I get asked the question “Why Paris?” pretty frequently. My typical response includes something about how I study art (especially Impressionism) and French, therefore Paris was a perfect fit. Well, over three weeks into my trip, I finally made it to a Museum, and kicked off my yearlong art-ztravaganza with the magnificent Musée d’Orsay.
First, some context. My first year and some of my second year at UPS I had very little idea of what I wanted to study. I bounced from Economics to Business Leadership to History to Comparative Sociology and continuously felt lack of pull to any of them. The first semester of my sophomore year I took an Art History survey class that covered the massive oeuvre between 1300 (Giotto) and the present. I found myself compelled to study more, and one day, rather instinctively, declared the major – partially allured by the ease of studying in France for a year. Second semester I took a class on 19th Century art, predominately French, which followed the transition between revolutions both politically and socially, and artistic changes between academic painting, Romanticism, Realism, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and Abstract-Expressionism. I came to love the works of Degas, Manet and Caillebotte the most, among everything else. I also found art history entailed much more than looking at paintings and trying to sound intellectual and classy at the same time when speaking of them. It is a very academic and research based discipline, which adds both to its rigor and intrigue.
Fast forward to today, when after three weeks of just architecture (which is marvelous nonetheless, especially in Paris, but does not draw me in with the same force) and sculpture (which is great), and the few paintings at Versaille (which were great), I was unbelievably stoked to see some paintings.
The Orsay is interesting in that it has only been a museum for under thirty years, and is a building that was originally a railway station, constructed in the Beaux-Arts style. After seeing some more museums, expect a comparison and analysis on the effect of a building on its status as a museum. Nevertheless it is a beautiful place for beautiful paintings and the full railway structure has hardly been modified. Additionally, it is small both in size and in spanse. It is an easy museum to cover most of in one trip, and the works it presents are mostly limited to the time period between 1848-1915 aka Impressionism and post-Impressionism. Fine by me. I’ll take it as a warm-up for the overwhelming Louvre.
I went with a group from my program, for a tour of the museum. Not my favorite way to go, but we got to listen to a women guide of through the museum in French, which was an enriching experience. Knowing a fair amount about the paintings we say, I was able to understand most of what she said, and therefore took away a lot from her presentation.
We started with a classic, Manet’s Olympia. The Orsay juxtaposes it with Cabanel’s Vénus to display the difference between the onset of Impressionism and the traditional academic painting. Both are at first glance paintings of female nudes, and both were painted in 1863, but the implications of Manet’s painting were much more vast. Rather than present an ideal female form with a mythological story as Cabanel does, Olympiais a focal point of modern life with no glorification done to the human form. Olympia is a prostitute with jarring colors, body position and erotic symbolism. The work represents the change to a style of painting based on observation of modern life, with a different stylistic approach based more in the essence of the sight rather than an articulate representation.
We saw many other paintings by Cezanne, Degas, Sisley, Toulouse-Lautrec, Pissarro and of course many more. We also saw a model of the Opera, which really showcases how grand it is. The tour guide spoke for a while about Haussmanisation and how the building of Garnier’s Opera and the Rue de Rivoli as well as the other grand boulevards reshaped Paris. There is an intricate correlation between it all. As Paris was shaped into a modern city, life was modernized with it, as represented by the works of the Impressionist painters.
On the whole, the museum was so great because I actually got to see all these paintings I’ve learned about in their true form, rather than via a computer. Especially with Impressionism, the application of the paint is so important to the form that it is necessary to be able to look at a painting as a sum of its brushstrokes, to see it from up close and from far back to full comprehend its meaning and beauty. The visual effects created by heaping paint on top of more paint, by using long thick strokes, or by putting colors in seemingly sporadic locations can’t truly be appreciated until seen on the original work. Below are some examples of big brushstrokes and heavy layering of paint.