A highlight of any trip to Paris would include a visit to the Musée d’Orsay, which houses the world’s largest collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist art work. The museum includes paintings, sculptures, photography, and furniture dating from 1848-1914. The collection includes pieces by Oscar-Claude Monet, Pierre-August Renoir, Alfred Sisley, Berthe Morisot, Édouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Paul Cézanne, Georges-Pierre Seurat, Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin, and Vincent Willem van Gogh.
The building that houses the museum was originally a railway station, the Gare d’Orsay. The station was originally built in the Beaux-Arts style¹ for the 1900 Exposition Universelle (World’s Fair). The station was located close to the main exhibition sites, and would serve as the terminus station for visitors traveling into Paris from south-west France. The station also included a 370-room hotel. Construction began in the spring of 1898, and was completed in time for the opening of the fair on April 12, 1900².
The Gare d’Orsay was the first station designed for use by electric trains; no steam and smoke meant that the station could be enclosed by a glass roof. The station also featured new technological features such as ramps and lifts for luggage, and passenger elevators.
However, rapid developments in railway technology soon rendered the Gare d’Orsay obsolete. By 1939, longer electric trains were required for mainline routes and the platforms at the Gare d’Orsay were too short for them. The station was closed to long distance traffic, although service on some suburban routes remain in the lower levels of the station, even to this day. During the Second World War, the station found use as a dispatch point for parcels that were sent to prisoners of war. After the war, the station functioned as a reception centre for repatriated prisoners of war and deportees. In 1958, General Charles de Gaulle used the ballroom of the station’s hotel to announce in a press conference that he was returning to politics. The station also served as a shooting location for a couple of movies in the 1960s (including one by Orson Welles). In 1973, the hotel closed.
There were many ideas proposed about what to do with the abandoned Gare d’Orsay, and most of them involved demolition. A new architectural style, modernism, was de rigueur, and a plan to flatten the Beaux-Arts building and replace it with a truly horrific looking international hotel was advanced³. Thankfully, the Ministry of Public Works, Transport, and Housing refused the plans for the new hotel shortly after demolition approval had been granted. They stated that the new design was unsuitable because of its “size and height.” Maybe this is a rare instance of a time traveler managing to go back in time to right what would have become a devastating wrong; regardless, the Beaux-Arts building was added to a Supplementary Inventory of Historic Monuments in 1973.
In 1977, a decision was made to transform the Gare d’Orsay into a museum. It was officially listed in 1978 on the main list of Historic Monuments, and that same year a competition was organized to redesign the building into a museum. The Musée d’Orsay was opened to the public on December 9, 1986.
In the pictures above, you can see there are two clock faces overlooking the Seine. Those clock faces double as windows, as seen in the picture below. You can find one of the clock faces in the café (of course!).
The interior of the museum is faithful to the design of the station. The beautiful glass ceiling, latticework, and station clock remain.
A close-up of the clock.
Another angle, with better lighting.
This shot shows part of the ceiling latticework, in addition to the incredible sculpture. And Neil!
Some other shots of the interior. It is a gorgeous building. The history and the incredible architecture definitely add to the experience.
Let’s move into the artwork! We’ll begin with Van Gogh. I know I already posted this painting above, but I liked this other angle of it as well.
I really like it when a photograph can capture the texture of the paint, as in the image below.
I did take a picture of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers but, alas, it ended up not being in focus. I hope this painting will suffice instead!
I really liked the frame this painting was in, so decided to include it in the image below.
Auguste Rodin began work on the sculpture below, but then decided to leave it with just the head shaped from the marble. He called it Thought Emerging from Matter.
This bust of Beethoven was impressive, especially from the side!
That hair resembles a lion’s mane!
All right, time to check out some Pointilism! Pointilism is a technique of painting that uses small, distinct spots of colour to create an image. It was an offshoot of Impressionism, developed by Paul Signac and Georges Seurat (who painted the picture above, but I don’t think that specific work uses pointilism). The technique relies on the ability of the eye and the mind of the viewer to blend the colour spots into a fuller range of tones.
Here are a couple of examples by Maximilien Luce.
Let’s take a closer look at the painting, to really examine the use of distinct spots of colour.
Here are some paintings by Paul Signac, who helped develop Pointilism.
A close-up of the man sitting on the dock.
I really like this painting, below. I also think Anne Shirley would be a big fan of those puffed sleeves.
A few paintings by Henri-Edmond Cross.
I really like the texture of the paint in this work. Below is a close-up of one of they nymphs.
Ready for some more Monet?
Here’s a close-up of the lilies underneath the bridge.
I really like Monet’s haystacks/grainstacks/wheatstacks series as well.
I really like his “Woman with a Parasol” series as well.
I like how, in the image below, you can see the brushstrokes at the edge of the canvas.
A close up of the lilies.
