9 secret masterpieces to see in Paris museums
Join the scrum to peer at the most famous pieces in the city's museums, or seek out some of the many fine works which the crowds pass by without a second glance
So you're in Paris, and you want to eyeball the greatest artworks in town. Easy enough, in theory. The city is crawling with masterpieces. But in practice, you have two big problems. Firstly, the big museums of Paris are full of shoddy art. The Louvre is the worst: its gargantuan bulk is stuffed with queasy Rococo kitsch, teeming Dutch masters of mediocrity, Trumpian stockpiles of gold-encrusted Ancien Régime tchotchkes. For every Mona Lisa, there are 300 Minor Lisas.
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Your second problem is that you can't actually see the famous masterpieces to be seen in Paris. Because when you finally get to the hallowed room in question, after a half-day hike through a labyrinth of dross, you will glimpse just the top half of the painting, looming above a grumpy flock of smartphone-waving sheep.
If you are a short person, you won't even see the top half - unless you force your way through the ruck of bodies like some sort of artsy loose forward. Assuming you have the appetite for such intimate contact, you will then be forced to contemplate the picture from a distance of 4cm, while 50 fellow-pilgrims scrutinise your bald patch or your bra strap. And at such an intimate remove from a Van Gogh, you can almost smell the residual bouquet of the artist's gingery armpits, but you can't see what the hell he wanted you to see.
The solution, dear art hounds, is to plan carefully - and seek out the many amazing works in Paris, some by relatively obscure artists, that the crowds walk past without a second glance. You can savour each of them at your leisure, from up close and from afar, with no competition for their attention. So you'll also get some value for your €12 ticket.
These are a few of the secret masterpieces of Paris. There are dozens more, of course, but this is a start.
1. THE FLOOR SCRAPERS
by Gustave Caillebotte (1875)
When it was first shown, this painting (pictured above) managed to enrage both sides of the Belle Époque's culture wars. The reactionary academicists of the Salon thought its loving rendition of crude urban labour was, like, totally gauche. Meanwhile, over in the radical trenches, Émile Zola whined that its technical discipline made it bourgeois, "because of the exactitude of the copying".
Caillebotte just shrugged and primed another canvas. He had plenty of family money, with no need to kowtow to the market, so he was better known as a patron of fellow Impressionists than a painter. But he could paint like a dream. Unlike the more acclaimed Impressionists, he stayed loyal to the unfashionable rigours of precise tonal modelling and balanced (though always inventive) composition.
In The Floor Scrapers, Caillebotte gives us a roomful of pleasures, not least the textural tango between matte and shiny wood, the echoed curlicues of scrapings and wrought-iron, and the scrawny sexiness of the scrapers' arms, the static blast of daylight that floods the scene.
2. PORTRAIT OF MADAME DE LOYNES
by Amaury-Duval (1862)
Amaury-Duval was no match for the Manets and Courbets of his day; a docile student of Ingres, he specialised in stilted, neo-classical cheese. But somehow he got everything right with this raunchily Gothic portrait of Madame de Loynes.
She was born Marie-Anne Detourbay, the daughter of a proletarian Rennes family whose brilliance and glamour took her to the heights of the Second Empire literati. Gustave Flaubert had a huge crush on her, raving about her "panther-like graces and devilish wit".
After posing for this painting, Detourbay married the Comte de Loynes, who then conveniently absconded and vanished in America - allowing her to keep his title and reign in semi-widowed solitude over her own salon and a parade of lovers, whose ranks apparently included Prince Napoléon.
You can feel Amaury-Duval's gaze duelling with, and losing to, the disdainful stare of his subject. But he holds his own on the canvas, which is a feat of contrast and chromatic restraint.
3. AREAREA (JOYOUSNESS)
by Paul Gauguin (1892)
Welcome to peak Gauguin. Not content to escape the chilly drudgery of Paris, leaving his wife and children behind to paint in Tahiti, Gauguin needed to escape even further - by filtering the Tahiti that he found through the gorgeous kaleidoscope of his compulsively cryptic imagination. So he makes a giant stone totem in the background, where none existed in his setting, since the European missionaries had largely converted the Tahitians to Christianity and banished their gods.
When he exhibited Arearea in Paris a couple of years later, it pissed off the critics. They found the red dog in the foreground ugly and pointless. They didn't appreciate the apparent mismatch between the title and the subdued atmosphere. It was all a bit baffling. Mystery, of course, was his game: if anyone had ever fully understood a Gauguin painting, he would have been horrified.
MUSÉE DE CLUNY
4. A PROPHET
This fragment was found during excavations at the church of Saint-Martin des Champs in 1998. The fire-damaged figure stands just 32cm tall. But its power is towering.
Do not ask this Old Testament doomsayer any sceptical questions about his foretellings. He will not say: "That's a really great question." He will not dignify you with a response. Better to just cool your boots and bow before him. Respect the chiselled, concentric shock-waves that mark out his moustache, his eyelids, the drapery of his robe, his mighty jug ears. If you're feeling spiritually tough, you could make some intimate eye contact.
