There’s no denying it. Impressionism is an art both beautiful and important in art history. One only has to glance at Monet’s Nympheas to get lost in its allure, to absorb the rapid colors is blissful.
The Musee d’Orsay seems to be known to much of the world as ‘The Impressionist Museum.’ Its right to a point. It is one of the best collections of Impressionist work in the world. It makes sense because it was a mostly French movement centered in Paris – and the Orsay is the national museum focused on that time period.
That, however, is the important part. The Orsay is not an Impressionist museum, just as the Louvre is not the Mona Lisa museum. Technically, the Orsay is the art collection of the period from 1850 – 1900. Evidently, this encompasses Impressionism, but there’s so much more wonder to the period. Those fifty years are one of the most active half centuries of change, marking the departure from strict academic rules and classicism.
Here’s some of my favorite works at the Orsay that are far from the Impressionists.
Pompon – Ours blanc (Polar bear)
Pompon’s Ours blanc is at first, a pleasing piece to look at. Its simplified form of white marble makes the beloved polar bear seem even more welcoming. Its one of those works however, that is much more interesting with some context. Walking through the Orsay the first few times, I was always curious about Pompon’s sculpture. On the ground floor, it provides relief after a number of highly technical sculptures of the human form, grand format Courbet paintings and some remnants of classical painting. Its subject matter and simplification are both relieving and surprising at the same time.
Pompon was a practitioner for some of the absurdly famous late 19th century sculptures such as Rodin. That is to say, he worked in his workshop, indeed working on some of the sculptures themselves. Artistic integrity intact, Rodin would make the original yet have assistants aid him in multiple marble copies. I find it fair to say Rodin remains the creator, though maybe more credit should be given to his team. Regardless, Pompon absorbed Rodin’s talent before setting up shop on his own.
Actually an outlier to the time period of the museum ours blanc is Pompon’s first serious success, dating to 1922. After leaving Rodin, he sought a new form of expression, abandoning human subjects for animals and simplifying his form. His goal therefore is to represent the “essence of the animal” through a pure and hardly ornate exterior. A quick walk across the Seine to the Centre Pompidou can show the importance of Pompon’s stylistic change by looking at Brancusi’s sculptures, crafted in the same vein.
Gustave Moreau – Orphee (Orpheus)
It is important to remember that Impressionism wasn’t the only school of painting in its time period – and that it wasn’t hugely popular. Gustave Moreau and the Symbolists are a strong illustration of that fact. Developing in the same city during the same time period, the Symbolists strayed less from classical technique, and used the illustration of biblical and mythological scenes to provide meaning.
Moreau had a formation based on classical painting before befriending Chasserieau, a French Romantic painter. Through this friendship, Moreau also picked up some Orientalist iconography, seen in the gown of the young woman. Rock formations draw inspiration from the Italian Renaissance. In entirety, the Symbolist oeuvre was a far cry from the beaming ray of modernism that was Impressionism, rather it drew its influences, both in terms of subject and technique from the past.
At the beginning of a gallery dedicated to the Symbolists on the first floor of the Orsay, this painting evidently tells the story of Orpheus, the legendary Greek poet, musician and prophet. Painted in the same period as Manet’s Olympia, this work is a world apart.
Despite this striking difference of its contemporary movement, Symbolism had as much of an impact as Impressionism on the future of art history. Its deeply philosophical and reflective content would go on to influence the Nabis and eventually, Andre Breton and the Surrealists. Gustave Moreau himself, in a bizarre change of events, taught Matisse and a handful of the fauves, a hugely important if not short-lived group in the early 20th century known for their explosion of arbitrary color that would strike the world of painting.
Henri Rousseau (Le Douanier) – Le Charmeause de serpents (The Serpent Charmer)
At the moment, the slightly bizarre Rousseau is one of my favorite painters. Self taught, Rousseau was not a participant of any artistic groups, two reasons for his unique and unexpected style. Rousseau highlights the traits I like in painting right now, bold colors that are distinct from one another, strong outlines and high attention to detail. Unlike the thick brushstrokes of the Impressionists, each blade of grace is perfectly rendered in Rousseau’ works.
While never gaining huge popularity among the general population, Rousseau had a tremendous effect on many artists, from the Surrealists to Picasso and Delauney. The Snake Charmer in fact was painted in 1907, the same year as Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Picasso’s monumental painting that set the world down the course of Cubism. There’s just as much primitivism and exoticsm displayed here as in Picasso’s work, but represented totally differently. The painting explores a strange contrast of the Garden of Eden and the control over nature. Above all, Rousseau creates a magnificent world to explore through his colors and detail.
There’s a lot more to be seen in the Orsay, both Impressionist and not, these are just a few of my favorites. However gauded as an “easy” museum that you can do in a short time period without being overwhelmed, the Orsay does actually have a fair amount of hidden rooms and a wide variety. All the better for an artistic adventure.