|Bal du Moulin de la Galette, Renoir|
The original gallery plan for our Paris week had been to take in the Musée d’Orsay on the Tuesday and the Pompidou on the Friday – primarily to tally with forecasts for rather damper weather.
But after Tuesday’s thwarted effort to make it inside, we headed back to the Orsay early on Wednesday morning, crossing our fingers and hoping it would be third time lucky.
Having quaffed coffee and croissants at a café opposite, and still ensuring that we were only about fifth and sixth in the queue for our kind of pre-bought tickets, we finally made it beyond the portals – and then spent a very pleasant three hours exploring its treasures.
|Evening Prayer in the Sahara, Guillaumet|
The Orsay is most famous for it’s world-beating collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist works, but there’s far more to it than that.
A beautiful space in a building that was formerly a railway station, an initial stroll through the centre of the ground floor gives you a great sense of context, with a plethora of the sort of rather staid, classically-styled sculpture that was sanctified by the Académie des Beaux-Arts, the body that held a vice-like grip on the country’s art.
It provides a valuable background against which to understand the radicalism of the Impressionists and other artists from the second half of the 19th century and into the 20th.
But before we got to the Impressionists came other galleries.
There were two rooms of Second Empire furniture and decorative arts, which were frankly hilarious in their utterly over-the-top quality – not least in the sheer farcicality of representations of Napoleon III as a Ceasar.
But another two rooms contained fascinating works by the Orientalists – an entire movement I had never come across.
The antithesis of present-day demonisation of Muslims and Arabs as a whole, it was fascinating to see how artists had explored and then portrayed the exoticism of the Middle East and North Africa.
Gustave Guillaumet’s Evening Prayer in the Sahara, from 1863, is a fascinating picture with beautiful light.
And Café in Adalia, by Charles Emile de Tournemine (1856) is another really interesting work.
Heading upwards to the top floor for the main course, we were fortunate that, even through the crowds had headed there first, the place wasn’t overwhelmingly full.
There was no lack of things to enjoy among the Impressionists.
For me, these included L’Absinthe by Degas (1875-76), a painting that scandalised in its day, both in France and when shown in England, for its portrayal of characters who could be – and were – damned as ‘dissolute’.
|Les Coquelicots: Environs D'Argenteuil, Monet|
Quite differently, although I’m generally not particularly fond of Degas’s ballet paintings, Dance Class at the Opera (1873-76) is a pleasure to behold, while Dancers Climbing the Stairs (1886-90) provides an object lesson in just what a difference a quirky perspective can make.
The Luncheon on the Grass (1862-3) and Olympia (1863) by Manet also both shocked in their day, and while it may seem difficult to comprehend that now, it’s worth remembering particularly that the directness of the women’s gaze was a prime cause of the scandal.
It was a pleasure to see works by Manet again – some of them for the second time – after last year’s exhibition at the Royal Academy in London.
|Flood at Port-Marly, Sisley|
But on the other hand, I’ve never held much of a candle for Monet. That would change dramatically later in the week, but in the meantime, Les Coquelicots: Environs D’Argenteuil (1873) proved lovely, and Rouen Cathedral paintings provided a greater insight into how he conveyed light.
And at least I’m getting better at unmuddling by Manets and my Monets.
Mind, by the end of the week, The Other Half was declaring that we’d “seen more Renoir than you could throw a chocolate box at”, and I am bound to think that that was an excellent way to put it.
When I was studying art history for A’level, one of the first Impressionists that I liked was Renoir. But in recent years, I’ve found him far too … well, chocolate boxy.
|The Card Players, Cézanne|
Bal du Moulin de la Galette (1876) restored my faith to an extent – the dappling light on the boaters, for instance, is lovely – but Les Baigneuses from 1918-19 reminded me exactly why it’s a long time since he was a personal favourite.
We missed out on the van Goghs and the Gauguins, as those were in a separate exhibition while their usual rooms are being restored.
However, one of the revelations of the visit was discovering Walter Sisley, whose works I was only slightly familiar with.
Yes, Britain really did manage to produce one world-class Impressionist – even if was born in Paris to British parents, and didn’t live very long on this side of the Channel, but let’s sketch over such facts.
|Luxe, Calme et Volupté, Matisse|
The d’Orsay has 46 Sisleys: I was particularly taken with Flood at Port-Marly from 1876 and Regatta at Molesey (1874).
Although I found myself surprised that Cézanne was included within the general gallery of Impressionists, it was, as always, good to see more of his work, and one of his six versions of The Card Players (1894-95) is wonderful.
And there’s nothing wrong with a Cézanne still life or two either.
But one of the great personal joys of the visit was turning a corner in one of the later, post-Impressionist galleries, to find Matisse’s Luxe, Calme et Volupté from 1904, the year before he and Collioure collided in the explosion that gave birth to Fauvism.
|Art Nouveau room|
With crowds at a minimum, I had time to stand back and admire – and then to get up close to really see the precision of the brush work.
This was the start of his moving away from pointillism and divisionism, and it’s fascinating to see how he set out to capture the light in comparison to how the Impressionists had done so.
One of the things with Matisse is that the colours really shouldn’t work. But you realise on seeing some other artists who tried but couldn’t do the same thing, just how – almost magically – Matisse made them work.
There was plenty more sculpture upstairs – including several by Rodin, together with works by Camille Claudel.
|Monument to Cézanne, (1912) Maillol|
We were also delighted to find a number of works by Aristide Maillol, the sculptor from Banyuls-sur-Mer, just south of Collioure, whose large bronze figures, classical, yet simplifying the human form, are considered to be a precursor to works by the likes of Henry Moore.
And it would be remiss of me not to mention the absolutely stunning Art Nouveau room.
So, another day, another gallery. How do you follow that?
As it happened, we ambled up to the Jardin du Luxembourg, where we sat and roasted ourselves in fabulous sunshine.
More art would have to wait for the promised rain.