Artists' Paris

The Académie Française, the Théâtre de l’Odéon, the Beaux-Arts, the Musée d’Orsay... A walk through Artists' Paris

Welcome to the Left Bank, the Babylon of beautiful things, where browsing through the pages of a fashion magazine or an art revue is an art in itself. This elegant world is sprinkled with chic and shock fashion designers, art galleries, antique galleries, literary cafés, and publishing houses with a whole string of prizes.
Not surprising when you consider what the muses have given it – the Académie Française, the Théâtre de l’Odéon, the Beaux-Arts, the Musée d’Orsay, not to mention, Montparnasse which, during The Roaring Twenties, was a Mecca for artists from all over the world, before drawing them to Saint-Germain.
So much to see! Everywhere, art spills over the threshold of museum-workshops and boutiques. There is the Centaure by César at the Carrefour de la Croix-Rouge, 17th-century wroughtiron balconies in rue de Buci and rue Saint-André-des-Arts, the Fontaine des Quatre Parties du monde, on avenue de l’Observatoire. And if the urban scene sets your head spinning, then go for greenery in the Luxembourg gardens, the parks of Montsouris, Georges-Brassens and the Jardin Atlantique.

1 Musée d’Orsay

Musée d'Orsay, Paris © OTCP - David Lefranc

Plans to demolish it in 1970 were overturned just in time and the Orsay train station became a listed building. Its immense volumes were transformed into a museum whose canopy, nave, cupolas, pillars, iron girders and stucco decors draw unanimous praise. The huge clock in the glass roof of the central alley dominates a chronological layout over three main levels, focussing on the major artistic movements in Western art from 1848 to 1914: painting, sculpture, graphic arts and art objects, as well as furniture, architecture and photography. The period was so productive, the collections so rich in wonderful works (and in –isms: expressionism, fauvism, etc.) that it seems impossible to cite one unique masterpiece.

2 Notre Dame de la Médaille Miraculeuse

In 1830, the Virgin ordered Catherine Labouré, a novice at the Couvent des Filles-de-la-Charitéde- Saint-Vincent-de-Paul, to have a medal minted that would protect its bearers. The first miracles were indicated two years later when cholera ravaged Paris. The medal’s favours spread across the world, Catherine was canonized and pilgrims flocked to the chapel. This pilgrimage site is exclusively reserved for prayer: silence, no photo and dress code.

3 Eglise Saint-Sulpice

Eglise Saint Sulpice, Paris © Thinkstock

This church is as big and as magnificent as a cathedral. The work which started in the 17th century on the original 13th-century building and continued over 135 years has left treasures from each period: a choir decorated with statues by Bouchardon, a Virgin and Child and two stoups in the shape of shells sculpted by Pigalle, the Chapelle des Saints-Anges whose frescoes occupied (or exhausted?) Delacroix during the last 10 years of his life. Every year, many visitors come to admire the treasures of this church – a marvellous concentration of history.

4 Saint Germain des Prés

Eglise Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris © OTCP - Amélie Dupont

The area is bound by the Seine, the Luxembourg gardens, the boulevard Saint-Michel and rue des Saints-Pères. Its name comes from the church, the first stones of which date from 557, and the oldest still visible remains from around the year 1000: an islet of eternity surrounded by the waves of flighty fashion! From the 1920s, the frenzied literary and art cliques gravitated towards the cafés of Saint-Germain. During the Liberation, existentialism took off, led by Camus and Sartre, while basement jazz shook the foundations with Sidney Bechet on the clarinet and the writer Boris Vian on the trumpet. This era is legendary but Saint-Germain remains an oasis of ancient streets full of wonderful places for art, books and the latest must-have little items .

5 Musée Eugène-Delacroix

Eugène Delacroix, La liberté guidant le peuple © Thinkstock

Follow in Delacroix’s footsteps and cross the tiny picturesque place Fürstenberg open the door of this “decidedly charming” home, in the painter’s words. The portrait of Jenny Le Guillou, the faithful governess, is displayed beside the Madeleine dans le désert, which Baudelaire marvelled at. From the lounge to the workshop opening onto the garden, there are other paintings, travel albums and school books … covered with sketches and caricatures.

