Housed in a former rail terminus on the banks of the seine, the Musée d’Orsay is one of the largest collections of 19th century Impressionist and post-Impressionist art in the world. I begin my tour of the museum on the ground floor with my feet firmly placed in the 19th century -- 1863 to be exact. I am face to face with Alexandre Cabanel’s painting “The Birth of Venus” (1863). It is a painting little known today but was lauded by the critics when it appeared that year at the Salon. It was popular with the establishment too, finding its way into emperor Napoleon III’s art collection.
There is something oddly artificial about this painting. Venus lies naked, sprawled out, with her long flowing hair by her side, as though she were lying on a bed. The problem is, she’s not lying on a bed, she’s lying on a wave, and there are angels fluttering about overhead. Her arm is gracefully arched over her face, obstructing her view, and as a consequence we are free to look on her naked body, without her reproachful looks to put us off.
My guide for the day, Marjorie, explains: ‘this painting is an example of a work produced at the height of 19th century academic painting when idealisation of the female nude and ancient mythology took precedence over any concerns for realism’.
Cabanel’s painting made its debut at the yearly Parisian Salon, where paintings like this adhered to the strict academic codes of the period. Marjorie says, 'at the time, exposing your work at the Salon was the equivalent of a musician performing at Madison Square Garden.'
Many paintings were routinely refused from the Salon. And as a result, Napoleon III was forced (at the behest of 3,000 disgruntled artists) to establish “Le Salon des Refusés”, or Exhibition of Rejects in 1863 -- the same year that Cabanel's painting was exhibited. It was in this same year that the second painting I will see, Edouard Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’Herbe, will be exhibited at the Salon des Refuses.
We leave the ground floor galleries and climb to the top floor to see the Manet. On our way, we pass the first huge clock face, which bookends each side of the top floor of the museum, and through which the luminous grey light of Paris seeps. I stop and take a look out -- past the giant hands -- at the remarkable view of the right bank of Paris, with Montmartre rising in the distance. I walk on with Marjorie and we are confronted by what most art historians consider a game changer in art, Manet's Dejeuner Sur l’Herbe.
Marjorie stands to the side of the painting illustrating convincingly that, although Dejeuner Sur l’Herbe and The Birth of Venus were painted in the same year, and feature female nudes, they couldn’t be more different in style and subject matter. Manet’s female nudes are not polished, idealised beauties in the way that Cabanel's are. Nor have they anything to do with antiquity. Their male companions, dressed in contemporary 19th century garb, lend the painting a stark modernity, accentuating the odd nakedness of the two women. The woman sitting in the foreground looks out of the painting to meet the viewer’s gaze as though she is challenging it. It stands in stark constrast to Cabanel’s Venus -- the fay, wallflower, who looks away as we gazed freely on her naked body.
Marjorie also points to a shift in a style of painting, which made Manet an important precursor to Impressionism. Details like the foliage and the hands of the sitters are painted without precision, as though the painting had been rushed. The painting’s exhibition was met with uproar and bewilderment by the establishment. Painters who admired Manet, however, began to adopt his rushed style.
Marjorie shows me how this evolution in painting took place as we walk on to the next room to see some of the standout Impressionist works painted a decade later by Claude Monet and Camille Pissaro, works that were derided by the critics for their ‘impressioniste style' -- a word that was used pejoratively at the time. Marjorie tells me, to my surprise, that Monet only began to earn a living from his paintings late in his life. Light was the all important subject in Impressionist painting -- capturing it in paint being the Impressionists chief concern. This can be seen when looking at Monet’s vivid, colour-drenched series of Rouen Cathedral, depicted at different times of the day.
In the following rooms we come to the post-Impressionists and particularly impressive are those rooms that house Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. Thanks to the Impressionist’s liberal use of colours in their paintings, Van Gogh and Gauguin went one step further with post- Impressionism, by employing ever more striking combinations of colours.
Finally we drift though room after room of paintings by Edgar Degas, Henri Toulouse de Lautrec, and Claude Monet, after which, we arrive back on the ground floor and in front of a huge cross-section model of Opéra Garnier. We can see clearly how the elaborate stage with all its leavers and pulleys is larger than the auditorium. Marjorie tells me, that when the design of the Opéra was unveiled, the Emperor -- perplexed by the ostentatious mix of styles -- asked architect Charles Garnier what style it was supposed to be? Garnier, thinking on his feet, replied that the style was Napoleon III. Marjorie also tells me that astonishingly, at the height of French power, tickets at the Opera commanded the equivalent of thirty thousand euro a seat.
Jacques-Emile Blanche - Portrait of Marcel Proust
Giovanni Boldini - Count Robert de Montesquiou
Gustave Caillebotte - The Floor Planers
Paul Cézanne - The Cardplayers
Gustave Courbet - A Burial at Ornans
Gustave Courbet - The Origin of the World
Edgar Degas - In a Café
Edgar Degas - The Ballet Class
Henri Fantin-Latour - By the Table
Paul Gauguin- Arearea
Paul Gauguin-Tahitian Women
Edouard Manet -Emile Zola
Edouard Manet - Luncheon on the Grass (Dejeuner Sur l’Herbe)
Edouard Manet- Olympia
Jean-François Millet - The Angelus
Claude Monet- The Saint-Lazare Station
Auguste Renoir - Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec – Alone
Vincent van Gogh- Self-Portrait
Vincent van Gogh-Starry Night
Vincent van Gogh-Van Gogh's Bedroom in Arles
Agathe was absolutely delightful! Her knowledge and charming personality made her an excellent tour guide. I would highly suggest this tour!!
Jesica was a great tour guide and made the experience one of the highlights of our entire trip to Paris. It certainly met our expectations.
Marjorie was just great! I didn't really want to do the Louvre but she made the history come alive in stories and I just LOVED our experience!
Alberto was a great guide, he was very informative. The Catacombs were just awesome. Would definitely recommend this to everyone!!
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