Lyon is not on many people’s list of places to go in France. And that is a good thing. A small city of approximately half a million people, it sprawls between and beyond two rivers, the Saône and the Rhône, which converge in Lyon at their confluence. Some Americans read about Lyon in Bill Buford’s annoying-tough-white guy book, Dirt, in which it is depicted as a den of thieves and drugs, a rough, working class city full of adventure and food. He’s right that there are lots of tattoos and gritty bars in this historically working-class city, which made most of the silk in France for the better part of more than 500 years. (And in 1801 “the pioneering engineer, Joseph Marie Jacquard invented a mechanical loom which would rapidly industrialized silk weaving,” according to this website, Silk Road Today.) But Buford certainly got the food part right: Lyon has a long history of serving as the origin of many a famous chef; and don’t forget Les Halles de Paul Bocuse (named for the legendary French chef, Paul Bocuse, a native Lyonnais).
Visiting Lyon’s Fine Art Museum
But what has often been overlooked is the art in Lyon. Lyon, like many French cities and towns, has art everywhere—in and adorning the architecture, in and on churches that are thousands of years old, frescoes on walls, amazing street art, sculptures, fountains, architecture, and more. And right in the center of the city is one of the most beautiful museums you will ever visit: The Musée des Beaux-Arts. It houses one of the world’s most important collections in all of Europe, with works from Ancient Egypt to more modern pieces. And it is frequented much less than you might expect. Again, this is a good thing.
Located in the city center, Place des Terreaux, just steps from the Saône river, this large, but manageable museum is housed in a former Benedictine convent. Restored from the years 1988-1998, it is a jewel. It reminded me most of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, in which I had a similarly transcendent experience.
You enter this Lyon museum through a large outdoor sculpture garden with benches and flowers. This part is free to the public and you will see lots of people sitting outside with baguette sandwiches, sketch books, and friends.
Lyon’s Greatest Art Collection
And then, you go inside. From here, you can pick your own adventure out of nine rooms of Ancient Egyptian antiquities on the first floor, followed by objects from ancient Greece, Islamic art, a voyage into the Roman Empire, and then the Middle Ages. The entire second floor is European paintings and sculptures from the fifteenth century through the twenty first, including a room devoted to flowers—the Salon des Fleurs. And it is on that 2nd floor that you will find rare Courbets, a handful of works by Monet, Gauguin, Cézanne, Chagall, Picasso, Matisse, Rubens, Francis Bacon, and much much more. The museum also has contemporary exhibits.
One of my favorite rooms in the Musée contains a series by the native Lyon painter, Louis Janmot, called “L’Ame Poeme,” “Poem of the Soul.” These paintings, and the accompanying poem written by the painter, tell the story of love between a young, androgynous boy, and a girl, who is his soulmate, a platonic ideal. Created between the years of 1835-1855, it was Delacroix who insisted that the paintings be shown. And Baudelaire was also so moved by the paintings that he described them as having “infinite charm that is difficult to describe; something about the sweetness of solitude…” He is right: there is a sweet, soulful, and melancholic beauty that takes your breath away. I write more about these amazing paintings in my Le Weekend this week, which you can read here. But if you go, make sure you give yourself some time to just stand in that amazing room and take the story in.
Take a Break
There is also a lovely café in the museum, where you can have lunch and a coffee, then plunge back in. Salads, sweets, sandwiches, cold drinks—it’s all beautifully presented and well-executed and will feel like a lavish treat. (The café has a breezy outdoor balcony overlooking the gardens and is one of the more magical spots you will find on this lonely planet.)
But if you can’t make it in this lifetime, that’s ok. Here’s a great online guided tour of 30 works from the museum you can enjoy. It’s in French (with a translator), but even if you turn off the sound, the art you will see in this format will stay with you for days to come.
Caitlin Shetterly is the Editor-in-Chief of Frenchly. She is also the author of 4 books: Fault Lines, Made for You and Me, Modified and the upcoming novel, Pete and Alice in Maine, which will be published on July 4th, 2023 by Harper Books. She is a native daughter and she lives with her two sons and husband in an old house on the coast of Maine.