When staying in Paris, a visit to the Louvre, the old Right Bank palace-turned-world’s most visited art gallery, is almost obligatory. Pose with the iconic glass pyramid entrance hall, get lost in its endless palatial walkways and fight your way through the crowds to the notoriously smaller-than-expected Mona Lisa. But once the inevitable has happened, cross over the Seine to the smaller but perfectly formed Musée d’Orsay, the Mecca of impressionism and post-impressionism enthusiasts.
A phenomenal collection of art, mostly French and mostly from between the years 1848 to 1915, is housed in the former Gare d’Orsay, a beautiful old railway station with a fantastic Beaux-Arts roof and Victor Laloux clock. There is a dizzying amount to see but thankfully, the collection is divided quite neatly into different rooms corresponding to different periods or artists and, as with the Louvre, 18 to 25 year olds with an EU passport get in free so you can return on several occasions if a migraine begins to kick in.
On entering the gallery, you’ll be confronted with an enormous collection of statues which runs the length of the old station. It’s hard to know where to begin but one piece which may be worth seeking out is Ernest Christophe’s Statue Allégorique dans le Goût de la Renaissance, a larger-than-life statue of a woman which is towards the back of the main hall, near the Courbet paintings. Baudelaire, the celebrated (and subversive) 19th century poet and art critic, centred a poem in his Les Fleurs du Mal on this statue and his own reaction to it, entitled ‘Le Masque’. Viewed from the right, you see an attractive (and quite creepy) woman draped seductively in a piece of cloth but viewed from the left, you see that her enticing (and creepy) smile is in fact a mask, behind which she is throwing back her real head in despair. In despair of what? In despair of living, Baudelaire answers.
The crown jewels of the d’Orsay are to be found, however, in the rooms which siphon off visitors from the main walkway. The Impressionism and Post-Impressionism rooms contain a blockbuster collection of everyone from Cézanne to Vuillard, from Dégas to Rousseau, from Toulouse-Lautrec to Rodin. Expect to spend a lot of time here. Highlights include Pierre Bonnard\’s elegantly dressed croquet players who all but disappear into their idyllic surrounds in La partie de croquet/Crépuscule, Renoir’s excellent use of light in Chemin montant dans les hautes herbes, Pissarro’s striking depiction of blossoming trees in Printemps, pruniers en fleurs, Gustave Caillebotte\’s arresting self-portait, Portrait de l\’artiste (from around 1892), and Émile Lévy’s intensely beautiful pastel of a young girl, Jeune fille en robe rouge sur fond de fleurs. Don’t miss Monet\’s depiction of the Houses of Parliament, merging into a burning sunset refracted by the London fog and fans of Monet should also cross over to the other side of a gallery to see some of his best-known works, including his Coquelicots.
The Van Gogh/Gauguin collection is, as you would expect, exploding with colour and contains more familiar Van Gogh pieces, such as the jagged L’Église d’Auver-sur-Oise alongside lesser known but equally eye-catching compositions, such as Fritillaires dans un Vase de Cuivre. It is interesting to reflect upon the difference between this stunningly painted vase of fritillaries and his world-famous Sunflowers, which attracts so many crowds in the National Gallery, London, and is printed on everything from mugs to umbrellas in the gift shop. Are his Sunflowers more special stylistically or is the hype we give to some ‘masterpieces’ over others a little arbitrary at times?
If you have any energy left, look out for the room of Honoré Daumier’s work: a 19th century French painter known for his choices of ordinary working class people as subjects, such as the laundry woman silhouetted against dazzling sunshine in the beautiful La Blanchisseuse, as well as for his satirical artwork. On display are 36 clay grotesque busts he made of contemporary politicians, entitled Les Parlementaires (Les célébritébrité du juste Milieu), which he used as inspiration for his paintings but which themselves have a pleasing resemblance to the hatchet faces and bulbous noses of the puppets from the ‘80s/’90s satirical TV show Spitting Image.
Unless it’s Thursday, when you can stay as late as 9.15 pm, you may be a little relieved (on behalf of your feet) to hear the warning on the tannoy as it gets close to 5.30 pm and the guards begin to clear the museum of visitors: it’s time to buy an overpriced postcard or two and go revive yourself in a crêperie.