Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Day 27: Musée d'Orsay

The last half of the 19th century and the first part of the 20th was a remarkably fruitful period in the history of French art, producing many beloved painters. The purpose of the Musée d'Orsay in Paris is to present art made from 1848 to 1914. Theoretically, its scope is international, but in fact, most of the paintings were made in France, whether by French artists or those who emigrated from other countries to live in the center of the art world at that time.

Instead of being limited by the need for paid commissions, in the 19th century artists began to think of making art for art's sake; that is, to paint what they needed to paint, following their own curiosity. To structure their analytical and experimental attitude toward painting, they developed a number of aesthetic theories that can be identified by name.


Academicism was the starting point. Painters in this school continued working in the Neo-classical tradition of David and Ingres.

Jean-Léon Gérôme

Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1824-1904
Reception of Condé in Versailles, 1878
William Bouguereau

William Bouguereau, 1825-1905
Youth and Love, 1877
Alexandre Cabanel

Alexandre Cabanel, 1823-1889
Birth of Venus, 1863
James Tissot

James Tissot, 1836-1902
The Ball, 1880


The way forward was opened by realism. Artists of this school paid more attention to the real world around them; they elevated scenes of ordinary life.

Rosa Bonheur specialized in farm animals, giving them dignity and personality.

Rosa Bonheur, 1822-1899
Oxen Ploughing in Nevers, 1849
Jules Breton depicted the lowliest farm workers—the women who gleaned the fields for scraps of grain after the reapers went through—women who are told when to go out, and when to come in. Breton dignified them by painting each face with loving realism and bathing the group in the golden light of sundown. These figures are not anonymous laborers, but real women, each of great worth.

Jules Breton, 1827-1906
Calling in the Gleaners, 1859
Gustave Courbet wanted to depict the world he saw, without a lot of romanticizing. He brought a a new boldness and vigor to painting.

Gustave Courbet, 1819-1877
Stormy Sea, 1870
Gustave Courbet, 1819-1877
The Etretat Cliffs after the Storm, 1870
Gustave Courbet, 1819-1877
Nude Woman with Dog, c. 1862

Transition from Realism to Impressionism

Édouard Manet was inspired by the realism of Courbet, but in his restless experimenting he developed techniques that influenced the development of impressionism.

Some of his early paintings appear to question the values of the past. If you take the next painting literally, you might be scandalized by the juxtaposition of a nude woman and a partially clad woman with two fully dressed men. However, Manet was referencing a painting called Pastoral Concert, from 1509 that is nowadays generally attributed to Titian. In his time, there was an interest simultaneous depictions of the visible and the invisible; thus, the nude women exist only in the imaginations of the two men they inspire. Likewise, in Manet, the men are disputing ideals of beauty, represented by imaginary female figures.

Édouard Manet, 1832-1883
Luncheon on the Grass, 1863
Fiesta campestre.jpg
Titian, 1488-1576
Pastoral Concert, 1509
The reclining nude is a traditional subject in art—Titian, Goya, and Ingres all did famous versions—but earlier paintings were justified as depictions of goddesses or ideals of beauty. In the painting below, Manet said, let's be frank: a reclining nude wearing baubles and surrounded by luxurious bedding is probably a prostitute or a mistress. Not a fantasy figure, she gazes directly at the viewer, putting us in the place of the lover who has just come in with a fancy bouquet, just brought to her by a fully clothed black servant. The black woman, so hard to make out against a dark background, serves to contrast with the nude's youth and beauty, but she also calls attention to the fact that both women are servants to the implied male lover, and perhaps the almost invisible servant has more dignity than the one who is displaying herself.

Édouard Manet, 1832-1883
Olympia, 1863
Manet's style was considered shocking in his time because he made no transition between the light and dark elements of the picture; he abandoned the usual subtle gradations in favor of strong contrasts. Later in his development, he drove that contrast to a greater extreme, while adopting a broad, slashing brushstroke that made his work look very modern. The portrait below depicts Berthe Morisot, who was his model, his student and a very close friend, who later married one of his brothers.

Édouard Manet, 1832-1883
Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets, 1872

Eva Gonzalès

Eva Gonzalès was another pupil of Manet. She is sometimes called an Impressionist, but this example shows the strong influence of her teacher in the high contrast modeling.

Eva Gonzalès, 1849-1883
A Loge at the Théâtre des Italiens, 1874


The Impressionist movement deconstructed the traditions of painting. Instead of trying to represent something ideal and eternal, they wanted to capture images that looked spontaneous and momentary. Instead of obsessing over the appearance of reality, they depicted their impression of a scene. Instead of smooth, invisible brushwork, they used visible, expressive brushstrokes. Instead of a dark and sober palette, they tended toward light and colorful schemes, minimizing their use of black. Instead of using the stagey lighting of the studio, they were preoccupied with the visual effects of outdoor light and weather.

"Pure Impressionism" was a movement that lasted only briefly, as a revolutionary trend. Most Impressionist artists had worked in other styles before their Impressionist period, and later developed new styles that were less systematic and more personal.

Claude Monet

Impressionists were concerned with depicting modern life, such as this railway station, which was new in Monet's time.

Claude Monet, 1840-1926
The Saint-Lazare Station, 1877
Bouquets were traditional, but Monet treated this one in the latest style, making it shimmer with energy.

Claude Monet, 1840-1926
Chrysanthemums, 1878
Far from being a sentimentalist, Monet had a scientific interest in the effects of light at different times of the year. In order to make an objective study, he did a series of haystack paintings in different seasons in which lighting conditions were the only variable. 

