A monumental, bare-breasted woman leads the charge across the barricades. In her left hand she carries a rifle with fixed bayonet. In her right she holds aloft the tricolor: the blue, white and red flag of France. On her head is the Phrygian cap of liberty as she exhorts the insurgents.
The 1830 painting is stirring in its militant portrayal of the July Revolution. It is one of the many treasures of the Louvre. But the Louvre, the biggest and best museum in the world, has many other masterpieces of painting, sculpture and antiquity.
One is Vermeer’s “The Lacemaker” (1670). The painting, just nine inches square, is luminous. The woman, her yellow blouse shining, is concentrating intently on her work. No less an authority than Renoir called it one of the best pictures in the world.
A 17th century artist “starring” with six works in the Louvre is Georges de la Tour, one of my favorites. I like the way he uses the light of candles and torches to illuminate the darkness of his canvases.
Anyone enamored of the Impressionists must visit the d’Orsay museum. Two paintings there are quintessential Impressionism: Monet’s “The Station at St. Lazare,” filled with gray-white steam, and his picture of the London houses of Parliament, a reddish sun piercing the dense fog of London.
Particular delights: the Manet portrait of fellow artist, Berthe Morisot; the Degas “Ballet Dancers Rehearsing on Stage”; Monet’s “Magpie” perched on a stile in a snowscape; the colorful Van Goghs; works by Caillebotte, the best “unknown” artist of the era; and the Toulouse-Lautrec showing two young lovers sleeping in bed, a beautific expression on the young man’s face.
The Rodin museum houses some of the world’s great sculptures including “The Thinker.” The museum has wonderful grounds and gardens which my wife, Mary Foxton, savored.
Rodin’s “The Burghers of Calais” gives me the chill that comes from confronting the works of a genius. Some of the sculpted men are stoic, others anguished as they face death. The veins, ropes and keys seem to be alive.
“The Kiss,” Rodin’s homage to women, shows a man kneeling before a woman, gently kissing her abdomen. It is modeled on Paolo and Francesca, the lovers in canto No. 5 of Dante’s “Inferno” who “read no more that day.”
The Chagall ceiling in the opera house is hardly the equal of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo. But it is a joyous, colorful work, splashed with red, green, yellow, blue and pink. An angel plays a cello, a corps de ballet rehearses, animals prance. Throughout are such Paris landmarks as the Eiffel Tower and the Arch of Triumph.
The Orangerie museum is disappointing — until you see the Monet water lilies. Calm. Peaceful. Relaxing. Balm for this frenetic, driven workaholic. I liked best the panels showing branches dangling near the water.
At the Cluny Museum of the Middle Ages religious symbols abound. Stained glass. Wooden statues from the 13th century of Christian “heroes.”
The tapestries are impressive, one showing the wine harvest: picking, stomping grapes in a barrel and pressing them. “The Lady and the Unicorn” tapestry is remarkable for its beauty, its bright colors sparkling.
But amid the welter of art in Paris are disappointments: the Pompidou museum of modern art and the Picasso and Dali museums.
The Pompidou houses much Klee, Léger, Gris, Gorky, Arp, Miro, Braque and Picasso. But all leave me cold. Will no one shout: “This may be art but it is not good art”?
At the Picasso museum an engraving, “The Frugal Meal” (1904), impresses with two emaciated figures. But most of the Picasso works exhibited are rife with colors, lots of lines, bizarre heads, breasts out of position and unrecognizable body parts. All cubistic — and all junky. But, hey, a squiggle by the great Picasso is worth $10,000.
Perhaps modern art can be summed up by a painting in the Pompidou by British artist Francis Bacon, “Female Nude Standing in Doorway” (1972). The woman is misshapen, grotesque. Nevertheless, paintings by Bacon paintings are worth millions, proving there is no accounting for tastes.
Dali? He was a showman, a con artist. But his talent was immense. A bronze sculpture at the Dali museum pleases: a melted watch and a teardrop stemming from his signature painting, “The Persistence of Memory” (1977).
Very little in life is perfect but the Paris art banquet comes close.
Jake Highton teaches journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno.