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The art of sleeping at the Musee d’Orsay

When visiting a famous trove of art such as the Musee d’Orsay, it’s easy (and understandable) to be overwhelmed and to head straight for the works of The Great Artists – such as Renoir, Monet, van Gogh, Cezanne and Manet. And, of course, you really should see their works. You’re in Paris, after all. But do yourself a big favour: slow down, head off to the smaller side rooms where far fewer people venture and you’ll be rewarded with a nearly ‘private viewing’ of some sublime art – not by The Great Artists, but by people you’ve never heard of and whose art awaits your personal discovery.

Au lit at the Musee d’Orsay

As a case in point, you’ve most likely never encountered the name of Edouard Vuillard nor his painting from 1891, Au Lit or In Bed. Honestly, most people pass by this painting in the Musee d’Orsay with barely a sideward glance. Yet here this gem of a painting is, offering itself to you for your contemplation and enjoyment.

Part of the ‘problem’ with Au Lit might be that it’s deceptively simple. If you don’t break your stride as you walk by, the painting might appear (if it registers at all) to be just a bunch of overlapping, flat panels in washed-out pastel tones. But let’s stop and take a good look for a moment.

The initial impression of flat planes is superficially understandable: in creating the oil painting, Vuillard did derive part of its inspiration from traditional Japanese woodblock printing, which is typically two-dimensional – that is to say, having width and length but minimal depth or perspective and therefore having visual ‘flatness.’

Yet the apparent flatness of the painting is undermined by the deliberate use of a darker blue tone in the background (which makes that area appear to recede) and of much lighter pink tones in the foreground, which make the areas move forward to the viewer. Looking closely, the flat planes of bedding have several subtle creases, folds and shadows, providing some very gentle depth and perspective. Hmm, not so flat after all.

The brown ‘T’ shape is the lower part of a crucifix, partly obscured by a lowered curtain or blind. The vertical member of the crucifix points directly at the face of the sleeping woman, acting to draw our eye to her as the the subject or focal point of the painting. The sleeping woman’s face, with simple eyelids downcast, is almost the same colour as the crucifix, perhaps suggesting a mystic or holy nature to the (unconscious) act of sleeping itself. As a bit of a visual jest, half-hidden by the curtain (like the crucifix) at the upper left is the artist’s signature and the year of the painting’s creation, being [18]91.

Where do sleeping and waking begin, intersect and end? Perhaps like sleep itself, the painting appears to be quite fluid and fuzzy, as if it were assembled from carefully torn segments of softly coloured blotting paper. The hard-edged, bright and vivid exactitude of wide-awakeness is nowhere to be seen. In this painting, we are sharing the sleeping woman’s world of serene relaxation and dreams. As you walk around the Musee d’Orsay… well, find Au Lit and stop walking. Relax, look, contemplate and enjoy the serenity.

By Brad Allan, writer and wine tasting host in Melbourne, Australia and frequent visitor to France…

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