The Musée d’Orsay has a collection which focusses mainly on paintings and sculptures from 1848 to 1914 with works from many famous artists including Monet, Degas and Renoir. Along with several others they formed a new movement in art history, also known as the impressionist movement. Around the 2nd half of the nineteenth century artists started to oppose the conventional ideas of painting. They preferred to paint things how they experienced it and used short brush strokes to capture the sometimes rapidly changing scenery.
A former train station
When you enter the museum it’s hard to miss the massive clock hanging in the central hall. The museum was a former train station, built for the 1900 World Exhibition and under the main entrance you can find a model displaying the original design.
For almost four decades the building served as a central hub for many travellers to and from Paris. After shutting down in 1939 the building was classified as a historical monument in 1978. Eight years later the Musée d’Orsay opened its doors, after being redesigned by French architect Jean-Paul Philippon (who also transformed former art-deco swimming pool into La Piscine Museum in Roubaix, northern France).
Degas’ ballet dancers
When looking at Edgar Degas’ paintings and sculptures one thing immediately stands out – his fascination for the world of ballet. He was a frequent visitor to the Paris Opéra which resulted in 1,500 works on this subject alone. Degas was especially intrigued by the expression the body made when dancing ballet and knew how to capture its beauty perfectly. One of his most famous works, a pastel called “danseuses bleu” hangs in the Orsay Museum. The intense blue colour and warm tones in Dancers in blue are incredible.
Pompon’s polar bear
In the main hall are a wide range of life-sized sculptures. From the first floor the u-shaped gallery looks over the museum’s famous clock and the sculptures below including one of the museum’s most famous artworks. A beautiful life-sized plaster sculpture of a white bear, also known as ‘François Pompon’s polar bear’. Pompon worked as an assistant to Auguste Rodin and created many animal-inspired sculptures. By gradually eliminating a large amount of detail he focussed on the essence of the animal. His big breakthrough came at the age of 67 after exhibiting his polar bear at the Salon d’Automne exhibit in Paris.
Claude Monet’s works are well represented at the Musée d’Orsay. At the beginning of his career Monet was fascinated by his almost namesake Manet, whose work was already showing some beginnings of what later would be known as impressionism.
Monet painted his version of ‘Luncheon on the Grass’ as a tribute to Edouard Manet’s version, whose painting is considered to be beginning of modern art (at the Orsay). Manet’s version of Luncheon on the Grass was controversial at the time and led to a storm of criticism. In Manet’s painting we see people picnicking on the grass. It was not the surroundings, nor the figures on the painting that shocked the people, it was the impression it gave to its viewers. And maybe that was exactly what Manet’s intention was, stepping away from conventional painting. Displaying one woman fully nude in between two fully dressed men. It was not the unfamiliarity with nudity in art, after all in ancient works, Greek and Italian, the human body was often painted and sculptured fully nude, but it was the erotic touch that shocked its viewers.
In Monet’s work we find several people picnicking in the Fontainebleau Forest. Monet’s intention was however not to disturb its viewers, he simply focused on depicting the figures on the painting in its best way. They were part of Monet’s intimate circle including his partner and friend Courbet. But unusually, this large painting is in pieces. For many years of his life, Monet was in debt, and at one point he gave the painting as collateral to his landlord, who promptly rolled it up and kept it in a damp cellar. By the time he had enough money to collect his beloved work, the painting was mouldy and damaged. Monet later retrieved the painting and saved what he could, cutting out parts that were still intact. Two of the three pieces can be seen at the Musée d’Orsay. The whereabouts of the third one remains a mystery up to this day.
Three of Paris’ most well-known museums cover subsequent era’s in time. By visiting the Louvre, Musée d’Orsay and the Centre Pompidou in one trip, it’s like leaping through time.
After your visit to the Louvre, which displays roughly 8000 years of art history, it is time to move on to the number two of the city’s three largest museums.
Natascha Gordeau is a former tour guide who lives in the Netherlands. She has a passion for travel, photography, story-telling and France, where her ancestors are from. Find her on Twitter at: Tash Travel Pics