Friday, December 7, 2012

Impressionism and the Seeds of Modern Art - The Musee d'Orsay

While in Paris last month, I got to visit the Musee d'Orsay for the very first time. I was a little bummed that photography was not allowed, but it forced me to really take note of the paintings that stood out to me, and actually helped me enjoy the viewing experience even more. Here is the one picture we got from inside the museum:

View of the Musee d'Orsay

I enjoyed this collection very much, as many of the pieces I've become familiar with over the years could be found here, one after another! To name just a few: Whistler's "Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1" (no, it wasn't destroyed by Mr. Bean!), Van Gogh's "Bedroom," Manet's controversial "Luncheon on the Grass" and "Olympia" (who I wrote about here), Coubet's "Origin of the World" and "Burial at Ornans," numerous works by Degas, Renoir, Monet, Seurat, and Toulous-Lautrec, and even a handful of breathtaking Bouguereaus. I found out later that five of the Bouguereau paintings were just acquired by the museum in 2010 (see article here), including this one:

'L'ssaut (The Assault)', 1898, 60 in x 41 in by William Bouguereau

As I stood before works by the artists who birthed Impressionism and sowed the seeds for Modernism, I was left with a very different feeling than what I had at the Louvre. In many ways, my conservative values and loyalty towards traditionalism had me butting heads with these artists who deliberately sparked controversy. "Olympia" looked brazenly out at me and I tried to stare her down, but she won that fight. :-) "The Origin of the World" still made me look away in embarrassment, yet I couldn't help looking. These artists, particularly Van Gogh, were taking the next step--er, a giant leap--towards art becoming more about the artist than the subject.

But something took me by surprise.

I realized that I still had more in common with these artists than I did with the ones in the Louvre. I thought I was a classical painter, but in fact, I'm not. Like the Impressionists, I am trying to speak truth instead of lies, trying to paint the world that I know and experience, trying to capture what's actually going on around me rather than what happened in the past. David's Neoclassicism left me cold - I felt nothing when I looked at his grand-scale battle scenes and calls to arms. But when I looked at Degas' "Absinthe Drinker at a Cafe," I felt lonely alongside that woman, who sits lost in her own world. When I looked at Monet's series of the Rouen Cathedral - glorious in its variety of mood and color - I felt transported to that place and wanted to stand in that exact light, glowing in the orange and pink, or lost in the shadow blue. I wanted to zip up my boots and jump in the snow piles of Alfred Sisley's "Snow at the Louveciennes."

'Snow at the Louveciennes', 1878, 61x50.5 cm by Alfred Sisley

'The Portal of Rouen Cathedral (soleil), harmony in blue and gold', 1893, by Claude Monet

'The Absinth Drinker', 1876, 36.2 in x 26.8 in by Edgar Degas 

I spent a lot of time in front of wintry scenes, for some reason. Perhaps I was missing fall and winter in the Midwest... I don't know. Maybe winter just lends itself perfectly to Impressionism.

'The Magpie', 1868-69, 35 in x 51 in, by Claude Monet

I was in awe of Impressionism all over again - the way it looks so real from far away, but breaks apart with every step you take towards it. At the end of the day, though, I kept coming back to portraits and figurative works. Those were, hands down, the paintings I was most drawn to. The luminous, translucent skin tones of Bouguereau's nudes simply took my breath away. Overall, my experience at the Musee d'Orsay was just that: an experience. I felt all of my senses at work in response to these magnificent works of art, and I'd go back in a heartbeat, next time I'm in Paris... :-)


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  2. Anna, wonderful write-up. I feel that same emotional connection to the works from these artists. Bouguereau is one of my favorites and I just saw his painting "A Young Girl Defending Herself Against Eros" at the Denver Art Museum during their Van Gogh exhibition. Of course Van Gogh's work was amazing but wow, I love how Bouguereau captures the innocence of a child...and his technique leaves me speechless!


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