The Musee d’Orsay is a gem in Paris, beautifully curating artistic creations from 1848 to 1914. The building, the collection, staff and the presentation make those times come alive. Most of all, it is undoubtedly the best museum for impressionist art in the world.
- Visiting Musee d’Orsay
- Story of the Musee d’Orsay building
- The Main Hall of Musee d’Orsay
- Academic Art
- Naked Women in Musee d’Orsay
- Opera and Area Architecture
- Impressionist Art at Musee d’Orsay
- More to explore in Musèe d’Orsay
- You will also love
As someone said,Art is a product of its times. The piece of art tells a story of the time it was created in. Just as importantly, it could only be created in its time, and none other.
Visiting Musee d’Orsay
We visited d’Orsay on sunny Wednesday, November 22nd afternoon. We found it quiet and relatively empty. While it’s never as crazy as the Louvre, summer brings long lines and crowds.
We took a museum docent led tour. Our guide was extremely knowledgeable, funny and very passionate about art, Musee d’Orsay and Paris. Her energy made for an educational and enjoyable tour. With her eloquent story telling abilities, she told the stories of the artist, models, social norms, scandals, technology and artistic advances of the times.
I learnt a lot about the beautiful art in this period. Of all the important art movements we saw in Paris, impressionist art is my favorite as it brings the subject to life with its play with light, movement and color, while leaving room for our own imagination.
Note that d’Orsay and several museums are closed on Monday.
The d’Orsay website is very well organized and has a wealth of information. It describes the story behind each work of art at Art in Musèe d’Orsay .
This blog post is long, organized as a collection mini stories about some of the famous pieces our guided picked. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.
Story of the Musee d’Orsay building
The building itself has a fascinating story.
It was built in an upscale neighborhood of the French nobility, for the all important 1900 World Fair where France displayed it modernity and fine taste. Built in the academic art style on the outside, it was modern on the inside – with elevators and all amenities of modern train station. It was a busy station for a while.
Fast forward a few decades. In 1960s and 70s, like many other buildings, this train station was set for demolition so architects could rebuild. Luckily for the station, around that time a beautiful Paris Market was destroyed and replaced by an ugly modern building. That made the people of Paris very upset. With the destruction of the beloved market, there was little appetite for destroying the beautiful train station.
At the same time there was no one museum for impressionist art of the 19th century – art in the era between Louvre and Pompadour (Picasso). A team was looking for a suitable location.
Bringing the two groups together, a decision was made to repurpose the beautiful train station into a gorgeous museum! So, on Dec 9th, 1986 this unique museum opened its doors. Ever since, this 31 years old museum, gets about 3million visitors a year.
It’s a beautiful example of creativity in rescuing, restoring and celebrating an old building.
The rooms on all five floors are converted to carefully designed galleries. Each wall is richly painted to enhance how we experience the paintings on the wall. My favorite was the fifth floor which exhibits the impressionist art from Monet, Manet, Millet, van Gogh(2nd floor) and more.
The Main Hall of Musee d’Orsay
The main Hall is lined with statues and massive paintings.
Right at the entrance of the great hall is small version of the familiar Statue of liberty.
One could spend hours just admiring the awe inspiring sculptures in the great hall.
Country Life as shown by Jean-François Millet
At a time when country life was considered romantic, idyllic and relaxing, Millet chose to show the harsh reality of living in the country. He painted the daily lives of the country folks harvesting, resting, picking grain, carrying brushwood, carding wool, walking and more
You see, Millet himself was raised in the hardships of rural France, so he had to convey the reality.
In the Gleaners, three women are shown picking grain left behind by the harvesters. Collecting just a few grains for the family, was backbreaking work. One of the women is seen half standing to rest her back. In the background are the harvesters and the harvest master on horse back.
The painting is in the Academic style, popular in those days, but it has some brush strokes (the grass) and he uses a limited color pallet. It shows how he is starting to evolve from the academic to impressionist style. Later Van Gough copies and evolves his style.
Ugolino – Father and four sons by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux
This sculpture by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux is a great representation of the moment of struggle and of agony.
