Museums: Moreau — Orsay — Longchamp

Nelson, I have some­thing for you!

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.

Moreau’s “Apparition”, 1876. There are a great many paint­ings by him using a rather con­ven­tion­al style, but also grand excep­tions like this one. The seem­ingly intric­ate archi­tec­ture in the back­ground con­sists really just of rather graph­ic­al lines on an almost amorph­ous background.

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.

Musée d’Orsay

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.

Gustave Courbet: A funeral in Ornans, 1850
Gustave Courbet: A funer­al in Ornans, 1850.

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).

Palais Longchamp – photo by Georges Seguin

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.

3 Replies to “Museums: Moreau — Orsay — Longchamp”

  1. […] This ver­sion had had enough time to dry, though, because it’s from when I returned from my three weeks in France. The next such paint­ing will have a qual­ity Praktica-based doc­u­ment­a­tion, I […]

  2. It’s always really inter­est­ing to see how the concept of “oth­er” is recre­ated. For instance, the cul­tur­al dis­tance between the con­tem­por­ary world and the Biblical time, in the paint­ing of the Apparition is almost com­pletely erased by some details, such as the prot­ag­on­ists“ skin and hair col­our, or the clothes of the sol­diers. At the same time, a cul­tur­al coher­ence is sought in the Process rep­res­ent­a­tion, as the scheme of the paint­ing seem to point right to some Martyrs“ rep­res­ent­a­tion in the Baroque period.
    On the oth­er hand, the Portrait of de Loyne reminds me of Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara. Could it be that the por­trait inspired in some way how the char­ac­ter was to be rep­res­en­ted? This con­sid­er­ing how the 30s Americans looked at Paris and (gen­er­ally) the French Art, and how “amer­ic­ally” de Loyne made her way in society.
    Much of the rest I already had the chance to dis­cuss it with you, while some more will be dis­cussed in the next days!

    1. The por­trait of Madame de Loynes is, if you ask me, fore­shad­ow­ing the typ­ic­al women’s depic­tion a few years later at the height of décadence. Think of Franz von Stuck, for example. Here’s woman as a mys­tery likely lead­ing you towards dis­tress, demise and death. De Loynes“ bio­graphy lent itself to that sort of depic­tion, of course. On the Orsay’s site there was a quote of a crit­ic who opined that “il y a un monde et un demi-monde dans ces yeux-là.”

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