Great Impressions


I decided to spend my Thursday afternoon doing a re-run of Musée d’Orsay. I went there on the 2nd day of my residency to see the Picasso, Blue & Rose special exhibition. To be fair, it was extremely crowded because Picasso was slated to close in 3 days.  I was also exhausted from travel and still adjusting to all of the new changes, including the time difference.

Today was a different story. I arrived at the museum right after lunch, walked right in the front door, no lines, no wait, no hassles, and no blockbuster exhibition. Things stayed pretty nice for about 3 hours and then I guess the school trips with students started flooding into the galleries. At any rate, this was a far more pleasant experience, than my first time there.

This museum is a renovated train station. It is brilliant. It has character. It has open space. It has nooks and crannies to explore.  The guidebook says to skip the traditional European stuff on the first floor; I didn’t follow the author’s recommendation.  I agree that Impressionism is “to die for.” But, I will never forget the scale of Courbet’s Artist’s Studio, and Burial at Ornans. The magnitude of these two French Realist works is impressive. It reinforces my belief that an underlying condition of great art is ambition. It is obviously not the only essential characteristic, but it must be present.

In addition, I was pleased to see the work embraced by the French Academy during the late 19th century on display. To my 21st century eyes, supported by the underlying values solidified by my art history training, the academy work, which embodies strong traditional draftsmanship with an emphasis on history painting, indeed looks stale. I appreciate the museum presenting this work so that I could make the comparison for myself.

All of the artists in this collection are great; however, the one that I have the closest personal affinity to is Manet. His paint application is generous and direct; he attracts my attention with delicious paint. The push and pull he achieves between the various planes and spaces, in his paintings, are contradictions of illusional space. In Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe he makes it all look so effortless. I think if I could take one painting home with me this would be it.  It truly is inventive. I was also thrilled to see Manet’s Olympia and the Balcony and additionally, several smaller still lifes.

The collection of Édouard Vuillard in this museum is impressive. I have seen numerous works by this artist in Washington, D.C. at the Phillips Collection and the National Gallery of Art.  My recollection of all of those works is that they were very modest in scale, typically small and intimate. The themes and palette here in France are similar, but the scale of many works surprised me. The seated figure in the photograph above was at least 5 feet tall.  I think part today’s experience for me as “Vuillard redefined.”

All in all, I left with a feeling that the late 19th century truly was a great period for painting. I hope I am still seeing them in my mind not only this evening when I close my eyes and go to sleep but I hope they continue to reside in my subconscious as I continue my quest as a painter.