Monday, October 27, 2014

Paris: d'Orsay Musuem

Horse at the d'Orsay

Prior to the decision to come to France I’d only heard about the Rodin and the Louvre Museums in Paris. The d’Orsay is THE museum for the Impressionists, the artists I most wanted to see.  There was no disappointment there!

The museum itself is a work of art. A railway station, the Gare d’Orsay was opened in time for the International Exhibition, along with other Paris icons like the Eiffel Tower and the Gran Palais.  By 1939 it was deemed too small to handle the longer trains required by the vast numbers of train riders. It was closed and over the years was used by movie companies as a set, and a mail-train station. By 1970, it was scheduled for demolition. The Directorate of Museums proposed that it become the main repository for impressionist paintings. It was remodeled over several years and finally opened in 1986.

The remodel kept the open train platform “feel” of the building with long structures for sitting in place of the rails. The original ballroom (yes the train station had a ballroom!) is still in use for gatherings, parties, and weddings. The large arching ceiling and enormous clock of the train station lend a grand atmosphere to the main sculpture hall. In salons along the edge of the train hall, the largest paintings are presented, and in smaller intimate rooms on the opposite side are smaller works, many by artists I’d never heard of who were part of the impressionist, post-impressionist, or other artistic movements of the day.

Taking photos was prohibited, but with the prevalence of iPhones I saw many being snapped. Better photos of most of the paintings are available at the d’Orsay website:


or at this Wikipedia page:


As for the collections, I had only heard of Alfred Sisley in passing, and was impressed with the sheer number of his paintings on display in the top-floor gallery. We bought the additional audio guide and were glad we did. So much more information is available that way, as the signs were brief and in French.

Of course the most famous impressionists are also well represented, with the exception of the American Mary Cassatt with only one painting present.

What differentiated the impressionists from the painters that came before were (at least) two brand new ideas. That beauty can be shown without strict adherence to realism, and that reality is an impressive subject. In other words, the real-ness of the world, real people doing normal things, as opposed to a stylized ideal of humanity. The themes represented are not (usually) myths, legends, or biblical stories featuring known characters. A scary painting of people fighting for their lives as their boat crashes among the rocks and people on shore attempt to save them, or a death scene where the family is grieving and the whole range of human emotions are shown in the faces and bodies of those present, were considered valid subjects for painting, and sculpture.

Tourists can buy a Museum Pass, which provides entrance to as many as 30 museums over the course of one, two, or three days. It sounds like a steal, as most of the museum entrance fees are a bit costly. But unless you intend to zoom through each museum with not much more than a cursory glance at the art, it’s not a deal at all. A single big museum a day is my maximum, and the pass costs twice that for just one day.