Claude Monet, 1840-1926
Haystacks, End of Summer, 1891
Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Here's a portrait of Monet by fellow Impressionist, Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1841-1919
Claude Monet, 1875
Renoir was devoted to painting people and relationships. The delightful scene below captures the vivacity of a crowd of young people flirting and dancing, romanticized by dappled light. 

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1841-1919
Dance at the Moulin de la Galette, 1876
Renoir used dappled light to create intimacy in the painting below. The flirty young woman is playing on a child's swing, showing off for her young admirer, who gives the swing a push. A child and father wait patiently behind the tree that supports the swing, politely deferring to young love. 

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1841-1919
The Swing, 1878
Intimacy is a constant theme for Renoir. Here he expresses it as two innocent girls creating harmonious music together.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1841-1919
Young Girls at the Piano, 1892
This young woman is shown alone, but isn't she dreaming of love?

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1841-1919
Young Girl Seated, 1909
These fleshy nudes might seem repellant to modern eyes. The fact that the figures are rather "fat," makes three statements: it says that women with mature figures can be beautiful; it relates the figures to the voluptuous nudes of Rubens, giving them an archetypical quality; and, most importantly, it creates intimacy between the two main figures. The women are chatting freely, unencumbered by pretenses or secrets. 

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1841-1919
The Bathers, 1919
Camille Pissarro

Camillle Pissarro, 1830-1903
Woman Hanging Laundry, 1887

Alfred Sisley

Alfred Sisley, 1839-1899
Farmyard at St. Mammès (Seine et Marne),

Though she was a friend and colleague of Manet, Berthe Morisot rejected dark colors and high contrasts. Women were her usual subjects, and her muted palette and casual brushstrokes made them blend in with their surroundings, merely part of the decoration.

Berthe Morisot, 1841-1895
Young Girl in Ball Gown, 1879

Mary Cassatt was sneaky. Overtly, her subjects were bland and inoffensive, but at a subtle level, her depictions were assertive. In the painting below, a young girl sewing is presented in a pyramidal composition dominating the whole canvas that makes her as important as a madonna; moreover, all the lines converge on her hands, whose position suggests prayer as well as sewing.

Mary Cassatt, 1844-1926
Young Woman Sewing in a Garden, 1880-1882

Gustave Caillebotte was committed to depicting the modern world, while carefully rendering true lighting.

Gustave Caillebotte, 1848-1894
View of Rooftops (Effect of Snow), 1878


Pointillism was a development of Impressionism that replaced expressive brushstrokes with tiny, uniform dots of pure color, in various combinations and densities. Pointillism had a vibrant quality that I find very appealing, especially when the painters got fanciful in their coloration.

Georges Seurat

Georges Seurat, 1859-1891
Circus, 1891
Henri-Edmond Cross

Henri-Edmond Cross, 1856-1910
The Cypresses at Cagnes, 1908

Maximilien Luce

Maximilien Luce, 1858-1941
The Quai Saint-Michel and Notre-Dame, 1901

Paul Signac

Paul Signac, 1863-1935
Les Andelys; TheRiverbank, 1886
Paul Signac, 1863-1935
The Demolisher, 1899
Paul Signac, 1863-1935
Woman with a Parasol, 1893


Post-Impressionism is not an aesthetic theory as much as a desire to get away from theory and develop a more personal approach. Artists in this set do not have much in common, other than towering genius.

Paul Gauguin worked in an Impressionist manner early in his career. 

Paul Gauguin, 1848-1903
The Washerwomen at Pont-Aven, 1886
But later he developed an intense palette, and applied planes of pure color in a flat spatial arrangement.

Paul Gauguin, 1848-1903
Les Alyscamps, 1888
Paul Gauguin, 1848-1903
Yellow Haystacks, 1889
Paul Gauguin, 1848-1903
Women of Tahiti, 1891
Photo by Dan L. Smith

Vincent van Gogh is the model of the artist who sacrificed himself for his art, pouring every ounce of himself into his work, with only one sale in his lifetime. Painting after painting grabs your attention, and each for a different reason. His brushwork had a life of its own, and his color schemes tended toward the fragrant citrus.

Vincent Van Gogh, 1853-1890
Self-portrait, 1889
Vincent Van Gogh, 1853-1890
Encampment of Gypsies with Caravans, 1888
Vincent Van Gogh, 1853-1890
Bedroom in Arles, 1889
Vincent Van Gogh, 1853-1890
The Church at Auvers, 1890
Paul Cézanne was all about clarity and detachment. Like Monet, he studied changing light on a single form—a nearby mountain—during various seasons and times of day, recording it in several paintings. To still life, he brought new solidity and importance. To the tradition of nude bathers, he succeeded in using the male figure to express ideal beauty.

Paul Cézanne, 1839-1906
Mont Sainte-Victoire, c.1890
Paul Cézanne, 1839-1906
Still Life With a Basket (Kitchen Table), c. 1890-95
Paul Cézanne, 1839-1906
Bathers, c. 1890

The Museum Experience

The Orsay presents some of the world's favorite paintings. It's no wonder that it is dense with camera and smart phone wielding tourists.

Opened in 1986, the museum occupies the former Orsay railway station, built in 1900. It's a beautiful old building, and I'm glad they found a use for it, but the lighting can't be controlled properly for a museum, so a large number of the paintings were obscured by glare.

The museum presents a lot of art of marginal interest, by painters you never heard of from schools of art that have fallen out of favor. There's a lot of sculpture and interior decoration.

The museum's restaurant retains the profuse rococo decoration of the railway station. We had a gourmet fish lunch there. Service was gracious and fairly quick.

On the way out, we discovered the railway station's 'event center.' What sort of events took place here in the early 1900s? Why was it so lavish? What sort of events take place here in the present?