You’ve heard that springtime in Paris is wonderful, but I’ll wager that autumn may be even better. It has become my favorite time of year in the City of Light, not least because of the season’s dynamic art scene and especially because of one group’s complete embrace of it.
This past October, I was fortunate to join the American Friends Musées d’Orsay et de l’Orangerie (AFMO) for a long weekend during which the assembled guests were treated to a potpourri of well, pretty much everything that makes life worth living. There were private tours of world class museum exhibitions, art fairs and galleries; guided visits to notable individual collections, fashion houses, a famed jewelry atelier and a porcelain manufacturer; cooking classes at renowned culinary schools and a wine tasting. There were also conversations with designers, architects and printmakers. This sort of entrée is virtually unmatched.
“When I tell Americans that we are associated with the Orsay, they often say it’s their favorite museum. So, it isn’t surprising how many patrons we attract to The American Friends of the Orsay and Orangerie,” says AFMO Chair, Elizabeth Kehler.
“At the same time, the Orsay gives AFMO patrons unparalleled access, so the quality and breadth of our French and US events are fabulous. Our big fall weekend, that is during the week of Art Basel in Paris, sells out quickly. The people who attend are super-friendly and interesting, and often come to all of our events several years in a row, since we offer new activities every year both at the gala weekend and throughout the year — all this and a tax deduction too, since we are supporting the Orsay and Orangerie.”
Unparalleled access is no exaggeration. The weekend kicked off with a Thursday night cocktail party at the Musée de l’Orangerie. The Museum’s big, permanent draw is Monet’s fabled water lilies, but its temporary exhibitions are no less thrilling. The assembled guests were treated to an up close, uncrowded view of Amedeo Modigliani: A painter and his dealer, which explores the links between the artist and his dealer, Paul Guillaume, almost a century after the two men first met.
And the next day, we were off to the races. Each guest followed an itinerary filled with activities chosen from an abundance of first-rate excursions. Some highlights include a visit to the Mobilier National.
Founded by Louis XIV, the institution’s mission is the preservation, restoration and maintenance of some 80,000 textiles, furniture pieces and decorative objects. That day, there were also visits to Sèvres, the famed porcelain manufacturer and for fashion aficionados, there was a tour of the Musée Yves Saint Laurent. A few attendees were given access to the Grand Palais while it is closed to the public during a restoration second in ambition only to the refurbishment of Notre Dame.
A few of us, including yours truly, had the chance to meet iconic supermodel and muse to Karl Lagerfeld, Inès de la Fressange, at her eponymous boutique on the Left Bank. If you’re on the hunt for chic French basics, look no further. I walked away with the perfect navy peacoat. This was followed by the very rare opportunity of a luncheon at the Palais de la Legion d’Honneur — the seat of the highest order of French merit.
Afterwards, I visited Design Miami, the contemporary furniture fair’s debut in Paris, housed in the Hôtel des Maisons, which once served as the residence of Karl Lagerfeld and which, as one can imagine, is suitably splendid.
The day was topped by a cocktail reception at the Hotel de Pontalba, the opulent residence of the US Ambassador to France. The evening, a celebration of French-American friendship, was hosted by the gracious ambassador, HE Denise Campbell Bauer.
The next day saw guests take cooking classes at France’s iconic Cordon Bleu and Ritz-Escoffier culinary schools. There was a lesson on wine pairing at Maison Legrand, the city’s most ancient wine emporium.
I went to visit the atelier of an American master printer, Michael Woolworth, and saw unique, affordable works of art made by both established and emerging artists.
Perhaps most notably, that afternoon, there was an outing to Auvers-sur-Oise, following in the footprints of Vincent Van Gogh whose time there, at the end of his life, was short but transformative. The trip coincided with an exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay — Van Gogh in Auvers-sur-Oise: The Final Months.
The busy day was capped by the main event — cocktails and a gala dinner at the Musée d’Orsay. During the reception, guests enjoyed private viewings of three stellar exhibitions: the aforementioned Van Gogh, Louis Janmot; The poem of the Soul and Peter Doig; Reflections of the Century.
Afterwards, we streamed into the grand, belle-epoque, on-site restaurant to enjoy a dinner created by Alain Ducasse.
And that’s not all. On Sunday morning, we enjoyed breakfast in another luxurious setting, the Cercle de l’Union Interalliée. One of Paris’ most refined and exclusive clubs, the Cercle is steadfast in its enduring commitment to the celebration of French-American friendship.
Afterwards, I caught the Mark Rothko exhibit at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, also on the agenda. The blockbuster, career-long retrospective is the first such show in 25 years.
And Monday was a day of fashion and fine – very fine – jewelry with several private tours. I joined the one at Galerie Dior, the delightful museum near the famed Avenue Montaigne shop, dedicated to Christian Dior’s life and career and the evolution of the brand’s 75+ year history.
Several took a trip to the Ateliers Louis Vuitton in the picturesque village of Asnières located to the northwest of Paris. The space serves as both the founder’s family home and the original workshop which Louis Vuitton opened in 1859. And last but certainly not least, a few got a behind-the-scenes look at Chanel’s fine jewelry workshop.
Phew! And there was more – such as private tours of Paris + Art Basel at the Grand Palais Ephèmére; Christophe Durand Ruel’s private art collection; and backstage forays at the archives of renowned art gallery, Durand Ruel; at Hôtel Drouot, the auction house known for fine art and antiques; and at Opéra Bastille.
A big plus is the social aspect of the trip. As Elizabeth Kehler noted, the attendees are very friendly indeed and I’d venture to say that many, myself included, walked away having made new friends.
Founded in 2009, AFMO is a non-profit organization whose mission is to raise awareness and financial support for the Musée d’Orsay and its sister institution, the Musée de l’Orangerie. In the last several years, it has helped finance contemporary installations at both museums.
For instance, in 2022, Kehinde Wiley displayed to powerful effect, two bronze sculptures and one large scale painting in the nave of the Musée d’Orsay. And at the Musée de l’Orangerie, echoing Monet’s Water Lilies, David Hockney created, on an iPad, a striking 260-foot mural showing the succession of the seasons in Normandy. This autumn, the honor of a special exhibit at the Musée d’Orsay went to Scottish artist, Peter Doig, regarded as one of the most important living painters.
And where the art goes, AFMO follows, with excursions planned around exhibitions and institutions to which the two museums lend their works. Recent expeditions featuring viewings of significant private collections were held in Chicago and Nashville.
Interested in joining one of these outings? One doesn’t have to be an AFMO member to be a guest, but the trips do sell out quickly and members get priority. By now, you may be wondering what’s on offer in 2024. Next spring, AFMO will host a voyage to France centered around what is sure to be another blockbuster exhibition — Paris 1874 — celebrating the 150th anniversary of Impressionism. On show will be a selection of the works originally displayed by artists like Monet, Degas, Morisot, Pissarro, Sisley and Cézanne in their defiant declaration of independence from the official Salon.
Given the extraordinary art, learning opportunities, conviviality and just plain fun this outing is sure to provide, I have already marked it on my calendar. Perhaps printemps will usurp automne as my favorite season in Paris after all.
For more information, click here.