Behind the stony facade of a former railway station is the Musée d’Orsay, famed for its electrifying collection of Impressionist works. The museum recently underwent a major revamp; the results are stunning and show the paintings as never before. As well as the Impressionists, the museum showcases French painting and sculpture between 1848 and 1914, thus bridging the gap between the “Classical” Louvre and the “modern” art of the Centre Pompidou. You could spend half a day meandering through in chronological order, but the layout makes it easy to confine your visit to a specific section.
The museum has two fine – if pricey – places to take stock: the café on the upper level, the decor of which is inspired by the dreamlike artworks of Art Nouveau artist Emile Gallé, with a summer terrace and wonderful view of Montmartre through the giant railway clock, and a resplendent café-restaurant on the middle level, gilded in stunning period style.
The ground level
The ground floor, under the great glass arch, is devoted mostly to pre-1870 work, with a double row of sculptures running down the central aisle like railway tracks, and paintings in the odd little bunkers on either side. You’ll find works by Ingres, Delacroix and the serious-minded painters and sculptors acceptable to the mid-nineteenth century salons (rooms 1–3), as well as the relatively unusual works of Puvis de Chavannes and Gustave Moreau (Galerie Symboliste), and the younger Degas (room 13). The influential Barbizon school and the Realists (rooms 4–7) are showcased alongside works by Daumier, Corot and Millet. Gentler essays in Realist and early Impressionist landscape hang nearby (18), with works by Pissarro, Sisley and Monet. A whole room (room 10) is devoted to Toulouse-Lautrec’s deliciously smoky caricatures; don’t miss his Danse Mauresque (hanging nearby in the Galerie Symboliste), a work that depicts the celebrated cancan dancer La Goulue entertaining a washed-up and obese Oscar Wilde. At the far end is a high-ceilinged room hung with Courbet’s impressive large-format paintings, including A Burial at Ornans, a stark depiction of a family funeral; these large-format works were groundbreaking in their day for depicting everyday scenes on a scale that was usually reserved for “noble” subjects, such as historic or mythical scenes.
The Pavillon Amont
The Courbet room on the ground floor is part of the renovated Pavillon Amont, the station’s former engine room, which has been radically restructured to create five different levels.
Levels two, three and four are devoted to superb Art Nouveau furniture and objets, for the first time displayed together with paintings from the same period by Vuillard, Bonnard and Maurice Denis. On the fifth level you come to the Impressionists’ gallery, where the results of the museum’s recent revamp are most tangible. In a series of large, open spaces, painted charcoal grey, the paintings, well spaced and warmly lit, make a tremendous impact – even the almost-too-familiar Monets and Renoirs – their vibrant colours and vigorous brushstrokes striking you afresh. The first painting to greet you, magnificent in its isolation, is Manet’s scandalous Déjeuner sur l’herbe, the work held to have announced the arrival of Impressionism. Thereafter follows masterpiece after masterpiece: Degas’ Dans un café (L’Absinthe), Renoir’s Bal du Moulin de la Galette, Monet’s Femme à l’ombrelle, Cézanne’s Joueurs de cartes. There’s a host of small-scale landscapes and outdoor scenes by Renoir, Sisley, Pissarro and Monet, paintings which owed much of their brilliance to the novel practice of setting up easels in the open to capture the light. Degas’ ballet dancers demonstrate his principal interest in movement and line as opposed to the more common Impressionist concern with light, while his domestic scenes of ordinary working life are touchingly humane. Berthe Morisot, the first woman to join the early Impressionists, is represented by her famous Le Berceau (1872), among others. The development of Monet’s obsession with light is shown with five of his extraordinary Rouen Cathedral series, each painted in different light conditions.
The middle level
On the middle level, rooms 69 to 72 are devoted to the various offspring of Impressionism, and have an edgier, more modern feel, with a much greater emphasis on psychology. You’ll find Gauguin’s ambivalent Tahitian paintings and Pointillist works by Seurat (the famous Cirque, 1891), Signac and others. On the far side, in rooms 55 and 58, overlooking the Seine, you can see a less familiar side of late nineteenth-century painting, with epic, naturalist works such as Detaille’s stirring Le Rêve (1888) and Cormon’s Caïn (1880). On the parallel sculpture terraces, nineteenth-century marbles on the Seine side face early twentieth-century pieces across the divide, while the Rodin terrace bridging the two puts almost everything else to shame.