6 Ecole nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts

Ecole nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris © ENSBA - Jacques Pépion

Only the select few study at the Beaux-Arts, but guided tours are available on reservation. Visit the 19th century at the Loges, Palais des Études, etc. and the Hôtel de Chimay for a spectrum of the 17th and 18th centuries. After whetting your appetite, visit the Chapelle des Louanges. Its replicas of works by Michelangelo are housed beneath the oldest dome in Paris, in the remains of the Couvent des Petits-Augustins, built at the beginning of the 17th century for Queen Margot.

7 Institut de France

Institut de France, Paris © Thinkstock

The Académie Française, founded by Richelieu in 1635, rather overshadows the smaller Académies – Belles-Lettres, Sciences, Beaux-Arts, Architecture, Sciences Morales and Politiques, as well as the Mazarine library.

8 Musée de la Monnaie

Paris, Musée de la Monnaie © OTCP - Amélie Dupont

In this opulent 18th-century mansion, 2,000 coins, 450 medals and tokens as well as tools, archives, paintings, engravings, stained-glass windows and sculptures recount the history of France since the Renaissance.

9 Odéon

Odéon - Théâtre de l'Europe - Théâtre de l'Odéon, façade, Paris © Thierry Depagne

People in a hurry or just strolling by, traffic, cafe lights, historic facades, sinuous lines of people queuing in front of cinemas … That is what the Odéon district looks like at almost any time of day. A lively place full of cultural attractions right in the heart of historic Paris!

10 Musée Curie – Institut du radium

Institut du radium, Musée Curie - Paris © OTCP - DR

It was in this Institute of Radium that Marie Curie, her daughter and son-in-law, Irène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie, carried out their research after the death of Pierre Curie in 1906. The laboratory, now a museum, retraces an episode in the history of the sciences inextricably linked to this family with five Nobel prizes.

11 Jardin du Luxembourg

Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris © Thinkstock

Children love the Luxembourg gardens for their wooden horses, their model yachts to push along with a cane on the ornamental pond, for their refreshment kiosks, puppet theatre, ponies, etc. Others too, appreciate the setting: artists with their easels, chess players, daydreamers, students with their notepads or computers … The wrought-iron chairs are perfect for a delightful nap below the Dames de France which form a circle of statues. What would Marie de Médicis think of the success of the palace and garden commissioned by her? At the time, the widow of Henri IV had sought to recapture a little of her native Florence. The Fontaine Médicis with all its niches and nymphs is all that remains of the Italianate grotto that she had built in 1630. The palace has become the seat for the Sénat (the upper house of the French parliament). It oversees the running of the garden and the museum, which stages exhibitions on modern art and the Renaissance, of course, in memory of the Florentine queen.

12 Musée Zadkine

Musée Zadkine

Ossip Zadkine lived and worked in this houseworkshop from 1928 to his death in 1967. The works exhibited, taken from a collection of more than 400 sculptures, retrace his artistic career … and juxtapose modern day works of guest artists, thus returning the workshop back to its original function. Artists at work!

13 Tour Montparnasse

Montparnasse district, Paris © Thinkstock

Its 59 floors of steel and smoked glass provoked cries of indignation when it was constructed in 1973. Since then, the tower has become a familiar landmark, visible from all over Paris. Hundreds of windows light up the night and from its 210-metre summit, the view is breathtaking in its extent … though not stretching quite as far as the sea, from where the trains arrive.

14 Jardin Atlantique

Jardin Atlantique, Paris © OTCP - David Lefranc

To keep to the high ground and take in the wide open spaces, the Montparnasse “traveller” can climb up to the Jardin Atlantique – a garden on top of the train station. Yes, a roof garden! An amazing feat with an undulating wave-like floor surface, evergreen pines, the bassin des Miroitements, a fountain from the island of Hesperides, tennis courts and fantastic ocean-inspired kids play areas.

