The Musée d’Orsay in Paris is home to some of the greatest works of French and European art produced in the 19th and early 20th centuries. This stunning converted railway station is a must-visit for anyone with an interest in art, and its extensive collection means that you’ll probably need to visit multiple times to see everything it has to offer. In case you’re strapped for time, we give you a list of eight can’t-miss paintings at this Parisian landmark.
A pioneer of mid-19th century French Realism, Gustave Courbet sought to move painting away from what he saw as the elitist academicism of Romantic artists like Jacques-Louis David, Eugène Delacroix, and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Courbet wanted to create a new, socially-aware aesthetic, grounded in the material world and which monumentalized the unidealized peasant class. The sheer imposing size of A Burial At Ornans is a statement of intent; for the first time in history, the poor were front and center – a privilege solely afforded to the wealthy and classical figures. The painting subtly addresses the rising secularization of France at the time, with clergymen depicted as crude caricatures with their backs turned Christ, who goes seemingly unnoticed by the mourners.
While Courbet’s paintings aimed to bring the peasantry to the artistic fore, Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Bal du Moulin de la Galette captured the burgeoning café culture and the bourgeoisie class, which swept through Paris in the 1870s. Following the 1850s and 1860s when Baron Haussmann redeveloped the French capital from a dirty, cramped medieval town into a modern city with wide boulevards, open spaces, and uniformed buildings, Paris became an urban hub for artists, writers, and a hedonistic class of wealthy revellers. Renoir’s painting captures the vibrancy of this new Paris – a city in which people could leisurely enjoy the day, dancing and drinking with their friends. This work provides stunning insight into the fashion and spirit of the age, an iconic depiction of this lively, romantic city.
A very small painting and by no means one of the more famous works by Degas at the d’Orsay, Dinner At The Ball is a stunning and nuanced piece of social commentary. On first impression, this picture seems to have much in common with Renoir’s Bal du Moulin as an image of society at play described in vibrant colors, yet it appears to be more of a warning than a celebration of the bourgeois status quo. In an environment of such decadence, filled with chandeliers, expensive suits and dresses rich gold and red decorations, the figures are reduced to a level of complete faceless, anonymity. The blurring technique not only evokes the energy of the room, but suggests at a kind of transience and the idea that nothing is stable or has its own individual identity in this materialistic world. We must be wary, Degas seems to say, not to exchange our individuality for a life of opulence and excess.
One of the most controversial paintings of the century, Edouard Manet’s Olympia appalled critics when it was first exhibited in 1863. Challenging the tradition of the classically idealized nude, Manet forced his spectators to gaze upon a ‘real’ contemporary woman. Olympia is a prostitute, brazenly comfortable with and proud of her nudity, looking directly at the viewer — counter to the artistic convention of women as passive paragons of beauty. Manet was not only trying to break away from precedent, but highlight the irony of Paris’ newfound ‘modernization’ when high society could still not palate sexual liberation and female self-assertion. Critics took offense to the thematic content of the painting as well as the artist’s style, which they saw as too simplistic with a flawed composition.
Tensions surrounding traditional gender roles became increasingly prevalent as the 19th century progressed, and Frédéric Bazille’s Bazille’s Studio effectively underlines the disparity between men and women in the art world at this time. The painting depicts a group of men – presumably the artists’ friends – observing, talking, and analyzing, with nude figures as the only female presence in the work. These muses are nothing other than symbolic – trapped in their pastoral domestic scenes only to be objectified and assessed, voyeuristically, by the male intellectuals in the painting.
One of the several paintings depicting card players that Paul Cézanne produced in the early 1890s, The Cardplayers is one of the Post-Impressionist Era’s most enduring works. Cézanne, like Courbet before him, sought to celebrate common members of the peasantry who populated his native Provence. Uninterested in Realism, however, Cézanne depicts his figures through broad brushstrokes, saturated with earthen tones like oranges and browns to convey the warmth of the this region and its inhabitants. Away from the hectic metropolis of Paris, Cézanne wanted his provincial art to represent the stability and harmony thought to be present in archaic life.
While Claude Monet is best associated with images depicting Paris and the French countryside, London’s Houses of Parliament were the subject of some of the artist’s most compelling works in his later years. An Impressionist pioneer, Monet rejected the traditional emphasis of accuracy in art; rather, he sought to capture the essence of a moment, such as the sun cutting through mist. Competing with the nascent technology of photography, Monet felt that paintings should depict the world in a way that no camera ever could. London, Houses of Parliament is a brilliant archetypal example of the Impressionist style that Monet mastered, making uses of understated reds and oranges contrasted with darker blues and the black silhouette of the Parliament buildings to create this air of sunlight emerging through haze.
Vincent Van Gogh’s iconic Self-Portrait is one of over 40 paintings the artist produced of himself in his short career. Having moved to Paris in 1886 and learned from the works of his Impressionist contemporaries, Van Gogh fused these influences with those of Japanese woodblock art such as ukiyo-e to create a delicate, fluid style. Yet for Van Gogh, these self-portraits were more than just a process of artistic experimentation and self-promotion – they were an attempt to understand the coherent ‘self’, which was particularly muddled by his long-term battle with manic depression. His illness persistently haunts his work; the sombre, fire-haired Van Gogh is starkly incongruous with the joyful brushstrokes that constitute the background – perhaps hinting at the artist’s own feelings of discomfort with and alienation from his surroundings.