May 10th, 2019: The incredible Musée d’Orsay and dinner at an old, late-night Paris bistro in Les Halles, with an old friend from our years living in Japan!!!

We woke up this morning in time for a simple breakfast served in the basement of our tiny hotel in Le Marais. Breakfast in the basement was not all that great, so we were soon out the door to begin our day’s adventures! This morning we took the subway from our nearest Paris Métro station and got off next to the Seine, to begin our exploration of the stunning Musée d’Orsay.

The exterior of the former Paris train station, the Orsay station

The building that houses the Musée d’Orsay began life as one of Paris’ major train stations, in the early 20th century. The museum is located in the former Orsay station, a building built for the Universal Exhibition of 1900 – the museum took up residence in the 1980’s, at which time the former train station was converted into a world-class museum, known for its superb collection of Impressionist paintings:

“”The station is superb and looks like a Palais des Beaux-Arts ..”.” wrote the painter Edouard Detaille in 1900. Eighty-six years later, his prophecy has been verified.”

“The transformation of the station into a museum was the work of the architects of the ACT-Architecture group, MM. Bardon, Colboc and Philippon. Their project, selected among six proposals in 1979, was to respect the architecture of Victor Laloux while reinterpreting it according to its new vocation. It made it possible to highlight the large nave, using it as the main axis of the route, and to transform the awning into the main entrance.” (Source: https://www.musee-orsay.fr/)

The large nave of the Musée d’Orsay, dominated at one end by the huge, ornate clock. Galleries spaces are fed off the main space

The Musée d’Orsay is truly a fabulous museum, dedicated to paintings from the period from 1848 to 1914. It is amazing that people had the foresight to save the old train station from the wrecking ball and turn it into such a wonderful museum. Here, one can see masterworks by Vincent van Gogh, Auguste Rodin, Camille Pissarro, Claude Monet, Édouard Manet, Renoir, Degas, Gaugain and so many more, as well as a fantastic selection of Art Nouveau furnishings and decorations.

Van Gogh’s “Church at Auvers (1890)”
Van Gogh’s “Cottages at Cordeville (1890)”
Van Gogh’s self portrait, 1889

I was particularly struck, in the grand nave, by a miniature casting of a model of the Statue of Liberty, which was of course a gift from France to the United States, in celebration of the centennial of the American Revolution. The grand nave is a huge space, full of natural light. The space is dominated on one end by a huge, ornate clock.

The Statue of Liberty casting in the main nave space
The ornate clock dominating one end of the main nave space

Off in a side room I found one of my favorite paintings, Millet’s “L’Angelus,” a scene of two peasants stopping their work to pray in the waning light of the day.

Millet’s “L’Angelus”

In another room there was a fantastic 19th century model of the streets of Paris around the Garnier Opera House under the glass floor. Adjacent to this was a very large cut-away model of the Garnier Opera House, in which one could see the building’s structure revealed, the attics, the stage, the prop lifts, the auditorium, the Grand Foyer, the staircases and the sets coming up and down to the stage.

A very large cut-away model of the Garnier Opera House, in which one could see the building’s structure revealed, the attics, the stage, the prop lifts, the auditorium, the Grand Foyer, the staircases and the sets coming up and down to the stage

Higher up inside the museum galleries, we ran across another one of the grand clocks, this one on the facade, with glass behind, such that one could look through the clock and across the Seine to the sprawling Louvre Museum.

Facade clock with the Louvre Museum and the Sacré Cœur basilica in the distance

In these additional galleries we saw fantastic works by Toulouse-Lautrec and a very controversial (at the time) painting by Manet – “Luncheon on the grass (1863),” Manet’s most famous painting and one of the most popular works in the museum. The painting was controversial for its time as it depicts a female nude lunching with two clothed males.

