Here’s my guide to the Musée de la Vie Romantique, a romantic museum in the romantic Nouvelle Athens area of Paris. It’s one of Paris’ best small museums and it’s dedicated to Romanticism. In the lexicon of swoonful museums names, the Musée de la Vie Romantique wins top prize.
Just saying the name out loud makes me dreamy. You’ll want to stop and kiss your beloved. I mean, what other museum in the world is a dedicated to romance? Only in Paris … the City of Love.
The atmospheric Paris museum is housed in the Hôtel Scheffer-Renan at the foot of Montmartre Hill in the 9th arrondissement. You’d almost never know the museum was there. And it’s not easy to find.
But if you want to catapult back to the high culture of the 19th century, you must go treasure hunting. The Museum of the Romantic Life is located down a cobblestone alley, lined by shade trees, and hidden behind an iron gate.
The museum used to be a rare secret spot in Paris. But Fauxhemians have transformed the neighborhood from a grit to glamor hotspot. So the museum has received a few more visitors.
The museum’s spokesperson Catherine Sorel, has said, “We’re seeing a whole new population coming to the museum. There’s almost a kind of neo-dandyism – it’s fashionable to be interested in the 19th century and these artists.”
The intimate little museum is widely regarded as one of Paris’ most beautiful and quaint small museums. It celebrates the lives and works of George Sand, who was a writer, libertine, and femme fatale, and Ary Scheffer, a Romantic Period Dutch painter.
The mansion was built in 1830 in the Italian style during King Louis Philippe’s reign. The property was bequeathed to the city of Paris in 1983 by the owner’s descendants. After renovation, it opened as a museum in 1987.
With its creaking floors, curios, and corkscrew staircase, you can almost imagine yourself in the 19th century. You may be assailed with murky recollections of high school and college literature courses.
The Romantic Period
What is Romanticism exactly, you might ask?
It’s a late 18th and early 19th century movement that began partly as a reaction to the deadly dull aesthetic of Neoclassicism. In Neoclassicism, the focus was on solemnity and classical antiquity. Everything was perfect, objective, and restrained. Romanticism rejected those values and embraced intense emotion and the imagination.
Romanticism spanned all intellectual fields — painting, writing, and music. It was an idealistic movement, purposefully divorced from reality. Instead, Romanticism was devoted to strange beauty, sensuality, spontaneity, wonder, and mystery. In Romantic art, nature — with its unpredictability, and potential for cataclysmic extremes — was a common theme.
Novelist George Sand
The Romantic novelist George Sand was born Aurore Dupin in 1804. At 19, Sand married Casimir Dudevant, and it didn’t go well. At 27, Sand left her husband and children and moved to Paris to find independence and love.
She started writing to earn a living and soon met other writers. Along the way, she cross-dressed, smoked cigars, wore exotic costumes, and puffed on her beloved hookah. She had a deliciously notorious reputation.
Every day, she wrote from midnight until dawn. Her novels are romantic love stories. In her own quest for absolute love, and in a wonderful excessive way, Sand had many stormy affairs. Her longest affair, 9 years, was with the pianist Frederic Chopin. Sand also had a desperate and torrid affair with Marie Dorval, a famous Parisian actress.
What To See at the Musée de la Vie Romantique
The museum’s first floor is dedicated to Sand, who was a frequent guest at Hôtel Scheffer-Renan but didn’t actually live there. In the Antechamber, you’ll find display cases. You’ll see Sand’s memorabilia and personal artifacts, including documents, portraits, photographs, furniture, jewelry and other objects. There are even watercolors painted by Sand.
The most notable exhibit is a rather creepy votive-like display of a cast of Sand’s arm next to the hand of her piano playing lover, Frederic Chopin. Some people make the pilgrimage to the museum just to see this fetishistic exhibit. There’s also an odd locket with George Sand’s hair, another eccentric custom of the time.
Sand and Chopin were unlikely lovers. Sand was wildly notorious. Chopin was reclusive, delicate, and sickly.
Sand pursued a reluctant Chopin, almost coercing his submission. It’s not clear whether Sand was a vampire or guardian angel to Chopin. It depends on whether you’re reading a Sand or Chopin biography. The authors are biased in favor of their subjects.
The source of their break up isn’t entirely clear, but seemed to derive from family dysfunction. Sand was horrifically cruel to her daughter, Solange. Chopin took Solange’s side in the matter of her love affair with the sculptor Auguste Clesinger. Ironically, Clesinger made the plaster molds of the museum’s hand and arm.
In the end, Chopin “was disinvited from the family party when he refused, on principle, to collaborate in Sand’s unspeakable treatment of Solange.” Chopin died two years later at 39 in dire poverty.
Friends thought Sand might have killed him, simply by relinquishing her care. Chopin’s white marble tomb is in Pere Lachaise Cemetery, one of the most visited ones there and created by Clesinger.
In a room called the “Salon of George Sand,” you’ll find drawings and paintings by Ingres, Delacroix, and others. There are sculptures by Barre, David d’Angers, and Clesinger.
Part of the Sand exhibit is the re-creation of a room from her home in rural Nohant, complete with her furniture, rugs, tapestries, and wood paneling.
Painter Ary Scheffer
Ary Scheffer was a fashionable Romantic painter who owned the house and led a romantic life himself. He wasn’t as famous, deservedly so, as Delacroix.
Scheffer arrived in Paris at age 18 and attended the École des Beaux-Arts. Beginning in 1812, he exhibited works at the annual Salons. Scheffer had strong ties to the king, which gave him a slew of commissions and allowed him to live a life of comparative luxury.
He had a secret daughter, who became an artist herself. Cornelia was born in 1830. Scheffer mysteriously registered the name of her mother as Maria Johanna de Nes, his grandmother’s name.
But there’s a dearth of information about Cornelia’s mother. She may have died soon after Cornelia’s birth. The speculation was that Scheffer kept Cornelia’s mother’s name a secret so as not to compromise a noble family’s reputation.
Scheffer became one of France’s most famous painters, known for his historical, literary, and religious subjects. But he was probably most reknowned as a painter of beautiful evocative portraits of leading figures of the Romantic age. His art was a sentimental merging of a highly finished technique and Romantic subject matter.
Scheffer kept impressive company. His home was a cultural hotspot for the “it” crowd of prestigious artists and intellectuals. His coterie included Dickens, Gounod, Sand, Liszt, Delacroix, Ingres, and Chopin. Every Friday evening, Scheffer opened his studio and held a salon-soiree.
You can close your eyes and almost see them hanging over the piano debating the merits of Victor Hugo, perfectly at ease as in a Seurat painting.
Second Floor of the Musée de la Vie Romantique
The Scheffer exhibits are found on the second floor of the museum. Two portraits are of particular note: the portraits of Marie d’Orléans and of Doña Francisca de Bragança.
When you’re done swooming over Sand and Scheffer, outside is a charming garden, brimming with lilacs, roses, wisteria, and hydrangea. There’s a lovely garden cafe, Rose Bakery, a satellite of the bakery on the nearby Rue de Marytrs.
You’ll find fresh salads, melting scones, fruit muffins, craft beers, and a wide selection of teas. It’s a lovely treat and may be the best part of your very romantic day. I mean, just look at those roses.
Practical Information & Tips for Visiting Paris’ Musée de la Vie Romantique
Address: 16 Rue Chaptal, 75009 Paris
Hours: Tues-Sun 10:00 am to 6:00 pm, closed Mon
Entry: permanent collection is free
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