experts believe that the sculpture was created sometime during the Hellenic period (between 220 and 185 BC). There were several theories on the author of this masterpiece. The consensus today is that this sculpture was ordered by the residents of Rhodes island from the famous sculptor Pythokritos to commemorate a large naval victory.

The Water Lillies by Claude Monet

Green Reflections (1914-1926) at the Musee d’Orangerie

The paintings of water lilies (“Nympheas” in French) by the French impressionist Claude Monet are displayed in prominent museums all over the globe, including Musee d’Orsay and Musee d’Orangerie in Paris, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, and others. Some are also held in private collections.

During his career, the artist created 250 paintings of water lilies based on the flowers in his own garden. He painted them primarily during his last thirty years of life, after moving away from Paris to a small village of Giverny. This village is located 50 miles away from Paris, in the region of Normandy. As Monet declared, he was “good for nothing except gardening and painting.

The paintings of water lilies have become forever connected with the name of Claude Monet, similar to the way Van Gogh’s name is connected with sunflowers. Monet would paint the same scene many times during different conditions and time of the day. Importantly, many of water lilies paintings were created while Monet was suffering from cataracts (decrease in vision). The full list of paintings with the dates and museum where they are displayed can be found here.

The values of these paintings are extremely high (although not as high as Mona Lisa, of course). In May 2014, one of the water lilies paintings, Le Basin de Nympheas, was auctioned in NYC for $27 million. In June 2014, another painting was sold for $54 million at a Sotheby’s auction in London.

Luncheon on the Grass by Edouard Manet (1863)

Luncheon on the Grass (“Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe”) by the French painter Edouard Manet caused a lot of controversy. Looking at the painting, this does not seem surprising, of course. The picture shows a nude lady is having lunch with clothed men in a rural setting. What a scandal! During Manet’s time, nudity was acceptable for mythological and historical subjects, but definitely not for depicting the everyday life.

This provocative composition made Luncheon on the Grass a widely known work of impressionist art. From the first glance at this painting, you have a lot of questions. Who is the woman? What was the artist trying to show by this unusual composition? Are the characters in the painting related? But the painter does not answer any of these. He just leaves you in front of his work guessing.

Well, throughout his career, Manet had been pushing boundaries. He had been known for refusing to conform to standards and challenging social norms. He also tended to use loose brushstrokes and a bold color palette. Manet’s approach inspired a lot of admiration of his works from some and sharp criticism from others.

With The Luncheon on the Grass, Manet aimed to portray real people with real lives. He wanted art to shift away from idealized and historical subjects to the realities of modern life, with its everyday scenes and problems. This painting was inspired by the works of Titian and Giorgione which displayed nude figures in a natural setting. It was rejected by the Salon of Exhibitions in Paris and instead displayed at the Salon Des Refuses (“Exhibition of Rejects”). The Luncheon on the Grass paved the way for new approaches and re-considering what was acceptable in the modern art.

In Conclusion

The museums of Paris are full of masterpieces of all kinds. Whether you look left or right, you will find incredible artwork pleasing your eye. We are very lucky to be able to see these jewels in real life.

As a child, I greatly enjoyed painting and I had an incredible teacher who taught me about art. Together, we’d look at pictures of famous paintings in the books of art we had. I tried to copy some of them to learn the technique. We lived in the Soviet Union back then, and traveling to Europe to see these paintings for real was out of the question. Eventually, things changed, but my art teacher passed away and never got a chance to see the paintings we studied. I feel so fortunate to do able to do it myself.

I hope you enjoyed the stories of the must see artworks in Paris and will look for these in the museums during your next visit to the City of Light.

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11 thoughts on “Ten Must See Artworks in Paris and Amazing Stories Behind Them”

  1. Ohhh I could just stare at Monet’s water lilies all day 😍 But I love this list of alternative artwork to seek out while in Paris – there’s definitely more too it than just the Mona Lisa! I’ll be looking out for Arearea on my next visit. Makes me want to visit Tahiti too!

    1. I hear you! This time, I was there in March and hoped that lines would be at least a little bit shorter. Well, this didn’t happen, of course:-) And the crowds inside, in front of the best paintings, are just insane.

  2. You’ve curated a great list. I love learning about the history behind famous paintings and I was able to see the Mona Lisa during my trip to Paris. I was simply in awe at the Louvre and Musee d’Orsay.

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