Manet – “Luncheon on the grass (1863),” Manet’s most famous painting and one of the most popular works in the museum
Toulouse-Lautrec

I also loved Renoir‘s beautiful “Dance of the Moulin de la Galette, (1876)” which I admired for the way that Renoir was able to master the effect of dappled light on the dancers. The painting is full of joy and is one of the most famous impressionist paintings of all time. “This masterwork has been described as ““the most beautiful painting of the 19th century””. The painting depicts one of the numerous dances that took place in the Moulin de la Galette, one of the most frequented clubs in 19th century Montmartre, a paradise for bohemians and artists like Toulouse-Lautrec, van Gogh or Renoir himself. One of the supreme masterworks from early Impressionism.” (Source: theartwolf.com)

I also loved Renoir‘s beautiful “Dance of the Moulin de la Galette, (1876)” which I admired for the way that Renoir was able to master the effect of dappled light on the dancers

We also saw Degas‘ sculptural models of ballet dancers, Claude Monet‘s painting of Gare Saint-Lazare (1878), of which there are 12 he painted in a series.

Claude Monet‘s painting of Gare Saint-Lazare (1878), of which there are 12 he painted in a series

Degas‘ painting “In a Café (1873)” or “Absinthe” is startling for the startling realism it depicted. Degas‘ painting “The Dance Class (1873-1876)” was stunning, as was his “Rehearsal on Stage (1874)”.

Degas‘ painting “In a Café (1873)” or “Absinthe” is startling for the startling realism it depicted
Degas‘ painting “The Dance Class (1873-1876)” was stunning
Detail of “Rehearsal on Stage (1874)”

We followed up with Renoir‘s “City Dance” and “Country Dance (1883),” which provide a contrast between the Parisien elite and the bourgeois.

Renoir‘s “City Dance” and “Country Dance (1883),” which provide a contrast between the Parisien elite and the bourgeois
Detail of Renoir‘s “Country Dance (1883)

Claude Monet‘s “Haystacks (1891)” series and his “Rouen Cathedral (1892-1894)” (of which there are 30 in the series) series are both sublime for their technique and use of natural light. We also saw Claude Monet‘s “Blue Water Lillies (1916-1919).”

Claude Monet‘s “Haystacks (1891)” series
Claude Monet‘s “Rouen Cathedral (1892-1894)” (of which there are 30 in the series) series is sublime for their technique and use of natural light
Claude Monet‘s “Blue Water Lillies (1916-1919)”

For lunch we ate at the fabulous top floor restaurant behind the big clock on the facade. After the museum we split up and went our separate ways.

The fabulous restaurant, Café Campana, on the top floor of the museum, behind the huge clock

I went to the fabulous Palais Royale, built in 1634 for Cardinal Richelieu. The gardens are a beautiful home to contemporary works of art. I was looking for a stamp dealer who has since gone out of business, but I happened upon a deluxe shop, home to many high-fashion dresses, jewelry, accessories, purses, shoes and even menswear. All of the pieces were labeled with the designer and date, very helpful to the casual passerby. I saw Dior, Givenchy, Cardin, Channel and much more, mostly from the 1950’s through the 1980’s.

I happened upon a deluxe shop, home to many high-fashion dresses, jewelry, accessories, purses, shoes and even menswear. All of the pieces were labeled with the designer and date, very helpful to the casual passerby. I saw Dior, Givenchy, Cardin, Channel and much more, mostly from the 1950’s through the 1980’s

I also happened by an exquisite confectioner in the Palais Royale with delectable and expensive treats on display.

I also happened by an exquisite confectioner in the Palais Royale with delectable and expensive treats on display

After a busy day, we arranged to meet P., our associate from our days working as architects in Japan in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. P. was a landscape architect at our sister firm. P. had later worked with the French architect, Jean Nouvel in Paris. P. selected a late-night, meat-centric Parisian bistro, La Tour de Montlhéry – Chez Denise. What is a vegetarian to do? Eat meat? (I did have to sample a bite of the rabbit and lamb dishes.) Order some vegetables and cheeses to go along with the many meat dishes. We caught up for 2 or 3 hours over several glasses of wine. The bistro was throbbing with energy at the communal tables, was cozy, congenial and warm. P.’s children, P. and C. were 17 and 14. P. is studying at one of the top schools of architecture to be an architect himself and is reportedly doing quite well. We had another delicious Rum Baba for dessert.

P. selected a late-night, meat-centric Parisian bistro, La Tour de Montlhéry – Chez Denise
The fabulous Rum Baba dessert

2 Comments Add yours

  1. bardharv says:

    LOVED this post about Musee D’Orsay. FYI, Lauren and I saw the impressionist works in the old little Musee du Jeu de Paume, which closed in 1986. I later saw the same works in the far grander D’Orsay. Below is a NY Times story about the jeu de paume, which remains one of my all time fave museums.

