How to Experience Paris Like an Artist

July 25, 2019

The City of Lights has captivated artists for centuries. Yet despite its modern trappings, at its core the area remains largely unchanged from the days of Degas, Monet and their fellow Impressionists. See for yourself with a tour through the paintings and locations that personify Paris’s artistic inspiration.

Paris’s beauty is universally understood. The city, its monuments, its people and its celebrations have been inspirational to artists over the centuries, and that spirit shines through in their work. Particularly with the Impressionists, who burst onto the scene in the 19th century and sought to capture the essence of their subject with loose, vibrant brushwork painted with urgency en plein air. Their works changed the portrayal of Paris from a classical still life to one of vitality, energy, landscapes and people—all captured in the moment. Through these paintings, many have fallen in love with Paris before even stepping foot in France. And while the city is ever-evolving, we can still see the very places that captured the imagination of these famous painters and, with the right eyes, the beauty and romance that inspired them.

View of the Grand Gallery of the Louvre by Hubert Robert, 1796 
Location Depicted: Grand Gallery, the Louvre Museum
Painting Location: History of the Louvre section of the museum

Long before Louis XIV moved his court to Versailles, the Palais du Louvre was essentially abandoned by the royal family for the more comfortable Palais des Tuileries built by Catherine di Medici. In the late 18th century, in the years leading up to the French Revolution, artists had already installed themselves into the Louvre, both to live and to work, sketching and painting the great works of art collected by the French monarchs over the previous centuries. By 1778 Louis XVI’s official “Guardian of the King’s Paintings,” Hubert Robert, was designated as the first curator of what would become the Louvre Museum. A celebrated landscape painter, he was nicknamed Robert des Ruines because of his fondness for painting picturesque ruins, both real and imagined. His pure Classical style gained him entrance into the prestigious French Royal Académie in 1766, and his works were shown at the annual Salons. 

Robert was also recognized for his ability to conceptualize landscapes, and his paintings guided the renovations of the gardens at Versailles. He also often painted the Louvre, where he lived from 1778 until 1802, and completed several idealized visions of what the Grand Gallery might look like once transformed from a long, empty corridor that connected the Louvre to the Tuileries into a museum gallery. His paintings later guided the architects’ renovations, including major details such as expanding the skylights and replacing the palace windows with nooks for statues. This 1801–1805 painting depicts great works of art such as Raphael’s Holy Family and Titian’s Entombment. The seated painter shown at bottom right is the artist himself. Today you can see eight of Robert’s paintings in the History of the Louvre section of the museum. And without a doubt you will still see young art students and amateur artists from all over the world with their sketchbooks and easels, capturing the beauty of the Grand Gallery.

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The Opera Orchestra by Edgar Degas, 1870 
Location Depicted: Salle Le Peletier Opera House 
Painting Location: Musée d’Orsay 

The Opéra de Paris was an important centerpiece in civic planner Georges-Eugene Haussmann’s urban transformations during Napoléon III’s Second Empire. In the second half of the 19th century, theaters were the place for the affluent class to see and be seen, bourgeoisie and aristocrats alike. And unlike the bawdy playhouses around République or Pigalle, the theaters and opera houses along the western Grands Boulevards were “respectable” places for artists to paint. Edgar Degas was not only a painter; he and his family were also seasonticket holders of the Opéra de Paris. This allowed Degas the opportunity to create many of his most famous paintings. 

In L’orchestre de l’Opéra he places the musicians front and center: Desire Dihau, a friend of the Degas family, is on bassoon in the most prominent position, with Achille Gouffé on double bass to the right and composer Emmanuel Chabrier in the box. The dancers, barely sketched in, are cut off in the background, their bright tutus glowing in the stage lights. This off-center composition, depiction of movement, and attention to color and light would soon make Degas one of the stars of the Impressionist movement; however, he often vehemently rejected the label, never adopted the “Impressionist paint fleck” style and mocked the idea of painting en pleine air. 

A great admirer of classic masters such as Ingres and Delacroix, Degas had been successful at the Salons early in his career, but soon became disenchanted with them and participated in every Impressionist exhibition from 1874 through 1881. This painting, along with many others featuring Degas’ dancers, can be seen in the Musée d’Orsay. 

Opera fans today can experience views of the stage from behind the orchestra at the Palais Garnier, although this isn’t the actual theater Degas painted. In 1870 the Opéra de Paris was still performing at the Salle Le Peletier, a theater at 12 rue Le Peletier (the approximate location of the Drouot Auction House) that burned down in 1873, just two years before the Opéra de Paris’s new home in the Palais Garnier finally opened after delays caused by the Franco-Prussian War. Historic photos and early drawings are usually displayed in the Bibliothèque de l’Opéra, the temporary exhibit space open to the general public on self-guided visits of the Palais Garnier. 

