After a home-cooked lunch, I threw on a coat, walked out into the pouring rain, and took the metro to Solférino, which is about 3 minutes from Le Musée D’Orsay. There were a lot of people, so I ended up waiting in the rain without an umbrella for about 15 minutes just to get into the museum.
There actually weren’t too many people inside the museum, we were just being let in slowly so that it wouldn’t get too crowded.
The museum has a pretty strict “no photo” policy, so what I did was record the names/artists of certain works: that way, I can quickly search it up online and also learn more about the history of the artist and the work.
I’ll be completely honest. I’m in no way an art buff, and as much as I am able to appreciate the skill and painstaking effort required by the artist, when it comes to European history, artists, artistic movements, and the sort, my knowledge is quite limited. But part of the reason that I’m going to these museums and I’m writing these blog posts (for which I have to do some research) is an attempt to educate myself in art and art history, to learn how people in the past used to think. I have the opportunity that not many ever get – to live in the city of lights with a lot of free time – and I plan to take advantage of it with excursions like this one (or like last week’s visit to Le Marais + the Pixar exhibition the week before).
Anyway, back to the tour. Being a French citizen between 18-25 years old, I got free entrance, so after walking through a metal detector and then flashing the security officer my carte consulaire, I was let in.
Le Musée D’Orsay used to be a train station/hotel until it converted to a museum in 1986, and it looks the part. It kind of reminded me of Gare du Nord, one of Paris’ larger train stations, with it’s enormous glass dome-style ceiling that was at least 30,40 meters high. Today, it houses (according to Wikipedia) works of art dating from the mid 1800s to the early 1900s, as well as the largest collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art in the world.
The first sculpture that I saw was a miniature version of Bartholdi’s statue, Liberty, or la Liberté éclairant le Monde (The liberty enlightening the world). It was immediately recognizable, being one of the most recognizable works of art in the world, but unlike the one in New York, though, it was smaller (I’m guessing about 3 meters tall, if not less) and still a dark bronze color. According to the Musée D’Orsay’s website, it’s only been there since June of 2013 after being in Luxembourg for 115 years.
It’s crazy how universal a work of art can become.
Continuing on down the “main hall” I saw dozens of sculptures, which are my favorite type of art. I think that it’s incredible how artists are able to make something so cold, hard, and dead seem so warm, soft, and alive. What I think is the most incredible is when you have sculptures of cloths/veils, where the artist is somehow able to capture how the cloth looks with a body underneath it. One of my favorite sculptures that I saw today was called Pan et Oursons, by Emmanuel Fremiet in 1867, because a) it included the Greek god of Nature, Pan, and I really like Greek mythology (thank you Percy Jackson for spurring that interest) b) it was very well done – the fur on Pan’s satyr legs and the bear cubs looked real, and c) it was really, really cute. Let me show you:
Another thing I really like about sculptures – they’re made of stone, and therefore 3D and much more durable. When was the last time you heard of a painting being erected in the city center in honor of someone?
Some other notable sculptures that I saw:
The youth of Aristotle, the philosopher.
In the museum there was actually a huge painting in between these two, so I didn’t realize they were a matched set! I love the way the marble is made to look like cloth. Also, it looks like the woman in the bottom right is taking a selfie (haha).
I moved on to the right side of the museum, where I saw some ornaments and some late-1800s paintings.
From Napoleon to who, I’m not quite sure – the picture isn’t clear enough and I forgot to note the name – but the sword looks magnificent.
Since I’m studying cuisine right now, I just had to take a picture of these.
I told you, I really like Greek myth: here’s Heracles killing the Stymphalian birds.
Here’s the trompe-l’oeil technique (basically optical illusion) that showed up in the church that I talked about in last week’s post!
Look at the incredible detail and color on this, even though it’s really just black, white, shades of grey, and little bit of red. There was a whole section in the museum on snow and the color white (which has been used for ages as the color of purity, divine power, and innocence, according to the sign in the museum), but this was my favorite. It also reminded me of the crazy polar vortex situation on the East Coast.
Then, on the left side of the museum on the ground floor, there was a huge section on Salon paintings. The Salon was, basically, an enormous official art exhibition which, at the time, would determine whether or not an artist was worth anything artistically according to a strict set of rules and a certain type of style.
As strict and horrible-sounding as it seems, though, Salon paintings are seriously impressive. They are huge with enormous attention to detail, balance of light and dark, and colors. One gigantic painting (it must have been 4×5 meters) by Paul Chenavard, called Divina Tragedia, particularly caught my attention:
Apparently, this painting was considered too complex by a lot of art critics for all the symbols in it. Frankly, I don’t understand any of it other than Christ in the center. The painting is supposed to be a counterpoint to Dante’s Inferno, but seeing as I’ve never read the Divine Comedy, I don’t understand the references. Even if I had read it, I doubt I would fully understand this painting either.
I didn’t even notice this until I searched it up, but on the left of Courbet’s A Burial at Ornans, there are the clerics, in the middle the men, and on the right, the women. I also think it’s kind of strange that there is a dog.
