Click on photos to enlarge.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Musee d'Orsay

French art dating from 1848 to 1915.
When my wife and I travel, I like to do my "homework" before leaving. Next spring, we plan to travel to Paris. I want to see the Eiffel Tower of course, Notre Dame, Versailles, maybe a chateau or two, and lots and lots of French pastries. Besides the standard tourist fare, being an artist, I want to visit every single art museum in the whole city--all that in just a week. That's a lot of homework. There are dozens of them. Fortunately, the biggie, the most important palace of fine art in the city, the Louvre, I've already studied and written about in my book Art Think (right column, available from or in e-book formats from Eliminating a few out of necessity (time and money) other important museums in Paris which I hope to peek into include the Petit Palais (work from before 1848), Musée de l'Orangerie, the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume (contemporary art), the Musée Picasso, the Pompidou Center, and, of course, quite possibly the second most important art museum in Paris, the Musée d'Orsay.

The Musée d'Orsay, along side the Seine, was completed in 1900, bearing the hallmarks of Paris' extravagant Beaux-arts style.
Give or take one or two, there are 150 museums within the city limits of Paris, France. They're not all art museums, of course. Even Paris doesn't have that much art. Several major artists such as Picasso, Rodin, Monet, Dubuffet, Le Corbusier, Dali, and some others I've never even heard of, each have their own museums. There are also museums devoted to history, science, armaments, music, Tennis, wine (of course), perfume, and something called Poupée. Except for the Louvre, the Orsay may have the most interesting history as compared to all the others. Begun in 1898, the museum was originally a train station, built to handle the crowds of tourists arriving in Paris for the Universal Exhibition of 1900. However, shortly thereafter, trains started growing longer and longer, but there was no room for the Gare d'Osay's short platforms to do likewise. The terminal was soon outdated except for local service. During WW II it was use for mail handling before later becoming a movie location. By 1970, the French were ready to tear it down and build a modern style hotel.

The Orsay's grand concourse used to be it's inadequate loading platform.
Today, it makes a better art museum than it ever did a train station.
Comparing the two photos, the grand concourse
of the museum still looks a bit like a train station,
but that ambiance gives the place character.
However, Jacques Duhamel, Minister for Cultural Affairs at the time, vetoed the idea, though it wasn't until 1978 that the Directorate of the Museums of France came up with the idea of tuning the ostentatious pile of stone into an art museums (there was a severe shortage of them in Paris at the time). What was especially needed was a museum to fill the gap between the Louvre and the contemporary are of the then brand new Pompidou Center. There was a design competition to create 20,000 square meters of gallery (about 190,000 square feet). The emphasis was on preserving the original architecture while giving it a totally new purpose. The glass canopied train platform became the main concourse, with the museum's entrance at the far end (where the trains had once entered). The changeover took five years. Installing the two-thousand paintings and six-hundred sculptures alone took six months. French President Francois Mitterrand cut the ribbon in December, 1986.

The Paris museum district: The Louvre (O), the Orsay (J), the Petit Palace (E). the Pompidou (V). The Rodin and Picasso museums are just a few blocks off the map.
The Musée d'Orsay is perfectly located. Just exit the Louvre, cross the Pont Royal (bridge), hang a right and there it is, just across a very busy avenue, in all its light-gray, Beaux-Arts hulk. It's enormous, you can't miss it. However, there are probably more museums in that square mile (or two) of Paris than anywhere else in the world. Except in comparison to the Louvre, the Orsay holds up well against the Petit Palais, the Rodin Museum, l'Orangerie, and the Luxembourg all within a stone's throw of one another (take my word for it, don't try to disprove my point).

The Orsay is where you go to see Manet's massive Luncheon on the Grass,
 if it's not on loan somewhere. I've seen it twice, neither time in Paris.
The naked lady and her gentlemen friends travel quite a lot.
I've not said much about the art itself housed within the former train station. Among the most important of the French painting demigods, Manet has 34 paintings there, including his infamous picnic scene (above); while Courbet has 48, Degas 43, Pissarro 46, Cezanne 56, van Gogh 24, and Renoir 81. But the grand prize winner is Monet with an astounding 86 of his best. You might notice, at far left in the photo above, James McNeill Whistler is no longer the only American represented in the Louvre. He and his mother have been shuffled unceremoniously off to the Orsay to compete with not just Manet's nude on grass, but his Olympia (nude in bed). What's a mother to do?

Every self-respecting art museum has to have its own restaurant.
The dining room looks nothing like a train station.  Let's just say, McDonald's it's not.

No comments:

Post a Comment