Get a gallery to yourself in Paris: pick an unfashionable country or a passed-over period
On Monday mornings, I levée at the Louvre. I’m there as the doors open at nine, waving my card — Ami du Louvre — through the secret members’ gate off Rue de Rivoli. It’s part of my routine since moving to Paris with my partner and finding myself homesick and adrift. I plan my Lundi visits like campaigns. I wear a down coat that squashes small. No time wasted in the cloakroom. I hard-boil and peel an egg and put it in my handbag. While others wait for croissants in the Café Richelieu, I soar up the north escalator to Hans Memling and Dirk Bouts. “So long, suckers!” I think, as tourists pour in under the glass Pyramid and troop south to La Joconde.
Pick an unfashionable country — the Netherlands — or a passed-over period — Greek Cycladic — and the galleries are yours for an hour. Enfilade after enfilade of glorious paintings and not a soul. Sometimes a guard will cough or shuffle his feet and I’ll jump. I’d thought it was just me and Mary Magdalene.
Even the Medici Gallery is empty until 10.30. I had a happy hour working my way round Rubens’s great cycle of paintings. When I came to the Birth of the Dauphin at Fontainebleau, two lost-looking ladies poked their noses in. “She’s that-a-way,” I wanted to say, thumbing towards Leonardo and the Mona Lisa.
At the Musée de l’Orangerie, in the first week of February, I arrived ten minutes early and jumped up and down on the spot in my snowboots. When the gates were unlocked, I flashed my Carte Blanche and hot-footed it to the two elliptical rooms that house Monet’s Nymphèas. Five blissful, languid, lagooned minutes alone with the waterlilies. Then the invasion: selfie-takers, posers and school groups with colouring pencils.
At the Grand Palais it’s a Carte Sesame. “Open Sesame!” I thought as I whisked up the steps towards Gauguin. I went two days running to hot, humid, hibiscus-scented Tahiti, the rooms empty as others bought tickets downstairs. At the Pompidou, the escalators run until late. There the membership cards say “Pop!” and that’s how it feels whizzing up Renzo Piano’s pneumatic tubes to the topmost galleries. Parisians come here for date night and snog by the Derains. Linger later and you have the Klees to yourself: everyone else has gone for oysters and paupiette au veau.
In Paris, gallery hours are generous. Larks and owls alike may visit and have art without crowds. In London, friends complain that they never do catch the Gursky or the Charles I. They are at their desks before museums open, and running for trains as they close. The V&A hosts “Friday Lates” and hires a DJ to make a party. Fine if you want to flirt, hopeless if you’re there for the porcelain. Couldn’t every gallery do a dawn-to-dark one day a week for the tourist, art lover and lonely expat who longs for paintings without the hordes? I’d be there like a shot, first into the Sainsbury Wing, boiled egg in my bag.