The title might be hotly contested by New York and London these days, but for hundreds of years, Paris was the undisputed art capital of the Western world. Many great artists lived in Paris over the years – Van Gogh, Picasso, Monet, Dalí and countless others – and much of their work, alongside other masters, can be found in the city’s immense number of museums, galleries, attractions, salons and other spaces. But if you’re feeling a little overwhelmed by where to start, we at Time Out – culture vultures that we are – have rounded up the very best Paris galleries. Voilà!
The best galleries in Paris
The world’s largest museum is also its most visited, with an incredible 8.8 million visitors in 2011. It’s a city within the city: a vast, multi-level maze of galleries, passageways, staircases and escalators. From Etruscan potteries to epic masterpieces by Delacroix to that little-known portrait by Leonardo, ‘The Mona Lisa’, the work on display here is seriously high-calibre. But for goodness sake, don’t try and see it all – pick out a handful of rooms that you like the sound of, and you’ll have a beautiful day at the Louvre.
In 1973, the Musée d’Orsay’s days were numbered: they were planning to demolish Victor Laloux’s 1900 former train station and its giant clocks to erect an ultra modern luxury hotel on the banks of the Seine. Fortunately, its history and importance prevailed and the newly redesigned Musée d'Orsay was unveiled on December 1, 1986. There are rooms dedicated specifically to Courbet and Van Gogh, as there for for art nouveau, a first for the museum. The collections begin where the Louvre’s finish off (around 1848) and continue until where the Centre Pompidou’s begins (around 1914). In other words, sixty years of art history – from realism to the Pont-Aven school, from impressionism to pointillism.
The primary colours, exposed pipes and air ducts make the Centre Pompidou one of the best-known sights in Paris. When the centre opened in 1977, the success of this multi-disciplinary modern art space exceeded all expectations. Entrance to the forum is free (as is the library, which has a separate entrance), but you now have to pay to go up the escalators. The Centre Pompidou holds the largest collection of modern art in Europe, rivalled only in its breadth and quality by MoMA in New York.
Built for the 1900 Exposition Universelle, the Grand Palais was the work of three different architects, each of whom designed a façade. During World War II it accommodated Nazi tanks. After major restoration, the Palais reopened in 2005, and now delivers four ambitious temporary exhibitions each year, along with a programme jam-packed with events.
Founded by Cartier in 1984, this contemporary art museum still plays host to the iconic jeweler's headquarters upstairs. Below is as artfully designed as the firm's glittering pieces: a towering frame of glass and steel that inevitably allows in streams of daylight. Many mixed media exhibitions are installed here, sometimes following certain themes like 'Birds' or 'Desert'. They also put on regular events to coincide with the shows, so check the website to see what's on before you go.
The Rodin museum occupies the hôtel particulier where the world-famous sculptor lived in the final years of his life. ‘The Kiss’, ‘The Cathedral’, ‘The Walking Man’ – they’re all here, alongside pieces by Rodin’s mistress and pupil, Camille Claudel. The walls are hung with paintings by Van Gogh, Monet, Renoir, Carrière and Rodin himself. Most visitors have greatest affection for the gardens: look out for ‘The Burghers of Calais’, ‘The Gates of Hell’, and ‘The Thinker’.
This monumental 1930s building, housing the city's modern art collection, is strong on the cubists, fauves, Sonia and Robert Delaunays, Rouault and École de Paris artists Soutine and van Dongen. The museum was briefly closed in May 2010 after the theft of five masterpieces – the €100-million haul netted paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Modigliani and Léger. Don’t worry though, there’s still plenty more fantastic art on display.
The reopening of this Monet showcase a few years ago means the Orangerie is now firmly back on the tourist radar – which is another way of saying: expect long queues. The look is utilitarian and fuss-free, with the museum's eight tapestry-sized ‘Nymphéas’ (water lilies) paintings housed in two plain oval rooms. They provide a simple backdrop for the astonishing, ethereal romanticism of Monet’s works, painted late in his life. The downstairs collection is a mixed bag of sweet-toothed Cézanne and Renoir portraits, along with works by Modigliani, Rousseau, Matisse, Picasso and Derain.
The national museum of medieval art is best known for the beautiful, allegorical ‘Lady and the Unicorn’ tapestry cycle, but it also has important collections of medieval sculpture and enamels. There’s also a programme of medieval concerts in which troubadours reflect the museum's collection (lots of lutes, lots of harps). The museum’s building, a gothic marvel that dates to the fifteenth century, is reason enough to visit.
Surrounded by trees on the banks of the Seine, this museum, is a vast showcase for non-European cultures, dedicated to the ethnic art of Africa, Oceania, Asia and the Americas. Treasures include a tenth-century anthropomorphic Dogon statue from Mali, Vietnamese costumes, Gabonese masks, Aztec statues, Peruvian feather tunics, and rare frescoes from Ethiopia.