At the foot of the Montmartre hill you will find one of the best hidden romantic places in Paris. A pink house with green shutters is tucked away behind the busy city streets of Paris’s 9th arrondissement. A small, leafy path off the Rue Chaptal leads to a paved courtyard adjacent to a small garden and sunny greenhouse. This is the home of the Museé de la Vie Romantique, a small but eclectic museum dedicated to the Romantic era.
The museum is the former home and studio of Dutch artist Ary Scheffer (1795-1858) who moved into the neighborhood in the 1830s. A famous artist at the time, Scheffer was also a central figure in Paris’s artistic and intellectual society. His home became the meeting spot for important 19th-century artists, musicians and writers including Eugène Delacroix, Gioachino Rossini, Frédéric Chopin and George Sand.
A visit to the Museum of Romantic Life will take you back in time to the early 1800s. Antique furniture, Romantic portraits and beautiful jewellery tell the story of artistic life in the heydays of Romanticism. While much of the museum is dedicated to the work of Ary Scheffer himself, the ground floor explores the life and work of George Sand, one of the most popular writers of the Romantic Era, and one of the most successful female writers of the 19th century.
Easily one of the most romantic places in Paris, the Musée de la Vie Romantique is also home to one of the cutest tea rooms in the city. In the shaded, rose-filled garden you’ll find the Rose Bakery, the perfect spot for a romantic Parisian lunch. It will come as no surprise that the museum is much-loved in Paris and beyond. It even took home the prize for Tiqets’ Best Hidden Gem 2020, based on over 6,000 votes and overwhelmingly positive reviews.
We caught up with Museé de la Vie Romantique director Gaëlle Rio, who gave us an insight into the history of the museum and what makes it so special.
Thank you so much for joining us, Gaëlle. Can you tell us a little bit about your role and what it entails?
I am the Director of the Musée de la Vie Romantique and I have been working in the museum for 2 years now. My role is to lead the museum’s staff, to organise exhibitions and to engage the public with the museum. Previously I was a curator at the Petit Palais, a well-known museum on the Champs Elysees. This is a very different job!
My daily challenge is to diversify the public for the museum. The Musée de la Vie Romantique is a hidden gem and we work hard on developing the museum’s public profile, for example through cooperation with art schools.
What is the story of the museum? How did it become the Musée de la Vie Romantique?
The museum is a little strange in that it is a mix of many different characters. The museum is about 3 people: Ary Scheffer, George Sand and Ernest Renan. Scheffer was the original habitant of the house of course, and Ernest Renan (the famous writer) was connected to Scheffer’s family by marriage. Sand was likely among those writers at the time who frequented soirées at Scheffer’s house. Each collection of the museum is about a different person, so it’s quite eclectic.
The house that the museum is based in was in the same family for 150 years – that’s very rare. It became a museum in 1980, through the will of the family of Ernest Renan. They wanted to give the house to the city of Paris with the condition that it would become a museum and would welcome the public to admire the house and the collection within it.
Although it is one of the most romantic places in Paris, the museum doesn’t focus on romantic stories or tales of love lost, so where does the name Museum of Romantic Life come from?
A lot of people ask me about the name of the museum actually, because they think the Museum of Romantic Life is about daily life in the period of Romanticism, but when you visit it you don’t see a bathroom or a kitchen for example; it’s really a house transformed into a museum. It’s a house, but it doesn’t depict daily life. It’s more an image of the cultural life of the first half of the 19th century in the artistic district of Nouvelle Athènes, when Romanticism was flourishing.
When the museum was created it was called Hotel Scheffer-Renan, after two of its famous former residents. It also referred to the building being a hotel particulier, so a free-standing townhouse that has more grandeur than the average maison. However, that name doesn’t really suit the Musée de la Vie Romantique; it’s an artist’s house, not very rich or bourgeois. Plus, Scheffer and Renan were both not famous artists so the name didn’t speak to people’s imaginations. In 1987, the name was changed to Musée de la Vie Romantique, which is more poetic.
So when you say ‘Romantic life’, it’s more the reflection of the spirit of Romanticism and the minds of the people in the Romantic period?
Yes, it’s about the life in the salons – the intellectual, cultural and aesthetic life of the artists at that time. It’s not so much about daily life as it is about how artists created art at that time.
What’s one of the best things you’ve done for the museum?
My first exhibition! It was about the Romantic era in Paris and the literary salon. The salon was a very famous and popular event in the first half of the 19th century. Organised in the homes of artists and intellectuals at the time, writers, musicians, philosophers and painters would get together and exchange their ideas about creativity and art.
Ary Scheffer, the original resident of the house in which the museum is located, used to organise a lot of salons. Famous musicians like Frédéric Chopin and Franz Liszt would play the piano in this house for an audience of painters and writers.
That sounds very romantic, it makes me want to travel back in time and sit in the salon while Chopin plays the piano…
Definitely! The salon was a speciality of the Romanticism movement, which wasn’t just an art movement but a larger cultural movement. In Germany it began in literature while in France it started in the fine arts. For artists at the time, the salon was a way to exchange ideas between different forms of art and to inspire one another.
