Discover the Musee d'Orsay, Paris

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The Musee d'Orsay, on the left bank of the Seine, holds the world's most comprehensive collection of impressionist masterpieces.

Visitors flock from the corners of the globe to see works like Manet's Dejeuner sur l'Herbe and Olympia, Renoir's Bal au Moulin de la Gallette, Degas' Absinthe Drinker, Morisot's The Cradle, and van Gogh's Starry Night over the Rhone.

Opened in 1986, the d'Orsay focusses on French art from between 1848 and 1914 (though there are a number of exceptions). The museum therefore bridges the gap between classical art, housed in the Louvre, and modern art, found in the Pompidou Centre.

The d'Orsay typically displays about 3,000 works of art at any one time and ranks 15th on the list of the world's most popular museums.

But the art is only part of the attraction: the Musee d'Orsay is a stunning structure, converted into an art gallery from the Gare d'Orsay railway station; and the museum boasts fantastic gift shops, an art library, a high-end restaurant and an excellent and stylish cafe on its fifth floor.

1. Impressionism at the d'Orsay: Manet & Monet

The d'Orsay holds a remarkable 407 works by the nine key impressionist painters.

There are 34 Manets, 86 Monets, 81 Renoirs, 43 Degas', 56 Cezannes, 46 Pissarros, 9 Morisots, 46 Sisleys and 6 Bazilles.

In addition, there are a huge number of works by pre- and post-impressionists, including 24 van Goghs and 24 Gauguins.

Manet

The d'Orsay probably holds the world's finest collection of Manets. Chief amongst them are Dejeuner sur l'Herbe and Olympia. Painted in the early 1860s, Manet submitted these works to the annual Salon (Exhibition) of the Academy des Beaux Arts, throwing down the gauntlet to their jury who preferred more traditional works.

Manet's Dejeuner sur l'Herbe and Olympia

Other important Manets include Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets, At the Beach, the Balcony, the Piper (a portrait of his son, Leon), and Bazille's Studio.

Monet

Of the 86 Monets, I would single out three as being particularly interesting.

  • Rue Montorgueil in Paris, a riotous work depicting a June 1878 festival to celebrate the holding of the Third Universal Exhibition in Paris and France's recovery from its defeat in the 1870/1 Franco-Prussian war.
  • The Magpie: a simple and enchanting painting of a magpie in the snow from 1869.
  • Camille Doncieux on her Deathbed: this remarkable work, painted hours after Monet's first wife Camille died in 1879, captures her body in the early morning son.

Three interesting Monets on display at the d'Orsay

There are also two key works from Monet's early career, Luncheon on the Grass and Women in the Garden.

Luncheon on the Grass and Women in the Garden

Luncheon on the Grass (1865-6)is interesting because of its size: Monet's canvas was about six by four metres in size, and required the digging of a trench and complicated pully system in order that he could paint the top of it! A homage to Manet's Dejeuner sur l'Herbe, Monet's effort languished in his landlord's basement for years and grew mouldy - only two portions remain!

Women in the Garden (1866) is another early attempt at en plein air (outdoor) painting. But the composition doesn't really work: whilst some of the figures are lifelike, the woman in the background for me looks a bit like a ghost and another of the women has a distinctly masculine appearance.

There are then lots of classic paintings from Monet's series of works: Houses of Parliament, Poplars, Rouen Cathedral, Haystacks and Water Lilies are all represented.

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2. Impressionism at the d'Orsay: Renoir & Degas

Renoir

Pierre-Auguste Renoir had a particular knack for painting women and scenes of pure joy.

The d'Orsay's most important Renoir, which ticks both boxes, is Bal du moulin de la Galette (Dance at the Galette Windmill). Note the use of light and shadow and the riotous modern scene, both key traits of impressionist painting.

Bal du moulin de la Galette

The next most famous Renoir on display is La Balancoire (the Swing), from 1876, which features a grown woman on a swing. It is unclear what is going on: perhaps she is being courted, for she is certainly looking a little coy.

Renoir's The Swing

We also highlight Renoir's Dance in the City and Dance in the Country, presented side-by-side. The third painting of the trilogy, Dance at Bougival, is found in Boston's Fine Arts Museum.

Dance in the Country (left) and Dance in the City

Other gems from Renoir's oeuvre include Girls at the Piano, Bathers and Frederic Bazille at his Easel.

Degas

Edgar Degas, best known for his works of ballerinas and jockeys, was a difficult individual. But there is no denying that he produced works of breathtaking beauty and novelty.

The d'Orsay has a an impressive collection of Degas' scenes from the Paris ballet, for example the Ballet's Orchestra (with the dancers featuring in the background), Dance Class (depicting the hard life faced by ballerinas) and Ballet (L'Etoile) (showing a performing dancer and a sinister male figure waiting in the wings). These three works are shown below.

Degas' works of ballerinas in the d'Orsay

Sticking with the ballet theme, the d'Orsay also boasts Degas' Little Dancer, a life-sized sculpture of a 14-year old ballerina.

The Little Dancer

We also mention Degas' In the Cafe (or Absinthe Drinker), another example of Degas painting real-world - and not idealised - scenes.

Degas' Absinthe Drinker

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3. Impressionism at the d'Orsay: Cezanne & Pissarro

Cezanne

Paul Cezanne was perhaps the most unpopular of the impressionists throughout the 1860s and 1870s. His unusual works were castigated by the critics and his low self-esteem meant that he often returned to his family home in Aix seeking solace. Today, however, he is one of the most important impressionists, with his later works providing a key bridge between impressionism and 20th century art.

The d'Orsay's most famous Cezanne is one of the five versions of the Card Players.

The d'Orsay's version of Cezanne's Card Players

The d'Orsay also holds numerous versions of Cezanne's nude bathers, a subject that fascinated him during the last 25 years of his life. Cezanne painted either men or women, usually obscuring their facial features. Here's an example, painted in 1890:

One of the d'Orsay's versions of Cezanne's Bathers

The d'Orsay also holds a number of Cezanne's still lives and portraits, including a rare self-portrait from 1875 as seen below.

A rare Cezanne self-portrait

Pissarro

Camille Pissarro, the elder-statesmen of the impressionist movement, is well known for his scenes of the countryside in and around Paris. The d'Orsay has a number of great examples.

Our first selection is Pissarro's Morning Sun in the Autumn (Soleil de Matin, Automne). A bright painting of a woman tending per garden, this is a work that brings a smile to your face!

Pissarro's Morning Sun in the Autumn

Other lovely Pissarro's include Plum Blossoms in Spring (Printemps, Pruniers en fleurs), from 1877, a self-portrait from 1873, and The Shepardess (La Bergere), from 1881.

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