By Iris Samuels
On a Monday morning, the line for the Musée du Luxembourg stretched around the block. Patrons readily waited in the gloomy weather to see the new exhibit. Three days after the opening of Pissarro in Éragny, the art lovers of Paris flocked to be among the first to see the highly-anticipated retrospective.
While the Musée du Luxembourg is much smaller than some of Paris’s better-known museums, its history is grander than most. The museum was established in 1750 as the first public painting gallery in Paris. It displayed the king’s collection, including works by Titian and Leonardo Da Vinci. The gallery’s next incarnation was as a center of contemporary art, between 1818 and 1937. It housed many up-and-coming artists of Paris, such as Monet, Cézanne and Renoir, who now adorn the walls of the city’s biggest museums – the Louvre, Musée d’Orsay and the Centre Pompidou.
Since 1979, the space has been home to visiting exhibits, which have paid homage to some of Europe’s best artists. The current one features paintings by Camille Pissarro, one of the leaders of Impressionism and pointillist art in the 19th century. The exhibit depicts Pissarro’s connection with Éragny, a village in northern Paris where he lived for the last two decades of his life.
Pissarro’s paintings are a poignant complement to the gardens just outside the building. They portray the natural environment of Éragny – tree-filled, pastoral and innocent. In the neighboring gardens the scene is similarly idyllic, as children frolic by the fountains, lovers enjoy the seclusion and runners take to the gravel paths. Just as Pissarro sought calm in the village of Éragny, so do Parisian seek a respite from the city’s hectic streets on these Left Bank grounds.
The Jardin du Luxembourg dates back to 1612, and has had many lives. According to Alan Riding, former European cultural correspondent for the New York Times, the Luxembourg palace, once home to kings and queens, was briefly turned into a prison after the French Revolution. During the Second World War, it served as the headquarters of the Luftwaffe. Now it is the home of the French Senate – a place for statecraft, formal meetings, and decadent dinners.
The latest change in the grounds’ never-ending evolution is a new metal fence erected around the palace. According to Riding, it was installed after the recent terror attacks rocked the city, as part of a concerted effort to defend Paris from the growing threat of terrorism.
The gardens mirror the city that had grown around them. Balancing the urbane and the natural, the elite and the plebeians, Paris is constantly adjusting to the changing world, while desperately clinging to the beauty and grandeur that have been its birthright for hundreds of years. Pissarro’s exhibit is a delicate reminder that even as guards armed with machine guns roam the city, and constant vigilance is in high demand, Paris will always remain a city where nature is shaped into high art.