Monet painted this as a response to Édouard Manet’s painting of the same title, Luncheon on the Grass (shown below). Monet struggled financially early in his career, and his unfinished Luncheon on the Grass was given to his landlord around 1866 as security for his rent payments. The landlord rolled it up and put it in a cellar. When Monet finally had the money to purchase the painting back twenty years later, the neglected painting had contracted a serious case of mould. Monet tried to rescue it by cutting it into three sections of different sizes. One of the panels disappeared, presumably because in the end Monet didn’t think it was worth saving. You can read more about this painting and Claude Monet in this post.
Another angle of the painting, to show how tall the left panel is.
What flowers were to Monet, ballerinas were for Edgar Degas. More than half of his works feature dancers. He is regarded as one of the founders of Impressionism but he rejected the term, preferring to think of himself as a realist.
Degas created a lot of sculpture during his lifetime, but most of them were unseen by the public until after his death. The only sculpture that he showed while still alive was of the sculpture below, shown in 1881.
The sculpture is nearly life-size and has real human hair. It provoked a strong negative reaction from critics, who said that while the realism of the figure was extraordinary, the dancer herself was ugly. Others appreciated how the piece defied what one traditionally expects of a sculpture: smooth, white, classically beautiful.
In 2013, I read Cathy Marie Buchanan’s book The Painted Girls, which was inspired by the real-life model for this sculpture. It was a really good book, I ranked it #6 of the top 10 books I read in 2013, and so it was really interesting to see the actual sculpture in person!
A female artist! Mary Cassatt was an American painter and printmaker, but lived most of her adult life in France. She befriended Edgar Degas, and her work was exhibited with the Impressionists. She is considered one of three main female figures of Impressionism, along with Berthe Morisot and Marie Bracquemond. I wish I had thought to seek out more works by female artists while we were at the Musée d’Orsay. Next time!
Camille Pissarro is considered one of the fathers of Impressionism, and inspired the Post-Impressionists as well (Georges Seurat, Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin). He was a close friend of Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Alfred Sisley. He is the only artist to have exhibited at all eight Impressionist exhibitions from 1874-1886. Pierre-Auguste Renoir said that Pissarro was revolutionary in his artistic portrayals of “the common man”, as he insisted on painting individuals in natural settings “without artifice or grandeur.” Here are a few of his paintings.
A close-up. I really like the texture in this painting!
Pierre-Auguste Renoir was also a leading figure in the development of Impressionism. Here are some of his paintings.
I really adore this one of a little girl with a cat. The look on that cat’s face just melts my heart!
I also really like these two paintings! They are painted life-size. The woman who modelled for the painting on the left, Aline Charigot, later became Renoir’s wife.
Renoir and Monet had a close friendship.
Édouard Manet is considered a transitional figure between the artistic styles of Realism and Impressionism. Two of his paintings, The Luncheon on the Grass and Olympia, were watershed paintings that spurred on the painters who would develop Impressionism, and are thought to mark the start of modern art. He served as a major influence for many future painters.
The Paris Salon rejected The Luncheon on the Grass for exhibit in 1863, but it found a home at the Salon des Refusés (Salon of the Rejected), a parallel exhibition to the official Salon. Victorine Meurent, an accomplished French painter who also exhibited some of her work at the Paris Salon, was the model for the woman on the left. She also modelled for Olympia.
An author I follow on Twitter is currently working on a biography of Victorine Meurent, and had shortly announced the project before we went to France. I was excited to see these paintings in the Musée d’Orsay as a result. Hopefully the book will come out in the next year or two!
I liked this picture because of the roses.
Here are a few beautiful paintings of the night sky, which was a special exhibit on at the time.
The Musée d’Orsay made for a great half-day visit. A lot of guide books have said that the advantage of the Musée d’Orsay is that, unlike the Louvre, the art can be seen and appreciated all in one visit. All of the works are exceptional, and the building is air-conditioned (a super helpful tip if you’re visiting Paris during a heat wave, like we were!).
¹ The Beaux-Arts style was neoclassical with Gothic and Renaissance influences, and involved the use of modern materials such as iron and glass.
²1900 was a momentous year for a World Fair; the Republic of France stated that the exhibit would celebrate the achievements of the past century while welcoming the arrival of a new one. The 1900 Fair ran from April 14 – November 12 and featured diesel engines, escalators, talking films, Russian nesting dolls, and its overarching style was—my favourite!—Art Nouveau.
* I didn’t know what a salt cellar was, nor why the trains supposedly looked like them enough to earn that nickname. I found this 1900s-era salt cellar below, and I can kind of see the connection now.
³a: Paris’ central fresh food market, Les Halles, was demolished in 1971 and replaced by the Forum des Halles, a modern shopping mall. The market’s history dated back to the 11th century and its destruction was highly controversial. The outcry following the demolition probably cooled interest in doing the same to the Gare d’Orsay.
³b: Like Les Halles, the Gare Montparnasse, which was originally opened in 1840 as the Gare de l’Ouest, was torn down in 1969 and replaced with the modern-looking Tour Montparnasse in 1969. The Tour Montparnasse was enough reason for Paris city planners to decide against any future construction of skyscrapers in the area. A tour guide told us that the best view of Paris can be found while you’re in Tour Montparnasse; this is because it’s the only place in the city from which you can’t see the tower itself.