Romantic Paris: Art’s New Rendezvous

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A photograph of Oscar Wilde by Napoleon Sarony

A photograph of Oscar Wilde by Napoleon Sarony.

It cost 8 million euros, took two years and rearranged a landmark. But the Musée d’Orsay‘s makeover has produced one of the most romantic Paris destinations. Its art collection—one of the world’s finest, with Impressionist classics like Van Gogh’s bedroom and Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass—is a tourist favorite. But the former train station, for all its grandeur, was always more a showplace than a real home for its treasures.

A new renovated gallery at the Musée d'Orsay

Courtesy Musée d'Orsay.

Its long-awaited transformation means four new galleries in the Amont Pavilion, once the station’s engine house. The huge Impressionist gallery is totally redesigned, as are more than half the galleries on lower levels. The renovation was down to boss Guy Cogéval, who decreed the old white walls had to go. The giant main floor remains as it was—but everything else has become a different place. Onetime blanc and beige are replaced by dove grays, fern greens, lilacs and indigo and the staircase of the new pavilion is scarlet.

The new colors of the Musée d'Orsay.

Courtesy Musée d'Orsay/Sophie Boegly.

Why such radical changes? Cogéval wanted a better showcase for the art (he compares the white walls, with their matching floors, to “a psychiatric ward”). But he was also driven by the romantic Paris light. It inspired a scheme to replicate natural rays with state-of-the-art diodes and halogens. This, with the new colors and wood-covered floors, delivers real warmth. You feel almost alone with Degas’s dancers or Cézanne’s cardplayers.

The renovation also puts Parisian elegance everywhere. There’s a new fifth-floor café by the Brazilian design stars (and brothers) Fernando and Humberto Campana. It is a lively, lyrical tribute to Emile Gallé, a prominent figure of French Art Nouveau. Guards in the redesigned galleries have designer chairs—and Marcel Wanders chandeliers light the upstairs bookshop. Visitors even get their own stunning “Waterfall” benches, all commissioned from glass artist Tokujin Yoshioka.

The Musée d'Orsay's new café

Courtesy Musée d'Orsay/Sophie Boegly.

The current exhibition is also a wonderful treat, one imported from London, where it was a blockbuster. There, it was called “The Cult of Beauty”; here, it is “Beauty, Morals and Voluptuousness in the England of Oscar Wilde.” A mouthful, maybe, but it’s a luscious, seductive show. It tells the story of the Belle Epoque’s Aesthetic movement, which was inspired by the French motto L’art pour l’art (in English, “Art for art’s sake”). This was the era of dandies, big-haired women in rustling robes, homes filled with vases of lilies and peacock feathers.

A portrait at the renovated Musée d'Orsay

Musée d'Orsay/Victoria and Albert Museum.

It was also the first moment a passion for home decor swept Europe. Suddenly, the graceful lines of Art Nouveau were everywhere, as people sipped their tea from Japanese china and chuckled at Oscar Wilde’s wit. This show features fashion, textiles, art and furniture. All reveal how English artists worshipped a romantic Paris, the city where Wilde chose to spend his final days.

Because the new galleries showcase decorative art, “Beauty, Morals and Voluptuousness” makes a perfect preview. At the new d’Orsay, you are up close and personal with the most romantic art—so it’s the perfect day to spend with someone special. Start with the Wilde exhibit (just left of the entrance), break for a relaxed lunch and then spend your afternoon with art.

A newly renovated gallery at the Musée d'Orsay

Courtesy Musée d'Orsay.

Just one warning: don’t even think about buying tickets at the door; queues here are notorious. Book online and, for the clearest view, aim to start your visit in the morning. Then, before going, get a virtual taste of the renovation.

TIP
After learning about the world of Oscar Wilde, check out the place where he breathed his last. Then the seedy Hôtel d’Alsace, it’s now become the boutique destination L’Hôtel. Enjoy a cocktail in his former haunt. He is so popular with Parisians they just named a library after him—and they carefully guard his grave in Père Lachaise.

TIP
The Musée d’Orsay is famous for its eclectic musical concerts, held in the evenings and at lunchtime (12:30 p.m., when pride of place is given to younger artists).

Related Links

Musée d’Orsay

Tokujin Yoshioka

“Beauty, Morals and Voluptuousness in the England of Oscar Wilde”

A virtual taste of the renovation

L’Hôtel

Bibliothèque Oscar Wilde

Père Lachaise Cemetery

Musical concerts

Editor’s note: Have you downloaded our new iPhone app tours yet? This makes the perfect e-stocking stuffer for your friends and family members who love Paris.

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