Travel How Belle Epoque Paris gave the world sex and...

How Belle Epoque Paris gave the world sex and the city

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Over the next 40 years, Paris became the most beautiful, dynamic and risqué city on earth. And the Impressionists were there to capture the atmosphere and the excitement. There were tensions, of course. Cézanne’s critique of the male gaze is a reminder of the seamier side of Parisian nightlife. Brothels thrived, the Moulin Rouge and the Folies Bergères flourished. But women also began to win new freedoms, and two of the leading Impressionist artists were Berthe Morisot – who showed nine paintings in the 1874 exhibition – and, slightly later, Mary Cassatt.

What is striking today is how much of that Belle Époque aesthetic still dominates the city – from the Art Nouveau architecture to the Eiffel Tower and the pavement cafés – and how so little has been allowed to intrude upon it over the last 150 years. Only the Tour de Montparnasse and the distant skyscrapers of La Defense cast a few shadows over the human scale of the city.

But that is the surface charm of Paris: to be enjoyed by everyone as they wander its streets, squares and gardens. For me, it is in the paintings – which not only mark the beginnings of modern art, but tell the story of the everyday life of the Belle Époque – that the real fascination lies. And (as long as you avoid the Olympics, which run from July 26 to August 11) there has never been a better time to explore the city’s astonishing artistic heritage. Here is our guide.

Impressionist Paris

Musée d’Orsay

The special anniversary exhibition, Paris 1874: Inventing Impressionism, runs until July 14. But save some time too for the rest of the museum collection. Many of the Impressionist highlights, made after 1874, as well as some earlier works, are in the permanent collection. One of my favourites is Monet’s great winter landscape, The Magpie. The venue itself – Orsay station – is also a Belle Epoque highlight, built for the great Exposition Universelle in 1900. Be sure to book a time slot at the same time you book your trip to Paris – it’s going to be a popular exhibition.

Admission: €16/£13.70 (musee-orsay.fr)

Musée de l’Orangerie

Musée de l'Orangerie is most famous as the permanent home of two series of large Water Lilies murals by Claude Monet

The two series of water lily paintings which Monet made for the Orangerie building in the Tuileries gardens are the culmination of his many studies of his gardens in Giverny. Two elliptical rooms were designed to display the works, and Monet eventually donated them to the French state as a monument to the end of the First World War, though the museum didn’t open until 1927, the year after his death.

Downstairs in the same building is the spectacular collection of Impressionist and later art amassed by the collector Paul Guillaume, which includes more than 20 paintings by Renoir and several Cézannes – including some from his early experiments with Impressionism, as well as works by Modigliani, Matisse and several early Picassos.

Admission: €12.50/£10.70 (musee-orangerie.fr)

Musée Marmottan Monet

'Eugène Manet on the Isle of Wight' by French artist Berthe Morisot

This former hunting lodge, now a grand townhouse, on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne has an extensive selection of works by Berthe Morisot and, downstairs in a special gallery, a seminal collection of paintings by Monet, donated by his son, Michel, in 1966. They include Impression, Soleil Levant(1872) – which gave its name to the movement and is currently in the Musée d’Orsay exhibition – and about 20 of Monet’s late garden and water lily paintings, some examples of his Rouen Cathedral and Palace of Westminster series, and curiosities such as the landscapes from his trips to Norway in 1895, the Dutch tulip fields in 1877 and a fabulous account of steam trains at Gare St Lazare from 1877. There is also an early portrait of him by Renoir of 1873.

Admission: €14/£12 (marmottan.fr)

Le Petit Palais

Entry to the Petit Palais is free to all

The Petit Palais is one of the few museums in the city to offer free admission to all. It’s an arts and crafts museum, also originally built for the 1900 Exposition along with the Grand Palais, opposite. It includes two galleries of significant paintings by Impressionists and their contemporaries, including Cézanne’s Three Bathers, Renoir’s Portrait of Mme Bonnières and Monet’s Setting sun on the Seine at Lavacourt, of 1878.

Admission: free (petitpalais.paris.fr)

Musée de Montmartre

The Renoir Gardens surrounding the Museum of Montmartre are dedicated to Auguste Renoir

Renoir’s former home has a permanent collection of paintings, posters and drawings as well as exhibits explaining the history of what used to be a village on the edge of the city, as well as its connections to the Impressionists and the later artistic community. In 1912, one of Renoir’s favourite models, Suzanne Valadon – who became a painter in her own right – and her son, the artist Maurice Utrillo, moved in and the museum has recreated her studio in the north-facing attic.

Admission €15/£12.80 (museedemontmartre.fr/en/)

Belle Époque Evenings

Opera Garnier

Ballet dancers and scenes of theatre-going life – especially the social tensions between couples in the boxes – were favourite subjects of several Impressionist painters. Nothing beats a visit to the Opera Garnier to recapture the atmosphere, but book tickets well in advance (operadeparis.fr/en).

Maxim’s

Paris’s most atmospheric restaurant is an Art Nouveau extravaganza of deep reds and purples, stained glass, murals of topless nymphs, floral lamps and a cabaret stage. It opened just off the Place de la Concorde in 1893, but the current decor states from 1900 and a coupe of Perrier Jouët quickly sweeps you back into the Belle Epoque. Maxim’s has just been re-opened after restoration and it serves a refreshingly short classic French menu (I recommend the tarte fine with wild mushrooms, followed by Saint-Jacques scallops, served with crushed potatoes in herbs and beurre blanc).

Main courses from €41/£35 (maxims-de-paris.com/en).

Le Train Bleu

Only in Paris would you go to a railway station to eat dinner, but only in Paris do you get such good food and grand surroundings. The padded leather banquettes, great arched windows, glittering chandeliers, gold cornices borne up by stucco cherubs, and ceilings and walls painted with scenes from the Alps and the south of France were unveiled at the Gare de Lyon in 1901.

Three-course menu from €74/£63 (le-train-bleu.com/en).


Essentials

Nick Trend was a guest of Le Meurice (dorchestercollection.com), which has doubles from £1,528 per night including breakfast. The hotel was a favourite among British visitors to Paris in the late 19th century, and the view from the rooms on the rue de Rivoli is very similar to Monet’s prospect of the Tuileries Gardens, which was shown at the third Impressionist exhibition in 1877 and is now at the Marmottan Monet. The hotel offers a two-hour Monet walking tour of other nearby sites where he painted, and includes entry to the Musée de l’Orangerie to see the Waterlilies (€1,070 per person).

Eurostar (eurostar.com) offers returns to Gare du Nord from London St Pancras from £78. Book weeks or months ahead for the best fares, especially as the Olympics approach.

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