PARIS — While the Louvre is a sprawling mass of broad history, the Musée D’Orsay is tight, concise and an art lover’s dream. To use a boxing analogy, it is pound-for-pound one of the best museum’s in the world.
The museum features mostly French art from 1848 to 1914, a period that saw a move from classicism to modernism. The museum, which opened in 1986, is located in the former Gare D’Orsay, a Beaux-Arts railway station on the left bank of the Seine. It houses the largest collection of impressionist and post-impressionist masterpieces in the world, and much of the work is familiar to anyone who has given even a cursory glance at an art history book in the past 20 years.
The building, as the museum’s website points out, is a work of art in itself. It is spacious and bright, retaining the curved glass ceiling of the station. Moreover, each of the exhibition rooms are targeted and detailed, with histories and biographical information readily available — the audio guides are also well worth the rental, providing a lot of background to movements and individual pieces.
Any time Vincent Van Gogh is in the building, he is the star of the show, and the D’Orsay has an impressive collection, sprinkling in Paul Gauguin pieces which complement the story of their combative friendship. The works include self portraits from 1887 and 1889, the famous painting of his bedroom at Arles, “Portrait of Doctor Gachet,” and his magnificent “The Church at Auvers” that span the year 1885 to 1890. Gauguin is represented by fine examples of his Tahitian women, as well as “The Beautiful Angéle.”
The museum is chock full of recognizable paintings such as Edgar Degas’ paintings of dancers — and his original “Little 12-Year-Old Dancer” sculpture — works by Auguste Renoir and Georges Seurat, Paul Cezanne and Henri Rousseau, as well as James Abbott McNeil Whistler’s portrait of his mother (the real title of which is “Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1”).
Edouard Manet’s “Le dejeuner sur l’herbe” is glorious in the flesh, with the added treat of two panels of Claude Monet’s version close by. Monet’s version was started in the spring of 1865. It was intended to be both a tribute and a challenge to Manet whose painting had been the subject of critical and public scorn when it was shown at the Salon des Refusés in 1863. The original painting measured four meters by six, but the two panels are all that remain.
The museum’s website quotes Monet telling the painting’s story: “I had to pay my rent, I gave it to the landlord as security and he rolled it up and put in the cellar. When I finally had enough money to get it back, as you can see, it had gone moldy.” Monet got the painting back in1884, cut it up, and kept only three fragments. The third has now disappeared.
Even among so many great works, Auguste Rodin’s plaster model for “The Gates of Hell” is simply breathtaking. It is almost 20-feet high and 13-feet wide and demands reverence and careful consideration. The sculpture was not cast in Rodin’s lifetime, and it was not until The Rodin Museum in Philadelphia’s founder, Jules Mastbaum ordered two sets of the doors — one for Philadelphia and one for the Musée Rodin in Paris.
Seeing two large paintings by Gustave Courbet was a personal treat. “A Burial at Ornans,” from 1848, was controversial in its subject matter. Convention dictated that large-scale works depict religious or allegorical subjects. Declaring, “Historical art is in its essence contemporary,” Courbet argued that paintings of ordinary people merited the large format.
His masterpiece, 1855’s “The Artist’s Studio” (main picture), reflects Courbet’s political and artistic choices. Its subtitle is “A real allegory summing up seven years of my artistic and moral life.” When it was refused by the Salon because of its size, Courbet organized a personal exhibition, in a building which he had built at his own expense which he called “The Pavilion of Realism,” close to the sanctioned exhibition.
Courbet said, “It’s the whole world coming to me to be painted”, he declared, “on the right, all the shareholders, by that I mean friends, fellow workers, art lovers. On the left is the other world of everyday life, the masses, wretchedness, poverty, wealth, the exploited and the exploiters, people who make a living from death.” For an in-depth article on “The Artist’s Studio,” click here.
The museum’s website is as impressive as the museum itself, with descriptions of the works and their locations in the galleries. If a visit to the museum is not in your near future, the website offers a wonderful overview.
The Musée D’Orsay’s collection may be the most recognizable of any museum in the world. A visit should be on any art lover’s bucket list.
The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday and admission is 12 euros.
All photos by Andy Coughlan 2017