Anyway, A Burial at Ornans is supposedly a turning point in realism because it’s different: it’s a huge painting (usually this is reserved for heroic/battle scenes), and it’s a painting of a relatively ordinary scene. It made him instantly famous.
Here’s the last “large format” painting of Courbet’s, the Kill of Deer. Pretty morbid stuff, but the colors seem to say the opposite (Also, Courbet seems to really like dogs).
Moving out of the Salon section, there was some pretty interesting stuff on the museum/hotel itself: the original blueprints of the museum, actually on blue paper, along with a bunch of photos of what the museum looked like in the past. Like most things Parisian, not that much really changed.
One of my favorite sections was the “Oriental” section, which depicted areas from Palestine to Northern Africa (if I remember correctly, that is). There were some seriously impressive paintings, with gorgeous colors and paintings of animals as well. A personal favorite of mine was Gustave Guillaumet (1840-1887), a French artist best known for his paintings of North Africa.
Pretty powerful painting – it almost looks like a photo – and is it strange that I feel like this could show up on the cover of TIME magazine, even today? Some things are just universal.
How does he express the isolation/emptiness of the desert with so little?
Then I took the escalators up to the 5th floor to the Impressionist section. I also got a pretty nice view of the Seine through a clock:
Let’s talk about the Impressionism. Essentially, it was a movement created by a group of Paris-based 19th-century artists, the Impresionists, that started hosting independent, small-sized exhibitions (vs. the official exhibitions by the Salon) and eventually gained public attention and approval. They included artists such as Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Sisley, Bazille, Degas, etc., all of whom were criticized at first but eventually gained popularity. In terms of content, the Impressionists typically painted realistic scenes and outdoors, which was unthinkable in a time when paintings were meant to be historical or religious. In terms of style, these artists tried to portray light and its changing qualities as well as movements with short, thin brush strokes. Instead of going for details, they went for general visual effects, something that was widely criticized.
Personally, I think that the Salon paintings were more impressive, and perhaps required more skill and precision than Impressionist ones, but Impressionism was better at capturing, as the artists hoped, movement and realistic light (vs. studio lighting). The only problem is that I had to stand back pretty far sometimes to see what was going on.
Here were some of my favorites:
One of Monet’s more famous works (and one that I thoroughly liked), The Magpie. It’s another snow landscape – apparently he was trying to tackle the same snow landscape as Courbet did in L’Hallali au Cerf – but the short strokes are evident, and there’s a lot more blending of colors.
This painting came about as a result of Monet rediscovering the Mediterranean after staying in Italy, but it was painted in Giverny, France, based on a smaller painting he had painted on-site. The amount of color he’s able to capture is amazing.
Apparently, the road disappearing into the distance is one of Sisley’s favorite things to paint. Note how everything is blurry (Impressionism again), and how well Sisley captures the 3 dimensions with the road and the trees on the side.
I also saw a bunch of Impressionist sculptures, which I thought were… not so great looking. The things that I love about classical sculpture – the detail, the way the rock seems to be able to move – don’t show up in impressionist sculptures. Here’s an example of what I mean:
Compare this to sculptures like Pan et les oursons, Torchères, or Liberté éclairant le monde. Pretty big difference. (note: not trying to offend anyone, just stating my personal opinion)
Since I was on the top floor, this photo was practically obligatory:
The museum itself is a work of art itself. Props to Mr. Victor Laloux.
Then I descended to the 2nd floor, where there were some more sculptures, but this time of warriors and such:
I was drawn to the amount of complexity in this work, as with the next one:
Both above are pretty similar, and they were back to back in the museum. The attention to detail is incredible in both: the feathers and the scales, as well as the human flesh and muscle definition. Apparently, the final bronze cast version of Les Chasseurs d’alligators is on la Rue Buffon.
Here’s some more of Fremiet, who painted Pan and the bear cubs! Pretty different style of work, but once again the amount of detail, the wings and even the small amounts of cloth, are very well sculpted (or molded, since this is bronze).
On that floor, there was also the museums magnificent Salle des Fêtes, which was used for the hotel guests.
Check out the no camera sign in the photo. Whoever took this photo was a rule breaker 😛
I also walked through a couple of Art Nouveau sections, which were mainly different types of furniture from Britain, the US, Italy, Northern Europe, etc. They were actually all quite similar, mostly furniture and ornaments, made with smooth, flowing lines. and rhythmic floral patterns. This part of the museum smelled like wood (I’m not quite sure why I had to mention that: probably inspired by Good Will Hunting “I bet you don’t know what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel!”).
As I was leaving, I saw the plaster model of Rodin’s Porte de L’enfer:
Which is inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy. I saw the final bronze version at the Rodin Museum a couple of years ago, and it’s pretty gruesome. This one isn’t as bad since it’s in white, but it’s still very dark.
On that positive note, that’s how I spent my Sunday afternoon.
Didn’t think I would end with an image of the gates of hell, did you? Here’s one of the sculptures I saw in the center hall of the museum. Have a great one! (Phew, that was a long post, thanks for sticking around!)