Short explanation for everyone else: Around the time I first went to Madrid – early 2015 –, I had recognised a problem regarding museum visits. I would be captivated by a few pictures that I’d talk about for hours, and then I’d forget them. On that particular trip I thus started to make notes, and ever since when returning from an exhibition I’d have scribbled down typically between two and ten highlights.
Here now the harvest from my short sojourn in France in the first half of July. Last time the Louvre jealously demanded all available time for itself, this time I let it be and ventured into the Musées d’Orsay and Moreau instead. The latter concerns itself with the symbolist Gustave Moreau. I went there with a worsening headache and couldn’t fully appreciate the twenty St. Sebastians and thirty Salomes – there are, however, outstanding specimens. The hanging is so that every square centimetre of Moreau’s apartment is covered by paintings and drawings, the amount alone is overwhelming. I’m certain to not have discovered every single worthwhile bit, perhaps not even a majority, but sure took my time for the drawing cabinets. You can flip through a great lot of hinged frames at the sidelines of the former grand atelier, probably there are between 500 and 1000 sheets within and they are a tremendous treasure if you want to research academic drawing. The unusual thing isn’t that they exist, but that they are so easily accessible.
A few days later, this establishment yielded an unusually large number of highlights. They’ll give you a good idea of how my list is usually developing: There are some curiosities, some paintings that are only interesting because of some particular quirk that warrants further research, some great masterpieces that reduce you to tears when standing in front of them – and some very obvious jewels of the collection might be missing. For example, there’s no van Gogh here. In cyclists“ jargon this is a Mona Lisa: Something that’s drawing all the annoying visitors to one room in the museum (or, in a more metaphorical sense, any other building, or city or region), leaving a bit more space to breathe in rest of the premises. There are just too many tourists in the van Gogh rooms to grasp more than a fleeting glance before being pushed aside by a British school class, run over by retired Chinese and shoved down the staircase by a voluminous American rear side. To see the Mona Lisas it’s necessary to be there precisely at opening time and even then it’s still a race.
Alexander Harrison. Solitude, 1883.
Amaury-Duval: Madame de Loynes, 1862. This lady truly earned her standing: Born out of wedlock into a large and poor family in Reims she climbed the ladder of society thanks to her looks, charme and intelligence. Eventually she became one of the leading salonnières of Paris during the second Empire, courtesane of, amongst others, prince Napoléon (the emperor’s cousin and, after the son, second in line to the throne).
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec: In Bed, 1892.
Gustave Guillaumet: The Sahara, 1867. Orientalism was en vogue then and many painters left bizarre exhibits of kitsch and off-kilter stereotyping behind. Sometimes less can be more: as here.
Gustave Caillebotte: Parquet Planers, 1875. A recurring narrative in the Musée d’Orsay is the offence that academic painters took at the new ideas coming up after 1850. The well-known new champion is a stylistic matter, impressionism. More interesting to me is a thematic conflict. This painting was lambasted for its depiction of what couldn’t even pass as a genre piece: Mere craftsmen performing a very mundane task. And it’s big! and realistic! and created with plenty of patience over a long period of time! What a scandal.
Edouard Detaille: The Dream, 1888. One of these almost comically pathos-laden Romantic works one wouldn’t be surprised to see in the Sukiennice. In the case of France the most fertile period for these genres has been after the defeat of 1871 against Germany. Military glory was not exactly in arm’s reach (the last war lost, new ones being avoided), so the dreams were confined to the arts.
Henri Regnault: Execution without trial under the Moorish kings of Granada, 1870. Another example of orientalism, quite the opposite of Guillaumet’s desert and yet compelling. It’s the hit of the room, even the most uninterested visitor stops in front of it. This is what academism, which I don’t mean to disparage in general, can be capable of: Every detail of the composition has been decided on with purpose. This, too, is a huge canvas, so standing in front of it you are right in the position of the fallen head, looking up at your imposing executioner. Few is left of Regnault: Aged 27 he fell in the French-German war a year after finishing this picture.
Charles Degeorge: Aristotle’s Youth, 1875. Photo by Rama, Wikimedia Commons, Cc-by-sa‑2.0‑fr. Astonishing is the attention to detail: Every little space has something to look at, while there is never the impression the sculpture would be overwrought. It’s worth googling for different angles!
William Bouguereau: Dante and Virgil, 1850. A blatantly exaggerated arrangement that made me realise similar couplings are fairly recurring in Dalí’s work, for example, the Premonition of Civil War with Baked Beans.