Also, it is probably the most disgusting stories in the museum. As the story goes Ugolino, once a king, was imprisoned with his four sons.
As Dante recounts the story – Ugolino is biting his fingers from worry, as he sees his own reflection in his sons. But, his sons think Ugolino is eating his fingers from hunger. So, they leap to his feet and plead for him to eat them, stay alive and take revenge. No one would imagine eating their children but rather a parent will give everything for their child.
Well, not back then. Ugolino eats his children but is not able to escape the prison. Ultimately he too succumbs to hunger and dies of starvation.
Naked Women in Musee d’Orsay
Paintings of naked women as was popular then as is now, maybe be more. What’s interesting is it was ok to paint naked goddesses but not real women. It was ok to paint women from other places, even middle eastern women, but painting Parisian women was completely scandalous! Even more so, if it has resemblance with reality.
Birth of Venus by Alexandre Cabanel
Alexandre Cabanel was a purist of the Academic style and his ‘Birth of Venus’ is a great example. It won the competition and made it to the Paris Salon in 1863. There it was nabbed by Napoleon III immediately.
With its perfection and lightness, it is very sensual image but that was completely ok because it’s a painting of a goddess. We know that clearly because she has the nymphs above her. She’s lying on the ocean and not on a bed. Also, her elbow is covering her face and eyes, indicating shyness. It was highly admired at the Salon by patrons and critics alike.
Luncheon on the Grass by Édouard Manet
Manet’s another famous painting ‘Luncheon in the Grass’ debuted in Salon des Refusés 1863, where works rejected at the Paris Salon arrived.
The subject is – four people having a picnic in the forest – two well dressed nobles, a naked woman and an almost naked women. Noblemen and prostitutes together was totally normal in Paris at that time but absolutely scandalous in painting. The nude in the painting is neither a goddess nor nymph but rather a real looking person with real men! The painting caused an uproar in the high society and art community. It was therefore rejected by the Paris Salon.
The 19th century was very anti-women’s rights. The men had all power over women. They could be treated as men pleased with or without their wish. Men could freely spend time with prostitutes while having families at home.
The discarded picnic food represents Manet throwing away the academic rules and social norms.
In real life, the nudes are Victorine Meurent, posing with Manet’s brother and brother in law. She was Manet’s favorite model. He also painted her in Olympia.
Victorine Meurent, was a famous artist in her own right. She had own artworks presented at the Paris Salon.
Olympia by Édouard Manet
Olympia was selected for the 1865 Paris Salon. It caused a scandal and uproar because it’s not a goddess but a Parisian woman, even if she’s a prostitute. The painting has many clues that show that she is a high class prostitute – The servant with the bouquet of flowers. The straight confident look at the viewer, not ashamed of her nudity. The black cat at her feet to remind us of a wicked women.
The painting was all too scandalous. But, it made for great publicity.
Emile Zola by Édouard Manet
Zola’s Painting was a modern masterpiece by Manet. It sealed the friendship between the to two greats. Zola admired and praised the non-traditional style and Manet was thankful for Zola’s pen.
He painted Zola and his hallmark possessions with great accuracy and detail. The background contains Zola’s desk with the all important artifacts – the blue brochure he wrote in praise of Manet; Olympia, the nude prostitute which Zola considered Manet’s greatest work, amongst the huge scandal on 1865; an inkwell symbolizing Zola’s writing occupation; a Japanese prince, symbolizing their administration for everything Japanese.
The face is very detail but the rough quick finish of the couch shows he used academic and impressionist styles for this masterpiece.
Opera and Area Architecture
The museum curators wanted to show everything from that period, paintings, sculpture and architecture. The Paris Opera and its surrounding area is a true testament to the period architecture but how does one show it in a museum in an engaging way! Thus came the idea of building the neighborhood’s model underground and showcasing it through a glass floor. Next to it is a 3D cross section model showing the interior of the Opera.
Before this upscale area was built, this neighborhood was a dump with old and filthy homes, plagued by crime and disease. Napoleon III evacuated people living in the dump and built the district.