15 Musée Bourdelle

Musée Bourdelle, Paris © OTCP - Marc Bertrand

At the beginning of the 20th century, artists’ studios filled Montparnasse. Today, that of Émile-Antoine Bourdelle numbers 500 sculpted works in marble, plaster and bronze, along with canvases and watercolours. The Centaure mourant stands in the great hall. The exhibition continues in the studios and then in rooms, where the alchemy of the work is striking against the white walls. It continues in a winter garden of ivy and acacias where, declared the sculptor, 'spring laughs, summer burns and time dreams'.

16 Mémorial de la Libération de Paris – Musée Jean Moulin

Memorial Leclerc, Paris © DR

Focus on the action of two emblematic figures of WWII: one a leader of the free French units, the other a French resistance leader. A wall of images from audiovisual archives plunges the visitor into “occupied Paris”, “insurgent Paris”, and finally “liberated Paris”

17 Cimetière du Montparnasse

Cimetière Montparnasse, Paris © OTCP - Daniel Thierry

Baudelaire is buried not far from his monument with its genie du mal leaning forwards surrounded by “little poems in prose” left by admirers. Since 1824, the cemetery in the south of Paris has been a green campo santo of artists and men and women of letters: Bartholdi, César, Duras, Ionesco, Maupassant, Sartre and Beauvoir, Zadkine. Gainsbourg, the Lilas ticket-puncher, collects metro tickets (in reference to the song he wrote). Brancusi placed a cubist Kiss and Niki de Saint Phalle a cat in mosaic to brighten the grave of a friend. But those who enjoy something really original will find it at the grave of Monsieur and Madame Charles Pigeon!

18 Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain

Fondation Cartier pour l'art contemporain, Paris © OTCP - Marc Bertrand

Under the auspices of a Cedar of Lebanon planted by Chateaubriand in the 19th century, the glass arch with its reflections and transparency envisaged by Jean Nouvel has, since 1994, revived the artistic tradition of the area. The Theatrum Botanicum lies behind a glass screen, which extends the perspective of boulevard Raspail. This wildlooking garden surrounds the building, whose entrance is adorned with a wall of plants. Inside, a light, airy space of steel and glass provides the perfect showcase for contemporary creation in all its forms..

19 Observatoire de Paris

Observatoire de Paris, Paris

'Your majesty’s glory depends on it', scientists assured Louis XIV when they pleaded for an astronomical observatory. Eight years later, in 1672, the building was completed according to the plans of architect Claude Perrault, brother of the story writer. There are guided visits of the Moon, the phases of Venus and some Sunspots by appointment and even during the night on certain dates.

20 Place Denfert-Rochereau and Catacombes

Les Catacombes, Paris © Thinkstock

At the intersection of a constellation of avenues, the bronze lion by Bartholdi faces West so as not to offend the Prussian enemy, defeated at Belfort in 1870. Around the perimeter stand the two unpopular tax pavilions that punctuated the wall encircling Paris until the 19th century. Denfert is also the entrance to the “Land of the Dead” or catacombs – the underground tunnels used as the ossuary of the cemetery of the Innocents in 1785. A wall of skulls and a rotunda of tibias isn’t for sensitive souls, so you might prefer to get away to the area in and around rue Daguerre with its attractive small shops and eateries.

21 Parc Montsouris

Parc Montsouris © OTCP - Marc Bertrand

Like the Buttes-Chaumont, this landscaped garden of the Second Empire takes its inspiration from the parks of London. The grotto, artificial mounds and valleys are so convincing that even the crested tit and the serin are duped. On the island, they nest close to turtles from Florida, male mallard ducks and their female companions. Around the lake, there are rolling lawns, play areas, a ginkgo biloba and 1,399 other trees, and even a weather station.

22 Parc Georges-Brassens

Parc Georges Brassens, Paris © OTCP - Amélie Dupont

A brief tram ride will take you from the Cité Universitaire to Georges-Brassens park for further bucolic adventures amongst the beehives, “Pinot Noir” grapes, and honeysuckle and jasmine in the scented garden; playful adventures too with table tennis, merry-go-round, ponies and climbing; intellectual adventures can be found at the book market, each weekend, under the covered Halle aux Chevaux of the former Vaugirard abattoir.