View of the Tuileries Gardens by Claude Monet, 1876 
Location Depicted: 
Tuileries Gardens
Painting Location: Musee Marmottan-Monet

It’s hard to exaggerate how scandalous it once was for a painter to work outside, en plein air. It just wasn’t done. Or rather, it couldn’t be done if an artist adhered to the stringent style of painting defined by the Société des Artistes Français. Sketches could be done outside, but the careful, meticulous brushwork of classical paintings could take weeks to complete back in the artist’s studio. But when oil paints became available in tubes in the mid1800s—thus eliminating the risk of them drying out—artists began venturing into the great outdoors, easels and palettes in hand. Monet learned about painting en plein air from the landscape artist Eugène Boudin, who taught Monet how to capture his first impression of the landscape—to capture the essence of the moment. This required the artist to work very quickly, which produced visible brush strokes that became one of the hallmarks of Impressionism. Monet was won over by the vibrancy, immediacy and dynamism this technique produced in his paintings, which he could never replicate in studio paintings. This panoramic painting captures the elegant, manicured gardens designed by André Le Notre for the Tuileries Palace, Catherine de Medici’s 16thcentury mansion that was burned down during the 1871 Paris Commune. Today, Les Tuileries is a large public park stretching from the Louvre Museum to the Place de la Concorde, with two cafes, several play areas for children and a collection of classical sculptures alongside contemporary artworks. Monet painted this vista from an apartment balcony on the Rue de Rivoli that belonged to Victor Chocquet, one of the painter’s earliest supporters. Although a minor customs officer in the Ministry of Finance, Chocquet devoted a substantial portion of his limited resources to acquiring an impressive collection of Impressionist paintings. He went so far as to stand in front of the works at exhibitions and explain the artist’s vision to passersby. Les Tuileries can be seen today at the Musée MarmottanMonet; although fans of Monet’s famous water lily series, Les Nymphéas, can see them in the Musée de l’Orangerie, located in the Tuileries Gardens. 

Ball at the Moulin De La Galette by Auguste Renoir, 1876 
Location Depicted: Montmartre 
Painting Location: Musée d’Orsay

Van Gogh, Picasso, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Pissarro … many Impressionists were eager to capture the spirit of Montmartre’s most popular 19th-century guinguette, an open-air dance hall that served wine and food in a former 17th-century flour mill. But Renoir’s painting of the Bal du Moulin de la Galette was one of his greatest masterpieces, a successful portrayal of the popular culture of the time captured in all its ambience and joyfulness. Presented at the Third Impressionists Exhibition in 1877, the painting captured the public’s attention not just because of its use of typically Impressionist techniques—capturing light and shade without using black, prominent brushstrokes—but because of the sheer size of the work. Measuring 51¾ by 69½ inches, it was an ambitious painting and rare in its magnitude for an Impressionist work, given the spontaneous nature of its creation. But while it has a spontaneous feel to it, most of the figures are friends or informal models asked to pose, so Renoir’s painting is more accurately a carefully arranged set of portraits. One of the friends gathered around the central table is Georges Rivière, a writer whose description of Bal du Moulin de la Galette in the Exhibition program described the painting as a “page of history, a precious and strictly accurate portrayal of Parisian life.” 

The majority of Paris’s artist community relocated to the more affordable Montparnasse district on the Left Bank in the early 20th century, but artists can still be found hawking their wares at Montmartre’s Place du Tertre and its surrounding galleries. The original Moulin de la Galette, located at the intersection of Rue Lepic and Rue Tholoze, eventually closed to the public, but its two windmills are protected historic monuments. You can see the 17th-century Moulin Blute-Fin still standing at the top of the hill. The Moulin Radet was moved in 1924 to the corner of Rue Giradon, where today it stands guard over a new restaurant that calls itself the Moulin de la Galette. 

Paris Street, Rainy Day by Gustav Caillebottle, 1877  
Location Depicted: Place de Dublin
Painting Location: Currently part of the traveling exhibition “Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity.”

newly reconstructed Paris of the 1870s was a cosmopolitan city of tree-lined boulevards, elegant theaters, monumental churches and modern train stations. Nowhere else in Paris is this Second Empire vision more evident than the area stretching from the Palais Garnier at the Place de l’Opéra to the Place de Clichy, encompassing the Grands Boulevards and its Grands Magasins, and the Gare St-Lazare, which was particularly adored by the Impressionists. Monet rented a small studio nearby and presented a dozen canvases paying tribute to the train station in the 1877 Impressionist Exhibition, the same year that Gustave Caillebotte presented his memorable painting of the neighboring Place de Dublin, Paris Street, Rainy Day. Caillebotte was a relative newcomer at age 29, but an inheritance gave him considerable wealth and resources; and although artists like Pissarro, Monet, Renoir, Sisley and Degas ran the show, Caillebotte bankrolled almost every Impressionist Exhibition. 

Caillebotte was more interested in collecting than selling (unlike his financially strapped colleagues), and never gained the same fame, but when he died he left the State an incredible number of Impressionist works, which formed the foundation for the Musée d’Orsay’s collections. Ironically, the Institut de France tried to refuse Caillebotte’s donation of the paintings, which had been roundly rejected by the Salons, particularly those by Cézanne. So a large chunk of the collection was sold to Dr. Albert Barnes and later became part of the world-renowned Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. It wasn’t until the Chicago Art Institute acquired and displayed Paris Street, Rainy Day in the 1970s that Caillebotte became famous to a wider audience.

