These are the artworks which fill textbooks. Which fill the art museums in Paris. Artworks deemed to define the Western canon. The famous art in Paris France resonates around the world. If you’re visiting the City of Light and looking for the “greatest hits,” start here.
Famous art in Louvre
Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci (1503-1517)
The most famous Louvre artworks, the most famous image in the world. Period. Famous art in Paris France starts here.
There is no good explanation for why this painting is so popular. Its relatively small, particularly when compared to the gargantuan paintings filling the Louvre. It isn’t colorful. Her beguiling smile intrigues, but Leonardo scholars don’t consider this his best painting. The mystery of the sitter and the picture’s theft provide tabloid interest. Still, there’s no accounting for why Mona Lisa is the world’s most famous artwork with nothing else even a close second, it just is.
Expect huge crowds surrounding it on your visit.
Venus de Milo
Next up on the list of famous art in the Louvre is Venus de Milo. Since this is a Greek sculpture and not a Roman sculpture, it would be more accurately titled Aphrodite de Milo, not Venus de Milo, each being their culture’s Goddess of Love.
Whatever the case, that white marble statue of an idealized female nude without arms you’ve seen everywhere, that’s the Venus de Milo.
Liberty Leading the People, Eugéne Delacroix (1830)
The ideal of “liberty,” embodied by the woman brandishing the French flag, inspires her followers to press on in the face of royal resistance. Inspired by events from the July Revolution of 1830, the same year in which this painting was made, it has a “ripped from the headlines” quality. This was still groundbreaking for fine art at the time, painting current events.
The revolution succeeded in establishing a form of government considered more friendly to the middle class than the repressive Bourbon monarchy.
Although, obviously, this exact scene never took place, the allegory is clear and this picture has gone on to stand in as representative of liberty and freedom seeking people worldwide who resist oppression and dictators.
Raft of the Medusa, Théodore Géricault (1818-19)
Unlike Delacroix’s Liberty, Géricault’s ghastly scene actually did take place. Making a long story short, the French naval captain commanding the ship Medusa received his post through royal patronage. He was an incompetent and ran the ship aground.
Fleeing for their lives, the captain secured the ship’s few lifeboats for himself and other high-ranking passengers. The remaining 150 souls scrambled onto the makeshift raft pictured here.
Survivors were reduced to cannibalism.
When news of this abomination reached Paris, it became a huge scandal.
To accurately depict what decaying flesh looked like, Géricault studied cadavers. The painting is enormous – 16-by-23-feet – and was an immediate sensation.
A series of 21 large canvasses completed in 1621 from the hand of Peter Paul Reubens recalling the life story of Marie de’ Medici, Queen of France.
The Coronation of Napoleon, Jacques-Louis David (1807)
Another whopper among the famous Louvre artworks – 33-feet-wide by 20-feet-tall – this one, too, is painted from actual events, specifically the coronation of Napoleon as emperor in 1804. Notice the despondent Pope, seated, the French dictator having not waited for him to hand over the crown, rather taking it himself, rejecting the primacy of the church and humiliating its top official.
David’s Oath of the Horatii (1784) is another example of famous art in Paris France also on view at the Louvre, a list that could go on, and on and on.
Winged Victory of Samothrace
Commonly referred to as “Winged Victory,” the Greek sculpture stands boldly atop the monumental Daru staircase.
Orsay Museum famous paintings
Olympia, Édouard Manet (1863)
The reclining nude in Manet’s Olympia is not only a prostitute, but a real prostitute many of the aristocratic art patrons of the day viewing this painting would have recognized as customers. Talk about shocking!
This artwork spikes one of art history’s most commonly reoccurring themes – the reclining nude – and stands as one of the first unquestionably “modern” paintings.
Olympia, along with Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the Grass) (1863), also a favorite at the Musée d’Orsay were both painted at nearly the same time, outraging conservative critics of the day. The masterpieces were blasted for their “common” subjects – prostitutes and every day people in a world accustomed to seeing nobility in paintings – and rudimentary paint-handling.