He held an anonymous contest to select the architect. The selection of 35 year old Charles Garnier was a surprise but a result of his vision and improvements in designs from one stage of the competition to the next.
He built the district and the Paris Opera as beautiful, functional, secure and strong (resistant to fire, weight of the heavy marble and underground stream). It’s overall style is mix of several styles, hence it has its own distinctive ‘Napoleon’ style.
Osman wanted trees everywhere but the architect refused because the view from the Louvre would be blocked. So to this day, the grand Opera building can be seen from the Louvre.
He built commercial centers around the Opera house. Today, Gallery Lafayette and the malls are vibrant center of activity.
The building was inaugurated on Jan 5th 1875, decades before it was completed. Napoleon III didn’t get to see the completed opera house. It’s is said that the architect was not invited to the grand opening because he kept increasing his price. He had to buy his own ticket.
It was unfinished for the world fair but was inaugurated. It was totally ok since it was modern. Today it would be a PR nightmare.
Impressionist Art at Musee d’Orsay
19th century revolutionized art with the invention of paint tubes! Artist were no longer bound to their mixing their paints and painting in their studio. They could go outdoors and paint all day. This enabled artists to draw impressions of landscape!
Also, photography was available, so artists could take a picture and reference it as they painted colors during a time of day or season.
The famous impressionist art is located on 5th floor of Musèe d’Orsay.
Claude Monet at the d’Orsay
Musèe d’Orsay has an extensive collection of Monets and all his styles including landscapes, portraits, still-life and figures from his 60 year long and busy career. Here are a few of the pieces we discussed.
Landscapes by Monet
Series by Monet
Monet painted a series for some subjects like the cathedral and the haystack. The cathedral series were displayed in d’Orsay.
One of Monet’s Haystack series are in Musee d’Orsay.
L’Absinthe by Edgar Degas
L’Absinthe, 1876, by Degas depicts the common tragedy of the times. With their lifestyle, Parisians had painful STDs,like syphilis. Also, with rapid advances of modern life, many faced the life of isolation. Absinthe, a brain damaging drug, was commonly used for pain relief. In the painting, actress Ellen Andrée is drinking absinthe in a cafe and staring at the table with blank look. She looks so hopeless and sad, like many did at the time.
The same model posed as Venus in the Birth of Venus by Alexandre Cabanel.
Momat was once a village that was later included into Paris. In those days, villages outside of Paris had much cheaper wine. So people went to these places to drink and party.
Caillebotte was very rich and a close friend of Monet and others. He was himself an artist too. He had a huge collection of paintings which he later offered to the French government to put in a museum. French government refused to take take the collection, but Americans loved them. Seeing Americans’ interest in the paintings, French government decided to take Caillebotte collection.
At one time Caillebotte had some planers in the house fixing the wooden floors. The lighting on the masculine workers looked so dramatic and romantic that he painted them! He painted them bare chested to show muscles. As one could take liberties in impressionist form, in order to exaggerate the male form, he made the arms extra long.
Other than being one of his few pieces depicting the working class, this painting was also unusual as it shows men bare chested! Unlike the Roman and Greek times where the male body was a popular subject of art, in the 19th century, this was not ok.
Vincent Van Gogh in d’Orsay
Van Gough paintings and their setting is more traditional and yet all immersing. Here are a few memorable pieces at Musee d’Orsay.
Paul Signac in d’Orsay
Musèe d’Orsay has a rich collection of Paul Signac’s work. Even though I was not familiar with his work, I found the style instantly striking with this clean lines, vibrant colors and engaging characters. Here’s one of my many favorites in this style –
In summary, if you’re in Paris or just visiting for a couple of days, this is a must see museum. Being there, letting the artist take you on his/her journey is quite something you’ll never forget.
More to explore in Musèe d’Orsay
There are so many more artists to explore and admire in Musee d’Orsay. Here are just a few more.
The Station Clock
Augusta Rodin in d’Orsay
One can’t possibly miss the many Rodin pieces all around Musee d’Orsay. Here’s one –