MUSÉE D’ORSAY LECTURE NOTES
LE DEJEUNER SUR L’HERBE BY EDOUARD MANET, 1863
“Rejected by the jury of the 1863 Salon, Manet exhibited Le déjeuner sur l’herbe under the title Le Bain at the Salon des Refusés (initiated the same year by Napoléon III) where it became the principal attraction, generating both laughter and scandal. Yet in Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, Manet was paying tribute to Europe’s artistic heritage, borrowing his subject from the Concert champêtre – a painting by Titian attributed at the time to Giorgione (Louvre) – and taking his inspiration for the composition of the central group from the Marcantonio Raimondi engraving after Raphael’s Judgement of Paris. But the classical references were counterbalanced by Manet’s boldness. The presence of a nude woman among clothed men is justified neither by mythological nor allegorical precedents. This, and the contemporary dress, rendered the strange and almost unreal scene obscene in the eyes of the public of the day. Manet himself jokingly nicknamed his painting “la partie carrée”. In those days, Manet’s style and treatment were considered as shocking as the subject itself. He made no transition between the light and dark elements of the picture, abandoning the usual subtle gradations in favour of brutal contrasts, thereby drawing reproaches for his “mania for seeing in blocks”. And the characters seem to fit uncomfortably in the sketchy background of woods from which Manet has deliberately excluded both depth and perspective. Le déjeuner sur l’herbe – testimony to Manet’s refusal to conform to convention and his initiation of a new freedom from traditional subjects and modes of representation – can perhaps be considered as the departure point for Modern Art.” Musée d’Orsay
THE BIRTH OF VENUS BY ALEXANDRE CABANEL, 1863
The Birth of Venus was one of the great successes of the 1863 Salon where it was bought by Napoleon III for his private collection. Cabanel, a painter who received numerous awards throughout his career, at that time played an important role in teaching at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and in running the Salon. Typical of his virtuoso technique, this painting is a perfect example of the popular and official artistic taste of the period. In the eclectic spirit of the Second Empire, he combines references to Ingres with an 18th century style of painting. Cabanel took as his subject a famous episode from classical mythology when Venus is born of sea-foam and carried ashore. This theme, very popular in the 19th century, provided some artists with the opportunity to introduce eroticism without offending public morality, under the pretext of representing a classical subject. For Cabanel, the mythological theme is indeed a pretext for the portrayal of a nude figure, which, though idealised, is nonetheless depicted in a lascivious pose. Emile Zola denounced this ambiguity: “The goddess, drowned in a sea of milk, resembles a delicious courtesan, but not of flesh and blood – that would be indecent – but made of a sort of pink and white marzipan”. The writer was thus deploring the use of a pale, smooth and opalescent palette. That same year, Edouard Manet’s Olympia caused a scandal. The subject of the two paintings is identical: a reclining nude. But the calm assurance with which Manet’s subject stares back at the viewer seems much more provocative than the languid pose of Cabanel’s Venus.” Musée d’Orsay
OLYMPIA BY EDOUARD MANET, 1863
“With Olympia, Manet reworked the traditional theme of the female nude, using a strong, uncompromising technique. Both the subject matter and its depiction explain the scandal caused by this painting at the 1865 Salon. Even though Manet quoted numerous formal and iconographic references, such as Titian’s Venus of Urbino, Goya’s Maja desnuda, and the theme of the odalisque with her black slave, already handled by Ingres among others, the picture portrays the cold and prosaic reality of a truly contemporary subject.
Venus has become a prostitute, challenging the viewer with her calculating look. This profanation of the idealized nude, the very foundation of academic tradition, provoked a violent reaction. Critics attacked the “yellow-bellied odalisque” whose modernity was nevertheless defended by a small group of Manet’s contemporaries with Zola at their head.” Musée d’Orsay
THE ORIGIN OF THE WORLD BY GUSTAVE COURBET, 1866
The first owner of The Origin of the World, who probably commissioned it, was the Turkish-Egyptian diplomat Khalil-Bey (1831-1879). A flamboyant figure in Paris Society in the 1860s, he put together an ephemeral but dazzling collection devoted to the celebration of the female body, before he was ruined by his gambling debts. Exactly what happened to the painting after that is not clear. Until it joined the collections of the Musée d’Orsay in 1995 – by which time it belonged to the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan – The Origin of the World epitomised the paradox of a famous painting that is seldom actually seen.
