5 Incredible Paintings You Have to See in Paris

5 Incredible Paintings You Have to See in Paris

From Monet to Leonardo da Vinci, take in these must-visit artworks on your next visit

The spiritual home of artists from all over the western world, Paris has been synonymous with great art for hundreds of years. For many visitors, the chance to see some of the most iconic paintings ever created is a dream come true. There are more than 130 museums in the city, however, so knowing where to start can be a daunting task. These five artworks, found in the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay and among the most famous paintings in Paris, are a great place to begin your trail of artistic appreciation. Both museums have numerous cafés and quiet corners when you feel the urge to stop and refuel.

Treasures at the Louvre

With over 35,000 paintings, statues and historical artifacts on display, you could spend several years at the Louvre exploring its vast collection (which also includes a further 300,000 items not on display). Among the many treasures are some of the world’s most important and valuable paintings. Here are two to whet your appetite. 

1. The Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci

The Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci

Perhaps the most recognizable painting in the world, the Mona Lisa was painted by the Renaissance artist Leonardo Da Vinci around 1517, and depicts Lisa del Giocondo, the wife of an Italian merchant. It’s also one of the most valuable paintings in the world, worth an incredible $800 million. The painting was acquired by King Francis 1 of France not long after it was painted and has remained in the country ever since.

What Makes it Special?

Da Vinci pioneered several new painting techniques during the creation of this work, the most famous of which is sfumato, eschewing hard outlines in favor of creating shape through clever use of light and shade, built up through many layers of semi-transparent glaze. But what really makes the painting is the subject’s enigmatic smile. Is she trying not to laugh? Or is she thinking of something a little sad? Her eyes look straight at the viewer but do not reveal anything more. It’s this mystery that has kept scholars and art lovers intrigued for 500 years.

2. Death of the Virgin, Caravaggio

Death of the Virgin by Caravaggio

The bad boy of the Italian Renaissance, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was known for his hot temper and ready violence. He lived and worked in Naples until a brawl in which he murdered another man (reputedly over a game of tennis) forced him to flee to Rome. His paintings reflect this darkness of spirit, portraying candlelit, dramatic scenes. Painted in 1606, Death of the Virgin is an enormous work—some 12 feet across—depicting in almost life-size Mary on her deathbed attended by Mary Magdalene and the apostles.

What Makes it Special?

In this painting as with many others of his works, Caravaggio abandoned traditional religious iconography, choosing instead to depict the figure of Mary as a woman like any other instead of a devotional figure. The painting was commissioned by the Santa Maria della Scala church in Rome but was rejected on completion as it was considered too scandalous. The dramatic use of light and shade gives us a window into a private moment, making the viewer into a bystander, and the impact of the painting in real life is awe-inspiring.

Modern Life at the Musée d’Orsay

The world’s most comprehensive collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works, the Musée d’Orsay is a must-visit for art lovers. A walk through the galleries is a chance to go back to the glory days of the Belle Epoque when Paris was a hotbed of artistic creativity with an electric atmosphere. Start your journey with these three works.

Bal du moulin de la Galette by Auguste Renoir

3. Bal du moulin de la Galette, Pierre-Auguste Renoir

One of the best-known and most well-loved Impressionist paintings, Bal du moulin de la Galette was painted in 1876 and shows a sunny Sunday afternoon scene in Montmartre, where many artists and writers lived in 19th-century Paris. It first belonged to the art dealer and friend of the Impressionists Gustave Caillebotte and was taken by the French state as payment for taxes upon Caillebotte’s death. It has stayed in Paris ever since.

What Makes it Special?

Showing a typical working class scene, the painting is a great example of the Impressionist’s love of the everyday. Painted outdoors in natural light, the sunlight dappled across the figures in the work shows Renoir’s desire to convey the mood of the afternoon and not just the scene itself—you can almost hear the music playing in the cafe as you look at the work. The painting is also typical of in the Impressionist movement its depiction of recognizable figures from Paris at the time, including fellow painters Pierre Franc-Lamy and Norbert Goeneutte.

4. Blue Water Lilies, Claude Monet

Blue Water Lilies by Claude Monet

Painted late in life by the great Impressionist Claude Monet (in 1916), Blue Water Lilies is one of many works depicting the garden of Monet’s home in Giverny. From 1910 until his death in 1926, Monet focused entirely on painting his garden, and his pond of water lilies in particular. The initiator of the Impressionist movement, Monet and his contemporaries sought to represent the mood and feel of a place, with scenes often painted out of doors in natural light.

What Makes it Special

With a few loose strokes, Monet is able to convey a sense of depth in the water and the light playing on the surface. It’s the end result of a 60-year career in trying to depict on canvas the complexity of nature as it is seen by the naked eye. Up close, the canvas seems nothing more than haphazard daubings of paint, but, stepping back, visitors cannot fail to be moved by the serenity of the painting which measures 6 feet across.

5. Bedroom in Arles, Vincent van Gogh

Bedroom in Arles by Vincent van Gogh

The third of three paintings on the same subject, this work depicts Van Gogh’s bedroom in the famous “Yellow House”, in Arles, where he lived in 1888-89. One of the most influential painters in history, and one of the most prolific artists of his day, Van Gogh painted over 2,000 artworks in his 10-year career but never sold a single one. The epitome of the tortured artist, he famously cut off part of his ear after an argument with fellow painter Paul Gauguin, before killing himself a few months later in 1890.

What Makes it Special?

Van Gogh started to develop what would become his signature style while living in Arles. He completed around 200 paintings in the year he was there, including all three versions of the Bedroom. The absence of light and shade in the painting, in favor of slabs of bright color with visible brushstrokes, illustrate his new, more daring style. Its simple depiction of the artist’s life reflects Van Gogh’s choice of everyday subjects, a trend that started with the Gustave Courbet and the Impressionist painters that followed.

Where to stay in Paris? See our chic apartments

Images: Header image: JLGutierrez; Artworks via Wikimedia Commons. These are faithful photographic
reproductions of two-dimensional, public domain works of art.
Jenny Cahill-Jones