“When you want to get away from all the stuff outside, the noise and the mess, you go inside a museum and let your mind take you away,” said Deana as she and I spoke about the two days of museums our travel group had just enjoyed.
The first museum of our two-day art experience was the Louvre, a massive museum of 652,300 square feet originally built as a fortress during the reign of Philippe Auguste (1180–1223). The Louvre is no longer home to a military arsenal but instead is brimming with thousands of works of art from ancient civilizations to the 21st century. A walk through one of the three museum wings (Denon, Richelieu, and Sully) are like walking through history itself. Patterned Islamic art, richly coloured Spanish paintings, graceful Italian sculptures, handmade pieces from Africa and Asia: the Louvre has it all.
After entering the Louvre from under the infamous glittering glass pyramid, most of our group began making our way to see a couple of the highlights of the place. Dr. William Fell led us first to the Winged Victory of Samothrace, also called the Nike of Samothrace. Resting atop a pedestal at the top of a huge staircase, the Winged Victory held her marble wings above the heads of the crowd below, captivating everyone’s attention, despite being without a head.
From there, we strolled through some of the Renaissance works before reaching what many call the most famous piece of art yet to exist: the Mona Lisa. Dr. Fell warned us beforehand that the line to see the famous work by da Vinci could be a several hour wait, but only a small crowd was gathered and allowed us to view her fairly easily (although I did later get elbowed away by a very energetic woman yielding a selfie-stick). However, being able to study this acclaimed painting was a quite singularly moving moment for many of us.
Luis Barba, one of our travelers, later remarked upon the Mona Lisa and said, “Like everybody else, I loved seeing Mona Lisa. And the Venus De Milo. But Mona, ah, no, she had something special. Yes, there was something there.”
From there, we all went separate ways, such as we did at the Palace of Versailles. For like Versailles, the seemingly endless rooms hold not hours but days worth of viewing and exploring. I made my way to the vast Egyptian exhibits, an area of art I’ve always loved studying. Many of the plaques explaining the artifacts were in French, a language I’m only passable in, but this actually let me immerse myself in the exhibit in a new way. Typically when I visit museums, I read the captions and then study the coinciding art. Now I looked a little more deeply, and found myself more attatched to the pieces. There was something very freeing about not knowing as much about the work as simply appreciating the piece of the past which was in front of me.
That being said, some of our travelers preferred the museum we went to the next day: the Musee d’Orsay.
“I’m not really into that type of art [at the Louvre],” traveler Margaret Burns said later. “I like the more, well, gentle art.”
Originally built as a railway station (Gare d’Orsay) between 1898 and 1900, the Musee d’Orsay is home to the largest collection of impressionist and post-impressionist artwork in the world. Artwork by Degas, Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh, Seurat, and many other painters who created those gentle, flowing paintings are found in this museum.
The top-level offers two main attractions: first, an unbeatable view of the open air sculpture gallery down below and at the architecture of the old railway station, and second, the impressionist gallery.
Impressionism was a 19th century artistic movement when a group of artists, including Pissarro and Monet, began exhibiting this new style of art at the studio of journalist Felix Nadar. This new style was these artists rebellion of sorts against the art standards established by the Academie des Beaux-Arts, the art academy which was considered to be the topmost authority on French artwork. In impressionism, artists tried capturing their first impression of a scene or person with loose brushstrokes and brighter colors. These paintings were more about the moment and less about the subject.
Walking through the gallery, we studied these scenes of everyday moments: friends gathered on the river, a woman holding onto her umbrella on a hill, they were all woven together with a careless beauty, and a emphasis on light which transported the viewer into that moment. These were the artisits perceptions and not painted ideals of what this moment should, according to academy rules, look like.
The Musee d’Orsay captured our attentions, and for some, the museum means even more than just seeing the art. I had an encounter here with a traveler which really opened my eyes to the purpose a place like the Orsay must have held.
At one point in the impressionist gallery, I was looking at a Degas painting when I was approached by fellow traveler, Jerome Byrd. He proceeded to show me a picture of a painting he had taken on his phone: it was warm-toned scene of a mirror-like lake, surrounded by autumnal trees and a deer by the water.
“I must have missed this one,” I remarked, and turned around to search the hanging paintings. It was a marvelous piece and I was surprised that I had passed it over.
“Oh, this is one of mine, it’s not here,” Jerome replied, and then showed me another snapshot he had taken of one of his paintings.
“You did that?” I asked. In all that we had seen so far on this trip, nothing had yet surprised me. Until this point, I really hadn’t thought much about how everyone else on this trip must be affected by these things we were seeing. For me, this was a chance to explore a city I had always wanted to visit. But what did it mean to others?
“Yeah, I love art,” Jerome answered. “My wife is going to have to drag me out of here today,” he laughed.
From there, Jerome continued viewing the gallery, taking in each painting with obvious delight. Jerome and his wife, Karen, came on this trip as community members, and the moment when he shared his artwork really exposed to me the fact that this trip is something speical to everyone, and in different ways. There are 32 people here, taking in 32 distinct views, and they will leave with 32 diverse memories. Where I saw a beautiful Monet, maybe Jerome saw inspiration for his next painting. All these experiences we are having here are leading to something I don’t think anyone is fully aware of yet.
Museums truly are something special, and between the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay, everyone on the trip found something they enjoyed and could remember. While walking through the Louvre, I overheard a comment by a young man gazing upwards at a painting. As he grinned, he turned to his friend and said, “Well, the world has gone to hell, but as least we still have museums.”