Jean Delville: The School of Plato, 1898. The effect is so artificial that it almost seems as if you’re looking at two layers in different distances: The warm-ish figures in front of an “underwater” landscape tell you everything about colour and temperature contrast you ever wanted to ask.
Jean-François Millet: The Angelus Prayer, 1859. As infinitely reproduced as the angels of Rafael’s Sistine Madonna. Dalí was obsessed with it: He was certain that the painting depicted not a prayer, but the funeral of the couple’s child. Eventually the museum relented and had it x‑rayed over at the Louvre’s lav. Some accounts would have you believe that they found an overpainted coffin, child-size – in fact there is an overpainted shape, but hardly a clearly distinguishable one.
Pierre Bonnard: Woman reclining on a bed, or: L’Indolente, 1899.
Odilon Redon: Closed Eyes, 1890.
Nikolaï Gay: Calvary, 1892. Even the most sickeningly repeated topics can occasionally be done in an original manner!
Léon Frédéric: The Workman’s Ages, 1897. This was the most disturbing thing: In Belgium there once lived a painter who’s basically sharing my name! More research has to be done on that man. Of course I had to include some painting of his – I went for this, which superficially reminded me a great lot of Werner Tübke’s triptychs on the History of theGerman Workers“ Movement that I had seen this May.
Jean-Paul Laurens: The Excommunication of Robert the Pious, 1875. Every once in a while there’s a craving for some grand historicist rag. Robert had married his second-degree cousin Berthe of Burgundy. The Pope objected on grounds of consanguinity (a pretense for more profound political reasons), first asked Robert nicely to get rid of Berthe and then, not being granted that wish, excommunicated him. While after the official separation the ban was lifted, the couple stayed together in spite of Robert’s next, church-approved marriage a few years later. The painting, I think, does a great job at picking an uncommon moment for its depiction: The afterwards. the damage done. Symbolism (the extinguished candle etc.) aside, there’s one irrelevant detail I love: The smudges on the wall above the sitting pillows.
Henri-Camille Danger: Scourge, 1901. If realism had been an rarity in 1850, this might have been such in 1901. I wouldn’t rate it as a masterwork, but surely as an eyecatcher. Great fun must Danger (what a name!) have had with the architecture: Filling in one tiny folly after another, each one ever more anachronistic in relation to the others. Is it too overloaded? Quite, but in a still entertaining way.
Ornans lay very close to our route from Besançon to Pontarlier, we did, however, not venture there. This painting is one of those in this museums I consider the really grand works. The scene: A funeral in Courbet’s rural hometown. Revolutionary at the time for the proportion between a very profane subject and its tremendous size – 3 m x 7 m. It was Courbet’s first grand format and provoked a grand scandal right away. All rules, today forgotten but then well-codified, of academism had been wilfully broken. The mass of mourners is so little idealised that people took them for caricatures (Gustave Moreau’s pictures, painted decades later, are very conservative in this aspect and show nothing but perfect Greek profiles). No traces of pathos could be found: Even the grief inherent in the scene seems to be quite ephemeral. The craftsmen will get back to work after the burial, the women need to take care of the kids, priest and choirboys do their business and no more. Look at these characters: People don their finest dresses, but it’s a village, the fineness of these dresses is quite limited. No figure is highlighted, none seems to have a special significance – another classical way that Courbet chose to not tread on. This is one of the ancestors of a grand old realistic branch in painting. I would right away suggest a close relationship to Grützke’s Members of Parliament more than a hundred years later.
Are you missing the impressionists for whom the museum is so famous? Dommage: Regardless of how big that space was, the Mona Lisa effect was still markedly present. But moreover I did so much research on the painting techniques downstairs, represented in this sample here, that the completely different impressionism would have thrown me completely off the track: I simply didn’t pay that much attention. All this is for another visit. Likewise what all the research has been for is for another post, set to come up much sooner than the next trip to Paris. Stay tuned!
A few kilometres further south there’s more sun and fewer paintings. The Musée de Beaux-Arts, housed in one wing of the purpose-built Palais Longchamp, has a smaller collection than some Northern towns a tenth the size of Marseille – all is centralised in France, art included, and that’s why you can spend day after day without ever leaving Orsay and Louvre (both of which could, as hinted at, easily be split into several still coherent institutions).
Hence I’m set to include my highlights from there, exactly because they are so few and thus far more representative of a typical visit.
As a bonus, have one of Moreau’s takes on Leda. This swan is not a fucking joker, he means serious business and if you don’t stay away it’s all your fault.