Among the famous art in Paris France, consider these the most infamous.
Self-portraits, Vincent Van Gogh
No artist’s face is more recognizable than Van Gogh thanks to his numerous, insightful, searing, vulnerable self-portraits. He painted so many, in part, because he couldn’t afford to pay models. The Orsay has two excellent examples. Van Gogh never smiled in his portraits because his teeth were badly decayed from his tobacco habit.
The Orsay museum famous paintings include many of Van Gogh’s most recognizable: Starry Night Over the Rhone, Dr. Paul Gachet, The church of Auvers-sur-Oise, Vincent’s Bedroom in Arles, among others.
Fourteen year old dancer, Edgar Degas
This is the only one of Degas’ many sculptures he ever wanted shown publicly. All the others you’ve seen filling museums around the world were only produced in volume after his death, a decision made by his heirs.
Petite Danseuse was displayed at the Impressionist exhibition of 1881. Adorned with real hair and a fabric costume, Degas’ “opera rat” was pilloried by art critics of the day as, for lack of a better description: ugly. The girl’s features were too low class.
Many versions of this sculpture exist in museums across Europe and beyond.
Degas’ forlorn Absinthe Drinker is also in the collection.
Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, James Abbott McNeil Whistler (1871)
Everyone’s seen this image – the actual painting or a parody – somewhere, right?
Pierre Auguste Renoir
Two Orsay museum famous paintings from one of the father’s of Impressionism: The Swing and Dance at the Moulin de la Galette. Astonishingly, both resplendent paintings magnificently capturing the effects of life and Parisian leisure of the day were completed in the same year and shown at the same exhibition in 1877.
Burial at Ornans, Gustave Corbet (1849-50)
Art history nerds must pay a visit to this canvas – 20-plus-feet across. Corbet is a precursor to the Impressionists, all of whom credit him in some measure for their innovations.
Courbet’s not-safe-for-work Origin of the World, also at the Orsay, takes a close-up view of the female sex organ. You’ll know it when you see it.
The Spring, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1820-1856)
What did fine art look like before Courbet, Manet and the Impressionists came along? A lot of it looked like Ingres’ idealized, stylized, sexualized, objectified nude figure from The Spring which does not hold up well at all to contemporary perspectives. Glossy, nubile, comely, perfectly – absurdly – proportioned, not a wrinkle or hair on her, Ingres’ figure has no agency whatsoever. She is an object of the male gaze.
Claude Monet and Paul Cézanne
Landscapes, portraits, sailboats, seashores, cathedrals, haystacks, bridges, snow – most of Monet’s iconic imagery can be found among the Orsay museum famous paintings. Same goes for Cézanne with exceptional examples of portraits and bathers and apples and card players.
More famous art around Paris
Monet’s Water Lilies
If you’re looking for Monet’s monumental Water Lilies, you’ll find them at the Musée de l’Orangerie, which, along with the Orsay, is one of the many wonderful Modern art museums in Paris. Gifted to the French state following the end of World War I and painted at his home in Giverny, Monet’s eyesight had nearly failed him by the time he set about painting them.
Their installation at the Orangerie is also Monet’s vision, the galleries there purpose-built to display them and nothing else. They don’t rotate on and off view. They don’t travel for exhibitions. If you want to see Monet’s biggest and best Water Lilies, this is the place.
“The Sistine Chapel of Impressionism,” arguably the greatest “last act” in art history.
One more from Monet and that’s his Impression, Sunrise, the painting which gave name to the movement, on view at the Musée Marmottan Monet.
The Kiss, Auguste Rodin
Just outside the main entrance to l’Orangerie sits one of Rodin’s The Kiss sculptures, its bronze patinaed green, perfect for pictures with the Luxor Obelisk at the Place de la Concorde in the background.
Opéra Garnier ceiling fresco by Marc Chagall
Our final famous art in Paris France entry is Chagall’s joyful, rainbow of a fresco atop the Paris opera house which can be visited without attending a concert.artmuseumParis