Courbet regularly painted female nudes, sometimes in a frankly libertine vein. But in The Origin of the World he went to lengths of daring and frankness which gave his painting its peculiar fascination. The almost anatomical description of female sex organs is not attenuated by any historical or literary device. Yet thanks to Courbet’s great virtuosity and the refinement of his amber colour scheme, the painting escapes pornographic status. This audacious, forthright new language had nonetheless not severed all links with tradition: the ample, sensual brushstrokes and the use of colour recall Venetian painting and Courbet himself claimed descent from Titian and Veronese, Correggio and the tradition of carnal, lyrical painting. The Origin of the World, now openly displayed, has taken its proper place in the history of modern painting. But it still raises the troubling question of voyeurism.” Musée d’Orsay
THE BIRTH OF VENUS BY WILLIAM BOUGUEREAU, 1879
“Although his work was widely collected by the English and more especially by the Americans in his lifetime, Bouguereau’s reputation in France was more equivocal—indeed quite low—in his later years. While popular with the public and various critics, his work ignored the increasing demand for paintings of modern life which had been made by Charles Baudelaire and was to be fulfilled by the Impressionists. He remained a staunch supporter of the academic training system at a time when it was criticized for stifling originality and nurturing mediocrity. With the advent of modernism he was scorned as one of the most prominent representatives of everything the new movement opposed: high technical finish, narrative content, sentimentality and a reliance on tradition. This hostility was further heightened by the perceived association of academic painting with the bourgeois values that had resulted in world war. However, recent more objective assessments have reinstated Bouguereau as an important 19th-century painter.” Oxford Art Online
ROUEN CATHEDRAL SERIES BY CLAUDE MONET, 1892-1893
PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST BY VINCENT VAN GOGH, 1889
Like Rembrandt and Goya, Vincent van Gogh often used himself as a model; he produced over forty-three self-portraits, paintings or drawings in ten years. Like the old masters, he observed himself critically in a mirror. Painting oneself is not an innocuous act: it is a questioning which often leads to an identity crisis. Thus he wrote to his sister: “I am looking for a deeper likeness than that obtained by a photographer.” And later to his brother: “People say, and I am willing to believe it, that it is hard to know yourself. But it is not easy to paint yourself, either. The portraits painted by Rembrandt are more than a view of nature, they are more like a revelation”. In this head-and-shoulders view, the artist is wearing a suit and not the pea jacket he usually worked in. Attention is focused on the face. His features are hard and emaciated, his green-rimmed eyes seem intransigent and anxious. The dominant colour, a mix of absinth green and pale turquoise finds a counterpoint in its complementary colour, the fiery orange of the beard and hair. The model’s immobility contrasts with the undulating hair and beard, echoed and amplified in the hallucinatory arabesques of the background.” Musée d’Orsay
AREAREA BY PAUL GAUGUIN, 1892
In April 1891, Gauguin set off for his first visit to Tahiti, in search of traces of a primitive way of life. He took his inspiration for imaginary scenes in his paintings from what he saw around him, as well as from local stories and ancient religious traditions. Arearea is representative of these works where dream and reality coexist. In the foreground, there are several motifs, which he had no doubt observed, as they recur throughout the paintings of this period. There are two women seated in the centre of the picture, a tree cutting across the canvas, and a red dog. The sky has disappeared; a succession of coloured planes – green, yellow, red – forms the structure of the composition. In the imaginary scene in the background, there are several women worshipping a statue. Gauguin has enlarged a small Maori statue to the size of a great Buddha, and has invented a sacred rite. All these elements create an enchanted world, full of both harmony and melancholy, where man lives under the protection of the gods, in a luxuriant natural environment, in an archaic, idealised Polynesia. Arearea is one of a collection of Tahitian paintings exhibited in Paris in November 1893. Gauguin wanted to justify his exotic trip. However, this exhibition did not receive the enthusiastic response the artist had hoped for. The titles in Tahitian irritated many of his friends, and the red dog provoked much sarcasm. Nonetheless, Gauguin considered Arearea to be one of his best paintings, and in 1895, he went so far as to buy it back for himself before leaving Europe for good.” Musée d’Orsay
