If you visit Paris, try to leave a half-day free to visit this wonderful museum. If you happen to find yourself in Paris on the first Sunday of the month, then entry is free - so even more reason to enhance your brain with a bit of "art" darling....
I have visited the museum probably 3 or 4 times, and loved it each time. My very first visit was ridiculously exciting, I couldn't wait to see the Van Goghs and Renoirs all lined up in rows - more Monets than you could possibly hope to see in one place - what more could a girl wish for? Well, in reality, the works by these artists were indeed fantastic, but I found myself drawn to other artists that I had either never heard of at the time or had paid little attention to - namely Redon, Rousseau, Caillebotte and Toulouse Lautrec.
'Twas a railway station in days of yore.....
The actual site of the museum existed under various incarnations - royal gardens, private mansions and then the Palais d'Orsay which housed the Cour des Comptes and the Conseil d'Etat. During the Commune of 1871 and the violence that ensued, the entire area was burnt down. In 1900, the Orléans railroad company were granted a licence to build a centralised station on the site and the talents of the architect Victor Laloux were enlisted in order to make the building blend with its elegant surroundings. The Louvre stands on the opposite shore, so I imagine it was quite a task to try to live up to the magnificence of that building. The station was prosperous and busy up until 1939, when the advent of longer trains meant the short platforms of Orsay were no longer of use. The building was used as a mailing centre during World War II, sending packages to prisoners of war; and it also served as a film set in the post war period. The decision to transform it into a museum came in 1977 on the initiative of Valery Giscard d'Estaing, President at the time, and it was officially opened by François Mitterand on December 1st 1986.
Architecture and layout of the current museum
The museum is organised on three levels. As you enter the great hallway, the full scale of the building becomes clear, with the fantastic domed glass roof. Sculptures of a hefty size predominate the aisle which runs to the back of the structure and galleries are situated at either side of the main walkway. The milky coloured stone which paves the floor and continues up the walls makes the vastness of the building all the more striking. The building actually houses around 4,000 works of art - maybe not as many as the Louvre, but at least you can get around them all in less than a year! Just one note on the views from the top of the building - if you stop off in the cafe on the top level, make sure you have a look on the balcony outside for a very impressive view of the Seine and the rive droite.
So what "pwitty pic-a-tures" do they have there?
Well, quite a few really and I couldn't possibly cover everything here. To give you an idea though - there are entire rooms filled with Monets, Van Goghs and Renoirs - an amazing sight in itself.
The works housed in the museum cover a period of around 1848 to 1914 and it not only concerns itself with "painting", but also sculpture, decorative arts, furniture and photography. To make things easier for non-art-history-aficianados like myself, the works are set out in a more or less chronological order starting from the ground floor and working up to the heady heights of the top level. (n.b. If you are scared of heights or even just get a bit wobbly in the knee department, then do avoid the "glass walkway". I found it rather sick inducing to say the least, especially when little kids start jumping up and down on what I considered to be glass likely to crack under pressure and send me hurtling to my death...phew.)
Many of the artists displayed here will be instantly recognisable to anyone with a vague interest in art - you cannot fail to be impressed by "the classics" or "the impressionists" that are on display here, but the works that really struck me were by artists I hadn't heard of previously - so here is a very brief list of works that I would consider to be vital to the eyes and the soul!
- "Le pauvre pêcheur" (The Poor Fisherman, 1881) - Pierre Puvis de Chavannes 1824-1898 . Bit of a strange picture and it certainly seems much more modern than its date would suggest.
- "Olympia" (Olympia, 1863) - Edouard Manet 1832-1883. This nude aludes to the classical depiction of the female form, but the woman in question is not some mythological figure, she is a prostitute. Her gaze is almost challenging, nudity without shame. Unsurprisingly, it caused a stir at the time, and was condemned as immoral.
- "Le berceau" (The Cradle, 1872) - Berthe Morisot 1841-1895. A female impressionist, didn't know they existed, but here's the proof!
- "Les raboteurs de parquet" (Planing the Floor,1875) - Gustave Caillebotte 1848-1894. This is the picture that really captivated me. Perspective, use of contrast, an amazing realism and sense of movement and heat. Just astounding!
- "Dans un café" also known as "L'Absinthe" (In a Café or Absinth, 1875-1876) - Edgar Degas 1834-1917. If you have ever read "L'Assommoir" by Zola, you will understand the look of desperate resignation in the faces here. This is one of those paintings that makes you ask questions...what is she thinking? who is she?
- "La gare Saint-Lazare" (Saint-Lazare Station, 1877) - Claude Monet 1840-1926. Had to include a Monet, nobody does impressionism like he does, right?
- "Pommes et oranges" (Apples and Oranges, circa 1895-1900) - Paul Cezanne 1839-1906. Apples and Oranges never looked so interesting...seriously though...
- "Le bouddha" (Buddha, circa 1906-1907) - Odilon Redon 1840-1916. Redon used pastels in a lot of his later works, which gives his pictures a silky, dream-like quality. This work is extremely beautiful. The pastels in the Orsay are housed in a protective darkened room which makes the viewing all the more intense.
- "La charmeuse de serpents" (The Snake Charmer, 1907) - Henri Rousseau 1844-1910. The world of Rousseau must have been odd. His paintings have a cartoon like quality to them, block colours and lush flora and fauna seem to dominate. The dark figure in this picture is intriguing and ever so slightly troubling.
- "Cirque" (Circus, 1891) - Georges Seurat 1859-1891. Example of Pointillism - dotting pure colours to create a blended colour at a distance...or something like that. Looks good from a distance and from close up makes you question just how long it took somebody to do it!
- "La toilette" (Washing, 1896) - Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec 1864-1901. Toulouse-Lautrec is known for his vibrant depictions of the theatre, but this shows a more intimate, delicate side to his work.
- "Porte de l'Enfer" (Gate of Hell, 1880-1917) - Auguste Rodin 1840-1917. The theme of this work is Dante's "Divine Comedy" and it includes mini versions of many of Rodin's other sculptures. If my memory is to be trusted, the work is situated on the middle floor at the far end of the museum. It is stunning, awe inspiring in its scale. Rodin's sculpture displays an incredible sensuality. If you like his work, and you have a half day to spare in Paris, you should visit the Rodin museum...but that's another node....!