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Five Must See Masterpieces at the Musee d'Orsay

Welcome back to the Accessible Art History blog! This week’s post is another in our Five Must See Masterpieces Series! The Musee d’Orsay is a museum with a world class collection of French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist work. It was difficult to only pick five pieces to talk about as this museum has an incredible collection! If you would like to explore the Musee d’Orsay from the comfort of your own home, they have partnered with Google Arts and Culture to create a virtual tour! So, without further ado, let’s get started!


In the world of museums, the Musee d’Orsay is a fairly young institution. Its doors weren’t open until 1986. But, the building itself is quite a bit older. It was once a train station, opened for service in 1900 and named the Gare d'Orsay. This station was designed by three architects: Lucien Magne, Émile Bénard and Victor Laloux for the Paris Exposition. It has a magnificent Beaux-Arts Design that makes it a landmark for the city. Today, the Musee d’Orsay is one of the largest museums in the world and receives around 3.6 million visitors each year.

Work 1:

This first work is by one of the most famous names in art history: Vincent van Gogh. It is called The Church at Auvers and was painted in June of 1890. This was only about a month before the artist tragically ended his own life.

Van Gogh painted this work as he reflected on his time living in Northern France. Those were some of his happiest memories, according to his many letters, and that is reflected in the bright light and rich colors. The expressive, upwards brush strokes lend a certain lightness to this work, which makes the viewer smile. We can almost feel the artist’s emotions through this piece.

Thankfully for modern viewers, many of van Gogh’s personal letters survive. I think it’s important to read passages that pertain to his art, so that we can better understand his mindset behind the creation. This piece appeared in a letter to his sister Wilheminia:

I have a larger picture of the village church — an effect in which the building appears to be violet-hued against a sky of simple deep blue colour, pure cobalt; the stained-glass windows appear as ultramarine blotches, the roof is violet and partly orange. In the foreground some green plants in bloom, and sand with the pink flow of sunshine in it. And once again it is nearly the same thing as the studies I did in Nuenen of the old tower and the cemetery, only it is probably that now the colour is more expressive, more sumptuous.

As you can see, his goal for this piece was to showcase the beauty of the region. There is one final interesting fact about this work. At the bottom, there is a split path. Van Gogh painted several of these towards the last days of his life. Could this be a sign of what was to come?

Work 2: Olympia - Manet

Olympia by Edouard Manet is perhaps the most infamous work in art history. It was painted in 1863, but wasn’t put on exhibition until two years later. And when it was finally shown to the public, boy did it cause a stir! Manet took a traditional female nude pose (made famous by Titian’s Venus of Urbino) and added a number of shocking details. First, was the woman’s assertive gaze. She holds the viewer’s eye as if challenging them to speak first. This wasn’t something typically seen in art and audiences weren’t comfortable with it.

Secondly, and perhaps most famously, are the details that show that the sitter was a sex worker. Her jewelry (including a black choker, and a bracelet), the orchid in her hair, and the shawl were all common markers of this profession. Even the title of the work points to this as sex workers were often called by the name Olympia at this point in history. Finally, Manet added a black cat on the right hand side. In Titian’s work, this animal was a dog, representing loyalty. But, Manet changed it to represent the night and nighttime activities.

These details combined with the harsh lighting and monumental size (normally reserved for history/mythology paintings) created a work that audiences found “immoral and vulgar”. Today, we still notice those moments but instead focus on how Manet changed art!

Work 3: The Gleaners - Millet

Another work that managed to anger audiences is this one. It is called “The Gleaners” and was painted by Jean-François Millet in 1857. This piece shows a group of women “gleaning” or picking up the stray pieces of hay after a harvest. Millet was a part of the “realist” school, who strove to show life as it really was. The women in this work are performing back breaking labor, while the massive harvest in the distance while making their boss very wealthy. Notice the soft haziness in the distance, a precursor of the Impressionist movement.

This shows the inequality of French society at the time. Millet’s goal was to elicit sympathy, but it had the opposite effect. Its theme and large size made aristocratic audiences nervous as memories of the two French revolutions were still fresh in their minds. Millet was essentially calling them out! Today, audiences can understand class tensions better through this piece.

Work 4: Bal du moulin de la Galette - Renoir

This next piece is a bit lighter than the first. The Bal du moulin de la Galette was painted by Pierre-Auguste Renoir in 1876. It shows a traditional Sunday for Paris’ working class. On this day of rest, people would dress up in their nicest clothes and meet in public squares for dancing and pastries. It was a day of celebration and happiness, a break from the grueling work week.

Renoir truly captures this feeling in this work. The rich colors and bright light fill the scene. He used short, upwards brush strokes to add a sense of frenzy, drawing from the dancing couples. There is an energy in this work that makes the viewer smile.

One unique thing about this work is the lack of focus. Typically, there is a central scene that the eye is drawn to. But in this work, it floats around between dancers, the seated people, and those who are standing. It is meant to remind us of the atmosphere Renoir is trying to capture!

Work 5: Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1 (Whistler's Mother) - James McNeill Whistler

The final work of this video was painted by American artist (and ex-patriot) James McNeill Whistler. It has two names. The first is Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, but it isn’t commonly used. Almost every art enthusiast knows it as “Whistler’s Mother”. Whistler painted this in 1871 and it has almost taken on a life of its own! Not only is it one of the most famous American works outside of America, but it has earned nicknames such as the “Victorian Mona Lisa''.

This work wasn’t originally planned to be of Whistler’s Mother. The artist never stated for sure, but a few stories have surfaced. Some believe that the actual model never showed up for her job. Others believe that it was originally meant to be a standing portrait, but Mrs. Whistler was uncomfortable, so her son painted her sitting down. Either way, this position combined with the austere color palette and clean lines created an iconic work of art.

The Musee d’Orsay is a magnificent museum filled with 19th century artistic treasures. Remember, these are only five of the masterpieces of the collection, there are many more!



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