Can you tell us a little more about Ary Scheffer?
Strangely, Scheffer isn’t very well known anymore today, but in his time he was very famous. He was born in 1795 in Holland and he moved to France with his mother and two brothers in 1810. He was the drawing teacher for the children of the Duke of Orleans (the future King Philippe). So he was very close to some of the most powerful people in France at that time.
He’s often seen as one of the most important painters of Romanticism – can you tell us why?
He had a lot of influence on other painters and thinkers of Romanticism, and he is a great example of an artist who was inspired by different forms of art.
Ary Scheffer was very interested in literature. In his paintings he reinterpreted the works of famous writers such as Shakespeare, Goethe and Lord Byron. This intellectual influence is a speciality of Romantic artists. Unlike Impressionist painters, the Romantic painters painted not from what they saw but what they read and felt. They painted what they saw in their imagination.
For example, in our collection we have a painting called Paolo and Francesca, which is based on a story in the Divine Comedy, by the very famous medieval Italian poet Dante Alighieri. The story is about two lovers who have an affair, after which the jealous husband of Francesca kills the two lovers who then go to hell. Scheffer loved this poem and the story of the two tragic lovers.
Based on Tiqets’ customer feedback, the Musée de la Vie Romantique was named the Best Hidden Gem in 2020. What do you think makes it so popular among its visitors?
The most beautiful thing in this museum is the site itself. It’s a lovely house that’s really like a secret hidden place tucked away in a quieter area of busy Paris. From the street you can’t see the beautiful romantic site that’s hidden here, a small path leads from the street to the house and its charming garden.
It’s the kind of museum that is very rare in Paris; the original artist’s house and studio have been kept in place so you can travel back in time to the house of a 19th-century artist. It’s very different from the other more famous museums in Paris, because it was a house that people lived in until very recently. When I sit in my office I can see the garden and the courtyard and it feels a bit like this is my house – it’s a little strange!
You feel the artistic atmosphere as you walk through the museum’s rooms. Of course the museum has been modernised, but the atmosphere and the garden are more or less what they were in the 19th century.
I think all of the people who visit the museum are charmed by the atmosphere. We also have an English tea room in the garden that is a very romantic place to have tea and cake.
Can you pick your favourite piece of art in the museum?
I like the portraits that Scheffer painted. He painted a lot of women. For example Marie d’Orleans, one of his pupils. She was a famous sculptor who died very young. It was rare in that time for women to be successful sculptors, so she is an interesting character and the portrait of her is very charming. She is wearing a dress typical of that time and has flowers in her hair.
Another one I like is a little bronze sculpture. At that time it was very much in fashion to have little bronze statues in your house, placed on commodes. We have in our collection a little bronze statue of Satan. This isn’t a victorious Satan, but a thinking one. He actually has the same position as The Thinker by Rodin, even though this was sculpted before Rodin was alive. It’s by Jean-Jacques Feuchère, who was a very famous sculptor at that time. I like it because it’s an introduction to the doubt of Satan. It’s a philosophical way to think about evil. The devil is thinking about his power, which means he might not believe in it and is losing his faith. It’s a very powerful image.
Do you have any recommendations for what people should see in the neighbourhood after their visit to the museum?
A wonderful museum that’s close to here is the Musée Gustave Moreau, the former house and studio of a painter who lived in the neighbourhood. He was a Symbolist painter and lived in the 2nd half of the 19th century, after Scheffer. It’s a very rare museum, just like the Musée de la Vie Romantique, because it focuses on the work of just one artist. You can see his studio and house, and of course many of his works.
The neighborhood that the Musée de la Vie Romantique is in is actually a great place to go for a stroll. At the start of the 19th century the area was just fields, but in the 1810s and 1820s, this district was built and many buildings still share the same style. Many artists went to live there, such as Scheffer of course, but also Liszt and Delacroix. Chopin and George Sand, who were in a relationship, lived on the Square d’Orleans, a square not far from the museum that’s a very romantic place in Paris. The district was very alive at that time.
That sounds like the perfect romantic Parisian afternoon! You can step back in time to feel what it could have been like to be an artist in the 19th century and live in this district.
Yes, and the Musée de la Vie Romantique is really an image of the district; it’s a reflection of the spirit of the artists’ district at that time.
Planning a visit to the best hidden romantic place in Paris? Here’s what you need to know:
How to get to the Musée de la Vie Romantique:
Take the metro to Saint-George (line 12), Pigalle (line 2 or 12) or Blanche (line 2).
The museum is open Tuesday – Sunday from 10.00am to 6.00pm.
The tea room is open Tuesday – Sunday from 10.00am to 5.30pm.
The temporary exhibition spaces are fully accessible to wheelchair users. The permanent collection spaces have many staircases and are therefore not accessible for people with reductions in mobility. A digital device offering a virtual tour of the museum on a touchpad is available for free at the reception.