Text by Sylvie Bigar, Special To The Washington Post
With two miles of facade in the heart of Paris, the magnificent Louvre Museum is the largest art museum in the world. Erected as a fortress at what was the edge of town in the 12th century (its foundations can be toured in the basement), it was revamped as a royal residence in the 16th century. The Louvre remained the repository of the royal art collection even after Louis XIV moved the court to Versailles and opened as a museum in 1793. A renovation in the 1980s and '90s included the addition of I.M. Pei's then-controversial, now-iconic glass pyramid.
But this rich history is not what draws long lines of visitors; it's the approximately 35,000 works of art - from ancient times through the 19th century - displayed in more than 600,000 square feet of space. The Louvre is the home of several of the most famous artworks in the world, including the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo.
Little wonder, then, that last year the museum tallied more than 10.2 million visitors. Considering its size and crowds, chances are you'll visit only a fraction of its 400-plus rooms and steal only a peek at the Mona Lisa. To truly experience the Louvre, you need comfortable shoes, ample patience and more than one day.
For a more serene art-filled experience, walk about 15 minutes North and East to Boulevard Haussmann to explore a smaller, lesser-known cultural gem: the Musée Jacquemart-André.
This stunning classical mansion, built in 1875, was the home of wealthy banker Edouard André and his wife, artist Nélie Jacquemart. The couple spent 13 years travelling and acquiring impressive artworks, furniture and decorative objects from around the world. "After her husband's death," said curator Pierre Curie, "Ms. Jacquemart became the richest independent woman in France." She expanded the collection until her own death in 1912; the house opened to the public the next year.
The museum offers a window to Belle Époque Paris and a high society couple's life of business, entertaining and collecting, with a series of formal and informal rooms; a section filled with privately enjoyed Italian works; a plant-lined glass-topped winter garden and luxurious private apartments.
The formal rooms are especially opulent. The exquisite Picture Gallery is filled with paintings by French decorative artist Boucher, Venetian pre-impressionist Canaletto and intimate interiors by Chardin. It brings guests to the semicircular gilded wood-paneled Grand Salon. In the towering Music Room, marble floors and red curtains seem to lead toward a luminous ceiling by Venetian painter Tiepolo. The mobile partitions of these sumptuous rooms could be removed, leaving space for more than 1,000 guests to dance and talk.
Business was conducted in cozy, refined rooms adorned with Louis XIV to Louis XVI furniture and favorite works by French artists Greuze and Fragonard. Intimate Flemish and Dutch paintings, including a 1629 Rembrandt, hang in the library. An impressive double marble staircase framing a Tiepolo fresco leads from the winter garden to the intimate private apartments with more treasures, including the private collection of Venetian and Florentine masterpieces.
Visitors can take their time and refresh themselves in the lovely cafe, which has one of the best dessert carts in Paris. Rather than a palace turned institution, this museum remains a historic home and a showcase for its owners' passion for the arts.
Location: 158 Blvd. Haussman; +33-1-45-62-11-59; musee-jacquemart-andre.com