STILL-LIFE WITH ONIONS BY PAUL CEZANNE, 1898
Still lifes, which suited both Cézanne’s character and his method of working, held the artist’s interest throughout his career. Following on from the painters of the Dutch and Spanish schools, who devoted much attention to the “silent life”, Cézanne was sensitive to the poetry of everyday objects. But rather than Vermeer, Zurbarán or Goya, it is the name of Chardin that comes to mind. Thus, in order to create an illusion of depth, Cézanne often used, as here, the device of a knife placed at an angle, a technique already borrowed from Chardin by Manet. Alongside the onions, whose spherical shape was appropriate for Cézanne’s experiments into volume, he represents some simple objects. As well as the knife, there is a bottle, a glass and a plate. His repeated use of this type of article in his still life paintings reveals that the painter was focusing his interest on the layout of the objects, the treatment of space, and on studying the effects of light on shapes. On the table, as he often did in his later still lifes, Cézanne has introduced some drapery for decorative effect, which takes away the rigorously established construction. The fabric, like the bottle, stands out against a totally empty and neutral background, a factor that distinguishes this work from other, later still lifes, which are more crowded. We can also see here the introduction of a new system of representation, one that Cézanne would subsequently develop, and that would open the way to Cubism. Whereas the bottle and the frieze on the table are shown frontally, the perspective of the tabletop is much more raked: in the same composition, objects are painted from several different viewpoints.” Musée d’Orsay
THE GATES OF HELL BY AUGUSTE RODIN, 1880-1917
“Orsay railway station. After its destruction by fire in 1871, during the Commune, there were plans to replace it with a museum of the decorative arts. In 1888, the State commissioned Rodin to design monumental doors for the entrance to the museum. They were to be decorated with eleven low reliefs representing Dante’s Divine Comedy. Rodin took his inspiration from the famous doors that Ghiberti had made for the baptistery in Florence in the fifteenth century. Three years later, he was satisfied with his initial model, but the plans for the museum were abandoned. The discarded doors became a creative reservoir for Rodin, providing many groups of figures which were finally detached from the whole, such as The Thinker and The Kiss. The Gates of Hell, which only a few privileged critics had been allowed to see, then took on symbolic value: of Rodin’s boundless creative genius for some, of his inability to finish anything, for others. It was not exhibited until the Great Exhibition of 1900 and even then in an unfinished state. At the top, the group of the three Shades is, in fact, in an extremely modern approach, the triple repetition of the same figure with one arm missing. On the pier, The Thinker (Dante himself) is on the brink of the abyss. On the right-hand panel we can see Ugolino. On the left, Paolo and Francesca are among the tumbling bodies. Everything emerges from seething lava. The convulsed attitudes convey despair, grief and malediction. The forms invade the structure to the extent of sometimes replacing the architectural elements. A symbolist work by excellence, leaving the imagination free to roam, the high relief releases the vehemence and expressive power of the human body in an indeterminate space, destabilised by the play of light and shade. The plaster model in the Musée d’Orsay dates from 1917. The Gates of Hell finally stand on the site for which they were commissioned although of course they do not function as doors.” Musée d’Orsay
REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING
Deutsch, Lorant. Métronome : L’histoire de France au rythme du métro parisien. Michel Lafon, 2014.
Gray-Durant, Delia. Blue Guide Paris . Blue Guides, 2015.
Horne, Alistair. Seven Ages of Paris . Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2004.
King, Ross. The Judgment of Paris. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2006.
Norwich, John Julius. A History of France. Grove Atlantic, 2018.
Price, Roger. A Concise History of France (Cambridge Concise Histories). Cambridge University Press, 2014.
Steves, Rick; Smith, Steve; Openshaw, Gene. Rick Steves’ Paris 2014 . Avalon Travel, 2014
UNESCO World Heritage Foundation. whc.unesco.org/
EDITOR AND LAST UPDATE
John William Bailly 30 June 2022
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