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An Art Historian’s Guide to France

When it comes to art tourism, France is often the number-one travel destination, though most people don’t know about all the great art there is to find.

Musée des beaux-arts de Lyon
Photo by Wikimedia

Millions of people flock to the Louvre every year, but about 80% of those visitors come solely to see the Mona Lisa. While da Vinci’s work is great, France is home to dozens of museums full of diverse and inspiring art.

When touring art in France, the Louvre is a must, but there is so much more to see in the Louvre’s nearly two dozen galleries than just the Mona Lisa. In the Northern European gallery, you can find so many hidden gems, including works by Rembrandt van Rijn.

Rembrandt is known for his introspective portraits that capture the subject’s personality, and his Self Portrait at the Easel highlights his self-confidence. The piece, mostly obscured in darkness, illuminates Rembrandt’s face in a circle of light, drawing the viewer to his piercing gaze. As he stands confidently at his easel, staring directly at the viewer, Rembrandt asserts himself as a well-respected painter with a place among the greatest artists of all time.

Another destination you won’t want to skip is the Rodin Museum. Auguste Rodin was the father of modern sculpture, and this museum features over a hundred of Rodin’s masterpieces. You can stroll through the sculpture garden, taking in all of Rodin’s intricate, emotional works without feeling rushed or crowded.

You’ve probably heard of The Thinker, but one of my favorite Rodin pieces is The Burghers of Calais. Adopting the impressionists’ candid style, Rodin captures a fleeting moment when each of these six individuals expresses their own despair as they face their impending death. These men—the leaders of the town of Calais—are preparing to sacrifice themselves so the townspeople will be spared.

While Rodin is known for his intensely realistic depictions of human form, what is most impressive and innovative about this work is the placement of each of the figures. Rather than placing these men in a cohesive group, Rodin separates them to focus on each man, heightening the emotional weight of the moment. Some look forward, calmly resigned to their fate, while others range in emotions from somber to frantic terror.

You could spend an entire afternoon admiring the intricate details of this one piece, but there is even more to explore.

You will absolutely want to make the trip down to Lyon to visit the Museum of Fine Arts. Despite featuring works by many of the world’s greatest and most well-known artists, this museum doesn’t get too many visitors, making it the perfect destination if you want to see some great art without having to deal with massive crowds.

The Museum of Fine Arts features works from the great Renaissance painter Paolo Veronese, the Cubist king Pablo Picasso, and everything in between. This museum is a great showcase to take you through the history of Western art, allowing you to get a taste of many different styles.

Now, there are dozens of museums to explore in France alone, and I have just grazed the surface. But as you plan your next trip, I encourage you to venture off the beaten path and find the artistic treasures hidden all over France.