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Vivian Maier at the Musée du Luxembourg

Earlier this month, I wrote about the top exhibitions that I was excited to see this winter and fall. However, full disclosure. That list could have easily been much longer. Parisians are currently spoilt for choice when it comes to cultural visits, as there is so much to see right now. Therefore, with my top five exhibitions decided on, and plenty more waiting in the wings, I decided to start making my way through my list. First up, the Vivan Maier exhibition at the Musée du Luxembourg.

Now, you may be wondering why there is a museum with the name Luxembourg in France. And no, it is not dedicated to the history of our neighbour to the northeast. Instead, this museum is part of the Luxembourg Palace, situated within the Luxembourg Gardens. All three get their name from François de Luxembourg, otherwise known as the Duke of Luxembourg, whose Parisian residence used to stand on this location. I say used to, because in the early 17th century, the recently widowed Marie de’ Medici decided to build herself a new residence. She purchased the former home of François de Luxembourg in 1612, and construction began on a palatial new palace in 1615. Marie referred to the building as the Palais Medici, but the old name proved hard to let go of. Back then, like today, this new palace was known by the name of Luxembourg.

Today, this building is the home of the French Senate and the Musée du Luxembourg. The museum was first established in 1750, and in 1818, it became the first museum of contemporary art in Paris, dedicated to living artists. Now, however, most of that early artwork has been moved to the Louvre, and the Musée du Luxembourg no longer holds any permanent collections. Instead, it showcases temporary exhibitions throughout the year that cover a wide variety of time periods and genres. The previous exhibition was dedicated to female painters between 1780 and 1830. Now, the current exhibition is dedicated to Vivian Maier, considered by many to be one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century.

What is both extraordinary and sad about this exhibition is the fact that Vivan Maier never found any success or critical acclaim during her lifetime. She took hundreds of thousands of photos over several decades, but she never shared them publicly. In fact, many of them were never even developed. The only reason we know about her work is because she failed to keep up with payments on a storage unit housing her photos and negatives during the last years of her life. The contents of that unit were auctioned off, and they were subsequently bought by collectors. Vivian Maier passed away in 2009, the same year that her photos went viral online. In the years since, her work has been shown around the world.

A black and white photo of an elegantly dressed woman standing in front of the New York City library. She is looking away from the camera, over her left shoulder down the street.

As I moved through the exhibition, I couldn’t help but think about the context in which she took most of her photos. Vivan Maier was a street photographer, taking photographs of the people she encountered as she walked around New York and Chicago, as well as her travels around the world. As I looked at these photos, I often wondered about the people contained within them. Some were posed, the subjects staring straight into the camera. But many were not, having been capturing in candid moments during their day. Today, we are used to people constantly taking photos around us. But back then, it must have been a novelty. And it’s an interesting thought. What would all of those people have thought if they knew back then that one day their photo would be shown in a museum in Paris?

In addition to her street photography, Vivian Maier was also a connoisseur of what we would now call “the selfie”. There was an entire room dedicated to the images she captured of herself, each one more artistically composed than the last. It was like looking at an early version of Instagram, long before anyone could have ever conceived of the power these images would eventually hold over our digital lives. One thing is for certain. Vivian Maier was absolutely an artist ahead of her time.

A black and white photograph from the Vivian Maier exhibition at the Musée du Luxembourg. The photo is a self portrait of Maier. She is holding a camera to her chest, facing a mirror, and looking up.

While I wish she could have enjoyed some of her success during her lifetime, I’m happy that Vivian Maier is finally getting the recognition that she’s due. The photographs on display at the Musée du Luxembourg are incredibly beautiful, and she deserves the critical acclaim they have garnered. The exhibition runs until January 16th, 2022, so if you are in Paris between now and then, I highly recommend a visit.

All photos by Vivian Maier

Laura Moore is a professional storyteller who loves history and the many stories that make Paris one of the most fascinating cities in the world. Join one of her signature tours to learn the story of a city.


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