Art (un)-appreciation 101

The only pieces of art I studied in school were the doodles I drew in the margins of my textbooks.  I knew who Michelangelo, Da Vinci and Vermeer were, of course–thank you, historical fiction–but I’d have been hard  pressed to identify any of their work.

That all changed this week in Paris.  After cluelessly fumbling through the Orsay Museum without a notebook, camera or lunch, I returned exhausted to my hostel in Montemartre determined to do a better job with the next museum–the famous Louvre.

I spent that afternoon sipping on tea and researching not only the art in the museum but the best way to tackle it all.  The Louvre, after all, has over 380,000 objects and 35,000 pieces of art on display, everything from Egyptian figurines the size of my pinky fingernail to paintings that take up an entire room.

As Richard Halliburton wrote, “It is a waste of eyes to ride in Paris”, so on Monday morning I forewent the metro and walked the couple kilometers to the museum.  Paris is an amazing city, there’s no denying it.  With the surfeit of fine architecture and centuries-old buildings there’s an opportunity for art appreciation on nearly every street corner.


Sacre Coeur Basilica glimpsed in passing.

I arrived at the Carousel entrance to the Louvre fifteen minutes before opening and had the opportunity to take a picture with the glass pyramid, complete with an accidental Asian tourist photobomb.  Too classic to retake.

The underside of the famous glass pyramid at the Louvre (the photobomb is a bonus).

The underside of the famous glass pyramid at the Louvre (the photobomb is a bonus).

Once the gates opened I was swept through with the mad rush of rabid art enthusiasts bucketlisters that storm the Louvre every day.  I headed straight for the iconic Mona Lisa, hoping for a moment of peace in which to view it.

The delicate Mona Lisa safely concealed behind bullet-proof glass and a wall of tourists.

The delicate Mona Lisa safely concealed behind bullet-proof glass and a wall of tourists.

Ha, right.  Everyone had the same idea, and peace was nowhere to be found.  My only advice for the Louvre–get to a side entrance early, and go to any wing of the museum other than the one housing the Mona Lisa That room will always be a madhouse, so take your only opportunity to see any other piece of art in solitude.

The next few hours were far more enjoyable.  Unlike the Orsay Museum, the Louvre provides educational materials in a dozen languages for almost every exhibit hall.  These materials changed the “Venus de Milo” from a weirdly athletic armless woman to a fascinating art mystery I couldn’t take my eyes off of.

Aphrodite in disguise.

Aphrodite in disguise.

The Egyptian Antiquities wing is not so much an art display as an archeological collection that happens to have artistic qualities.  I spent a lot of time there staring in awe at the cases of jewelry and bronze mirrors, the rows of sphinxes and sarcophagi, and the towering figures of Ramses III and other god-kings.  I soaked it in while I could–our culture’s former bad habit of pillaging archeological sites means there are probably more Egyptian artifacts in the Louvre than there are in all of Egypt.

Rows of sphinxes in the Louvre

Rows of sphinxes in the Louvre

I spent the next couple hours gawking at such works of art as “Raft of the Medusa”, “Madonna on the Rocks” and “Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss”.  The skill of the artists who wrought emotion out of canvas and stone is immense–the curve of a flexed muscle, a ringlet of hair falling over a shoulder, fingers reaching out in desperation.  Apparently I didn’t need an art appreciation course to understand the beauty and humanity contained in these works.

"Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss"

“Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss”

Then again, maybe I did.

The dude slew a dragon so we both took selfies!

The dude slew a dragon so we both took selfies!

Is it just me or is some of this art ridiculous?  I mean, look at these two characters.  The dude in cowboy boots is probably strumming out a bad rendition of “American Pie” while the girl wishes he would please stop.  Timeless and hilarious.

"Bye, bye, Miss American Pie..."

“Bye, bye, Miss American Pie…”

And what about this one?  The girl looks mighty unimpressed with the drunk guy’s offer.  “Seriously?  Eighteen cents?  You have got to be effing kidding me.”  

"But it's all I have."

“But I spent the rest on beer.” “….Clearly.”

And here, this one looks like a pleasant day in town, right?

La di da, lovely day for it...

La di da, lovely day for it…

Wait, what’s that in the bottom corner?  A dog taking a dump?  Nice touch.



It only went downhill from there.  In a fit of giggles I decided the time had come for me to leave behind the Louvre and all the dirty looks I was getting, but at least I left in a better mood than most.

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  1. O.M.G. I love the dueling selfies! Thanks for making us a part of your giggling forays into “finer” culture! I’m laughing with you and wishing I could have been there!

  2. Hey Sarah – live it up, girl! I did the “Da Vinci Code” tour a few years back and couldn’t get anywhere close to the Mona Lisa either. But, while in the vicinity, I did go through the front door (and right back out expediently) of the Ritz (being a Princess Diana fan and all that. I think you are a younger version myself – would have loved to do what you are doing back in the 1950s. Yes, go for it!

  3. Love your photos and comments, living vicariously through you. I was surpised at how small the Mona Lisa actualy is.

  4. I’ve never really liked the Mona Lisa. It is highly over rated. You would be a great art history teacher.

  5. Ha! The art world through Sarah’s eyes. I love it!

  6. Thanks for sharing your experience at the Louvre. I didn’t particularly enjoy it when I was there, so it was nice getting a new take on the art. ;)

    I am desperate to return to see the Orsay Museum though! And I loved that quote from Richard Halliburton. We used the metro a lot because we were only in Paris for a few days, but your picture of the Sacre Coeur Basilica has me wanting to return just to walk the streets.

  7. Hahaha, I love your captions on these artworks!

    I’ve got a love/hate relationship with art galleries and museums; my problem with them is that I’ve been to quite a few in the past, and these days I prefer to visit somewhere that gives me a sense of the ‘local’ culture rather than what everyone else was doing at the time, and, er, what we’ve pinched from everyone else, as I can see that anywhere. 17th Century religious art will look the same whether it’s in Paris, New York, or Ljubljana.

    That’s why I favour ‘contemporary’ / ‘modern art’ galleries. Sure, I spent most of my time looking at the paintings, sculptures, and installations going either “… why, just … why?” (Miro, also Tugo Susnik and Gustav Gnamus, two Slovenian artists I came across in Ljubljana), or “Damnit I did that when I was five years old!” (particularly Mondrian), but I find it interesting nonetheless; it makes me think, especially as they’re often more ‘culturally-specific’ – someone growing up during the Soviet era will create different ideas to someone in the USA at the same time.

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    • That’s an interesting insight. I avoid modern art for just the reasons you mentioned (…”why…?”), but they do provide a look into the current culture of a place. I think perhaps that’s why I enjoy graffiti art. The famous museums are remarkable for at least one reason, though: the chance to see truly famous art and see if it affects you like it has so many others. I was unexpectedly floored by the Venus de Milo and likewise unimpressed with the Mona Lisa. I’m glad I have those experiences. Cheers!

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