    After 39 years as the exhibition ground for France’s major collection of Impressionist paintings, the Museum of the Jeu de Paume is to close on Monday, and its 500 paintings, including masterpieces by Manet, Monet, Degas, Renoir, Gaugin, Cezanne and others, will be transferred a few hundred yards to a new site across the Seine.

    The move will end an era in France. The small two-story Jeu de Paume was a major – some would say the major – tourist site in France, sometimes receiving up to 8,000 visitors a day, a majority of them apparently American, during the height of the tourist season.

    At the same time, French museum officials say, its closing will inaugurate a new era for this country’s celebrated Impressionist collection. The Jeu de Paume’s treasures will go on view in what is being described here as a dazzling new exhibition space, much larger and grander than the Jeu de Paume, in the renovated Orsay Museum, scheduled to open Dec. 9. The Jeu de Paume itself will now be used to house special exhibitions, officials said.

    The Orsay Museum, an imposing former railroad station perched on the Left Bank of the Seine, was saved from demolition in the mid-1970’s when the French Government, heeding pleas by a group of museum directors, decided instead to turn it into a museum of the 19th century.

    Original Plans Trimmed

    The original plans had to be trimmed, largely for reasons of cost and space, and the collection will now consist of works from 1848 to 1907. Even so, the new museum, whose six-year renovation is nearing completion, is being heralded as the most important cultural addition to the French patrimony in many years.

    In addition to France’s Impressionist collection, the museum will house the works of such other 19th-century painters as Millet, Courbet and the members of the Barbizon School -the group of landscape painters, including Millet, Corot and Daubigny, who gathered near the Forest of Fontainebleau to paint directly from nature.

    The museum, which is characterized by several high glassed-in arches that catch the light reflected from the Seine, will also display some 600 pieces of 19th-century French sculpture and devote sections to design, architecture and photography, as well as to early paintings by Matisse and Braque and the works of Rousseau, Vuillard and Bonnard that are owned by the French state.

    The transfer of the Impressionist works from the Jeu de Paume will be done secretly to protect them from possible theft or vandalism, museum officials say. Concerns about the security of France’s most valuable paintings increased last fall when gunmen stole nine Impressionist paintings, including Monet’s ”Impression, Sunrise,” the work that gave the Impressionists their name, from the Marmottan Museum in Paris.

    ”We are talking about one of the best-known collections in the world,” Carolyn Mathieu, a museum curator in charge of the move, said in an interview at the Jeu de Paume. ”So we decided to move the collection in small amounts at a time, and under conditions of strict secrecy.”

    A Solution to Problems

    Meanwhile, museum directors here talk about the the transfer of the Impressionist collection, which is arguably France’s single most renowned and beloved cultural treasure, as a solution to several serious problems at the Jeu de Paume.

    Built as a greenhouse for orange trees, the Jeu de Paume got its name from an adjacent tennis court that Napoleon III had built for his son. In World War II the German occupiers of France used it to store confiscated paintings before shipping them to Germany, and, at the end of the war, with most of the stolen property being returned to France, it was chosen to house the country’s Impressionist collection.

    Ever since, the museum has been among Paris’s most popular sites, receiving some 700,000 visitors a year in recent times, a figure that makes it one of the most crowded exhibition centers in the world. Virtually every day a long line forms outside the museum’s entrance, extending toward the adjacent Tuileries Garden.

    Aside from the crush of visitors, the museum has for many years been too small to display the entire collection, with no room at all for recent acquisitions. At least 200 paintings are kept in storage. It Started With ‘Olympia’

    The collection itself dates from 1890, when Manet’s ”Olympia,” still one of the most revered of Impressionist works, was bought through public subscription and became the first Impressionist work owned by the French state.

    Most of the paintings owned by the museum came subsequently from private collectors, beginning with the legacy in 1896 of Gustave Caillebotte, a painter himself and a friend of many of the Impressionsts. The paintings were first on view in the small Luxembourg Museum, which housed the contemporary art collection of Paris; they were moved to the Louvre in 1937.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Tom! Love reading about the old Jeu de Paume that came before the Musée d’Orsay~ Thanks for sharing!

      Like

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