More than just a portrayal of urban life in late 19th-century Paris, the painting also reflects Caillebotte’s fascination with the new art of photography. The focus and cropping are meant to make it look spontaneous, like a photo, but it’s obviously a carefully planned composition. The painting makes the streets wider and the buildings larger than they really are at the Place de Dublin, and like Renoir’s painting it was done on a monumental canvas (83½ by 108¾ inches), which together convey the feelings of the pedestrians in this anonymous cityscape. 

The Seine with the Pont De La Grande Jatte by Vincent Van Gogh, 1887 
Location Depicted: Ile de la Jatte 
Painting Location: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

In 1860 Paris achieved its current geographic size with the annexation of the once bucolic suburbs, which were soon populated by new arrivals who came to work in the factories that sprang up during the Industrial Revolution. But the ease of train travel and the working class’ growing affluence also meant that it was possible to escape to the countryside for a day of fresh air. It was only natural the artists would follow. One of the favorite—and accessible—getaways of the Neo-impressonist painters was the Ile de la Jatte, a small island on the Seine known for its guinguettes. One of the bestknown pieces from this period is Georges Seurat’s Pointillist painting Sunday Afternoon on the Ile de la Grande-Jatte. Vincent van Gogh spent the summer of 1887 with family nearby, painting many of the bridges and riverbanks along the Seine, including the Courbevoie Bridge from the Ile de La Jatte. He was still experimenting stylistically, and both Impressionist and Pointillist techniques can be seen here in the long brushstrokes and smaller, almost dot-like points of paint. The bridge itself was replaced in 1965, but the Ile de la Jatte is still a leafy little escape from the city. From the Pont de Levallois metro station, visitors can walk to the Ile de la Jatte and enjoy a scenic walk along the Parcours des Impressionists, a trail around the island featuring reproductions of famous artworks produced here.

L'Oiseau Blanc Restaurant Rooftop Day

The Wine Shop (Le Bistro) by Edward Hopper, 1909 
Location Depicted: Quai Voltaire
Painting Location: Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City

Although Edward Hopper is most remembered for his stark depictions of New England’s semi-deserted cityscapes and landscapes, this 20th-century American painter was forever influenced by his time in France. In the early 1900s, Paris was still the benchmark of success, and many artists came from around the world to study, show their works or simply create. Hopper visited Paris in 1906, after graduating from the New York Institute of Art and Design, and again in 1909 and 1910. Perhaps because he was shy and didn’t speak the language, he spent much of his time painting alone. Many experts believe the feeling of alienation he felt as an American Protestant in the exalted City of Lights helped him develop his signature style. This painting of a view over the Pont Royal from the Left Bank’s Quai Voltaire clearly shows Impressionist techniques with the attention to light and the unusual framing. But only Hopper could transform this bustling street scene into an empty landscape almost devoid of people, an aesthetic also seen in his paintings of the Louvre, Notre Dame Cathedral and several other locales. Art lovers visiting Paris won’t want to miss the Quai Voltaire, strategically located between the famous Ecole des BeauxArts and the Musée d’Orsay. At #3 is Sennelier, where artists have been purchasing their paints and pastels since 1887. On any given Thursday, there’s at least one vernissage, or exhibition preview, in the prestigious art galleries located between the Quai Voltaire and the Boulevard St-Germain.

L’arc De Triomphe by Edouard Cortes, 1940s 
Location Depicted: Place Charles de Gaulle, Etoile
Painting Location: Private collection

The son of a Spanish court painter, Edouard Cortes was one of the most prolific Paris street-scene painters of the first half of the 20th century. After studying at the Ecole des Beaux-Art, he was accepted by the Société des Artistes Français to show his painting Paris Streets at Night at the 1902 Salon. He participated in every Salon after that until his retirement. His paintings were almost always Paris street scenes, often the same exact views of the boulevards, public squares or grand monuments like the Arc de Triomphe shown during different times of the day, in changing weather and in all four seasons. His canvases embraced the City of Lights, with glittering shop windows, streetlights and headlights reflected in the rain-slicked streets. Even in the dead of winter he managed to capture the warmth and energy of the city, with its never-ending flurry of activity. We also see the passage of time in Cortes’s paintings—which he produced over a course of nearly five decades— as horse carriages and trams change into cars and buses, gas lamps into neon, and women’s fashions evolve from hourglass dresses to smart Chanel suits. This particular portrayal of the Arc de Triomphe captures the monument from Avenue Friedland, as the sun sets a brilliant golden color behind the autumn trees. We see a 1940s car and a municipal streetcar matching the green bus shelters and Colonne Morris advertising pillars. Despite the popularity of Cortes’s paintings (reportedly copied more often than even Renoir or Monet), you won’t find them in any museum, but in countless private collections and galleries.