Everyone’s heard of Paris’ biggest cultural hub; the Louvre. It’s usually at the top of every travel to-do list. Seeing the Mona Lisa has nearly transformed into a requirement for first-time visitors. The pressure to see art’s biggest hits in a truly massive museum can border on overwhelming, and honestly, it’s something I advise against (if you have some time to work with). Scaling down your Parisian art extravaganza is an essential step to truly enjoying what you’re looking at. Luckily, the City of Light is home to a plethora of small art museums, with most being forgotten by first-time visitors. Below is a list of some of my favorites, each taking no more than half an afternoon to see in their entirety.
Musée de Montmartre
As its name suggests, this charming museum is situated in Montmartre (Paris’ 18th arrondissement), directly behind the neighborhood’s iconic Sacré-Cœur Basilica. Until the museum’s founding in 1960, Montmartre’s oldest building was home to a number of artists over the years, including Auguste Renoir, Raoul Dufy, and Suzanne Valadon, among others. The permanent collection features art, posters, and studio reconstructions that tell the tale of the city’s most rebellious neighborhood. The Renoir Gardens surrounding the museum give excellent views of Sacré-Cœur, as well as the only working vineyard within the Paris city limits. Information on temporary exhibitions can be found on the museum’s website. If you’re visiting during late fall or winter, I recommend timing the end of your visit with the sunset. The views from Suzanne Valadon’s preserved artist studio are breathtaking as the sky changes colors. This was a discovery I made during my first visit in winter 2016. In fact, the feeling of being in a museum almost completely fades away.
Located in Paris’ 8th arrondissement, the Musée Jacquemart-André is housed in a beautifully preserved 19th century mansion. In addition to showcasing the art collection of previous owner Edouard André and his wife Nélie Jacquemart, an artist in her own right, the museum also allows visitors to get a glimpse into lives of upper crust Parisians from the time period. Private apartments and ceremonial rooms are all on display in tribute to the opulent lives of the mansion’s previous occupants. The breadth of the collection includes paintings, frescos, religious artifacts, and antique furniture. Nélie Jacquemart was especially devoted to the collection of Italian Renaissance art, as the entire first floor of the house is dedicated to this era. While the architecture of building alone has me returning time and again, the museum puts on regular temporary exhibitions several times per year. Details can be found on the website. However, that never stops me from lingering in the winter garden. It’s my favorite place in the entire museum with its glass greenhouse-style roof that floods the area with sunlight. I also recommend paying for the audio guide. There’s a lot of content to take in, and the recorded explanations keep your visit on track.
Like the Musée de Montmartre, the Musée Bourdelle is especially intriguing for its preserved artist studio. The former home and workspace of sculptor Antoine Bourdelle, the museum was founded in 1949 to honor his legacy. Bourdelle was a colleague of Rodin (who I’ll be talking about later), and tutor of Giacometti. Like Rodin, his work simultaneously pulled from what were the classic and modern themes of the early 20th century. Bourdelle is also famous for creating the decor of the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. Outside the preserved studio, a gallery of the artist’s works tower over visitors. It’s absolutely impressive in its magnitude. The studio is also an excellent photo-op. I have a habit of deleting and revamping my Instagram gallery constantly, but this photo has been a mainstay since I first visited in 2016. It perfectly showcases the intimacy I adore in such small museums.
Musée National Gustave Moreau
Situated in the 9th arrondissement, the Musée National Gustave Moreau is yet another example of a studio museum. The former apartment of the symbolist painter plays host to over 1,300 paintings and 5,000 drawings. On the first floor of the museum, visitors can view reconstructions of Moreau’s living quarters, featuring antique furniture and a collection of family heirlooms. On the second and third floors, two studios serve as galleries for the artist’s larger scale works. Moreau’s nearly ghostly style of painting is heavily infused with symbolism from famous myths. In addition to the paintings on display is an impressive spiral staircase that connects the second and third floors. As an archtecture nerd, waiting for a photo-op was definitely worth it.
Created in 1916 as wished by the artist, the Musée Rodin is perhaps Paris’ most well-known small museum. Located in a rococo style mansion near Les Invalides, this institution showcases a majority of Rodin’s work in his former home and surrounding gardens. The collection includes 6,500 sculptures in various mediums, over 10,000 drawings, as well as the artist’s own collection of photographs, paintings, sculptures, and ancient artifacts. Although the gardens are the largest draw, being home to famous sculptures like The Thinker and The Gates of Hell, my favorite pieces live inside the house. My absolute favorite is The Kiss. While I’m not someone who often photographs art, late afternoon in the Musée Rodin can lead to some excellent photo-ops. I got so caught up in taking pictures inside during one visit, that I didn’t even get out to the garden before the museum closed. For the best viewing experience, I again recommend getting an audio guide. With so much traffic and content in a relatively small space, knowing the most important details of Rodin’s legacy is a must.