The lines outside Paris' Jeu de Paume, long the home of the Louvre's Impressionist collection, were so lengthy that it was difficult to even see the front door. When I finally got close enough to see that door, it was in time to watch the guard slip the "closed" sign into place.
Yet just the next day, I was among fewer than 50 people ambling through the Musee Marmottan across town. The Marmottan may have been less famous, thus less frequented than the Jeu de Paume, but it houses what may be the world's largest collection of Monets.
Europe's castles, countryside and food may be wonderful, but Europe, for me, has always been a place to saturate myself in the arts, to pack in museums, plays and concerts until whoever I'm traveling with screams for mercy. And those arts adventures have fortunately included a fair number of wonderful discoveries.
Tourist brochures will point you to such well-heralded treasures as those on view in London's West End theaters, British Museum and Hayward Gallery, and everyone you know will recommend a day at the Louvre or the Beaubourg when you're in Paris. You shouldn't miss the Accademia in Venice, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam or the Renaissance palaces of Florence. But over the years I've encountered, both intentionally and coincidentally, lesser known, but often quite marvelous, European performance groups and museums not always found in traditional guidebooks.
Amsterdam, for instance, boasts about 50 museums and public collections, but one of the finest museums I visited in the Netherlands was the Kroller-Muller Museum in Otterlo, more than an hour's drive from Amsterdam. Built in stages over several decades, the museum is nestled in Holland's largest national park and is surrounded by several monumental sculptures. Inside, there seemed to be endless Van Gogh paintings, while out in the sculpture garden, there were works by Lipchitz and Moore, Rodin and Mark di Suvero.
Paris' Musee Marmottan is no longer so little-known as when I first learned of its existence from a travel article in an out-of-town newspaper. The museum received enormous international attention last fall when a gang of art thieves stole nine Impressionist paintings valued at several million dollars. Those paintings have not yet been recovered, but a guard recently told The Times that attendance hasn't changed despite all the publicity.
Next to a park and playground, the Marmottan opened in 1934 in the former home of an art collector and received the first of its 86 Monet paintings in 1957. (Michel Monet, son of Claude, made major Monet donations to the museum in the 1970s.) There are some Monets on the elegant main floor, but more extensive holdings are in the large, unassuming downstairs area. There, in a sizable open space, are such familiar scenes as the Cathedral at Rouen and Monet's house and garden at Giverny with its pond and waterlilies. (Still missing from the downstairs "La Salle Monet," however, are the stolen Monet paintings, including the famous "Sunrise, an Impression," as well as portraits of Monet by Renoir and Naruse.)
In addition to its staggering collection of Monet's paintings, the museum has glass-enclosed cases displaying the artist's reading glasses, palette, paintbrushes and correspondence. Letters describe the illness of his wife and his financial problems, make appeals for money and even inform us as to his reasons for refusing to authenticate--or even sign--a painting that he can not remember having done. (The letters are handwritten, with typed reproductions on hand for easier reading.) Even the gift-shop area provides insight into Monet's work habits by displaying and selling not only the customary postal cards and notes but also photo reproductions of the artist at work and at play.
Across the Channel in London is the new, smaller and far more contemporary Saatchi Museum. Next-door to a pub and just down the street from a butcher and hairdresser, the year-old museum is largely hidden by a gray gated wall topped with both spikes and a video camera. Inside the gate, however, the huge, renovated paint warehouse displays artworks by such contemporary masters as Frank Stella, Andy Warhol and Donald Judd in a space reminiscent of the Museum of Contemporary Art's Temporary Contemporary site in Los Angeles.
Showing works drawn from the highly regarded collection of Doris and Charles Saatchi, the museum is open to the public only Friday and Saturday afternoons (although appointments can be made for other days of the week). Its first show of works by Judd, Warhol and others was up for seven months, and its current, second show of work by Dan Flavin, Sol LeWitt, Stella and others is scheduled to be on view through June.
About 45 miles out of London, meanwhile, is Finchcocks, a "living museum of music" run by pianist Richard Burnett.