That thousand-year stare is rendered with a raw, geometric economy straight from the playbook of the greatest precolonial African and Mesoamerican sculptors - and, by extension, the playbook of Picasso, their foremost modern student. Centuries before the Renaissance rebooted the naturalism of classical statuary in Europe, a ferocious expressionism lurked in the cloisters of France.
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5. THE RED ROCK
by Paul Cézanne (1895)
You can groove to some of Cézanne's greatest hits in Paris - Montagne St-Victoire (1890) and The Card Players (1890-95) are both at the Musée d'Orsay. But this obscure landscape is just as catchy.
At one level, The Red Rock offers a convincing optical record of its subject: a path bending through trees in blurry, pulsating Provence heat, with a rock ledge jutting into the foreground.
But it's also making a leap towards abstraction. Cézanne's brush strokes are braver and more jagged, and his colours less naturalistic than ever before. Figuration is slipping away in the heat: the rock is no longer mainly a rock. It's mainly a sprawl of umber paint. Under Cezanne's gaze, the picture is mutinying against the scene it is ostensibly representing.
The seeds of Cubism are stirring in The Red Rock. It's a pity that Cézanne died just before Pablo Picasso and George Braque's revolutionary movement a decade later - one he did so much to foment.
MUSÉE DU LOUVRE
6. WOMEN OF ALGIERS IN THEIR APARTMENT
by Eugène Delacroix (1834)
Like almost every French painter in the 1830s, Delacroix was obsessed with the Arab world, or at least with a European fantasy of the Arab world. But unlike almost every French painter, Delacroix actually got off his backside and did some legwork to corroborate his daydreams about souks and sultanas. He sailed to Algeria, where he tried and failed to enter a harem, and settled instead for an invitation to sketch a merchant's wife and daughters, with a black servant woman in attendance.
Compared to Ingres' preposterous soft-porn fantasy, The Turkish Bath, which is also in the Louvre, this painting feels like reportage. These are real women, you sense, wearing real clothes in a real city, and one of them is skewering the artist with a very real female gaze. It's one that seems to say: "Watch your step, pervy Frenchman."
Even so, the painting has launched a thousand critical ships against Delacroix's well-researched brand of Orientalism. Whether or not you trust or enjoy sharing his libidinously attentive gaze, it's hard to look away.
7. YORUBA TERRACOTTA HEAD, IFE
(Artist unknown, 12th-14th century)
Seeing ancient treasures of Greek, African, Mesoamerican and Asian art, brought here via the imperialist domination of their legitimate inheritors, is an unsettling part of any Louvre visit. These treasures really shouldn't be here - but they are here, so we look at them. And this courtier's serene presence somehow seems to transcend his state of exile.
This and a trove of other copper and terracotta heads were found by the German ethnologist Leo Frobenius in November 1910. He exhumed them at the foot of a tree in the sacred grove of Iwinrin, in the Yoruba city of Ife, Nigeria.
The closely observed naturalism of the works immediately gave Frobenius a stupid idea: that the ancient Greeks or some other Mediterranean civilisation must have set up an office in West Africa and inculcated such "classical" rigour.
Aside from the racism of his assumption, Frobenius also failed to notice that isolated flowerings of naturalistic portraiture have appeared and reappeared all over the world for millennia - in Egypt, then China, then Greece, then Rome, then the Maya civilisation, then West Africa, then Renaissance Italy.
These passing epochs of masterful observation can seem mysterious, inexplicable. But they are often sparked by the cold cash of patronage, and end when the patronage ends. Whenever and wherever rulers paid good money to sculptors and art schools, they reaped a harvest of good likenesses.
8. PORTRAIT OF THE JOURNALIST SYLVIA VON HARDEN
by Otto Dix (1926)
Dix's unkind portrait - the literary columnist Von Harden was in reality a willowy knockout with regal cheekbones - has become a cartoonish emblem of Weimar Berlin.
Decades later, the self-deprecating Von Harden recounted the moment that Dix met her on the street and begged to paint her.
"I simply must! You are representative of an entire epoch!" said Dix.
She replied: "So, you want to paint my lacklustre eyes, my ornate ears, my long nose, my thin lips; you want to paint my long hands, my short legs, my big feet - things which can only scare people off and delight no-one?"
Said Dix: "You have brilliantly characterised yourself, and all that will lead to a portrait representative of an epoch concerned not with the outward beauty of a woman but rather with her psychological condition."
One look at a contemporary photo of his model will tell you that Dix captured neither the outer nor the inner Von Harden. Instead he captured some of his own psychological condition - not least a palpable anxiety about liberated, androgynous femininity - and the louchely sardonic spirit of his time and place.
9. SKY BLUE
by Wassily Kandinsky (1940)
When he painted this four years before his death, the godfather of abstraction was quietly returning to familiar, zoological forms. He was obsessed with the correlations between music and painting, and if Sky Blue was a tune, it would be performed by the Duke Ellington orchestra; a squadron of groovy microbes and crustaceans bopping in formation above us.
It's a painting that seems to be making an effort for the viewer, with its decorative, rhythmic composition and cheerful colour scheme. There are other, earlier Kandinsky pictures at the Pompidou that are supposedly more important, such as On White II. But if you're after a good time, this is the one.