Monday, November 7, 2011

Gare de Lost

As I was editing photos for this post, I realized that I almost skipped our first Saturday in Paris...mainly because there aren't any pictures from that day. None. And this was an alarming awakening because it means that if I don't photograph it, I will not remember doing it. I want to stitch that on a shirt and wear it when I'm traveling so people will stop giving me nasty looks as I freeze to take a picture about every 3 seconds. Quit judging me...I'm preparing for early onset dementia.

So, to the Musee d'Orsay we go...the only museum in 6 days that prohibited all photography. That means all photos are courtesy of Google Images...which I promise to credit. (Does it mean I've hit the big time when websites go all super-stalky if I fail to credit every. single. photo. I. post?)

As I think I mentioned earlier, I read Eiffel's Tower before arriving in Paris. Based on the events that surrounded the 1889 World's Fair in Paris, Jill Jonnes' book details how the Eiffel Tower came to be, as well as the relationships between the artists living in Montmartre in the late 1880's. But Paris hosted yet another World's Fair the following year, in 1900. The Gare d'Orsay...or Orsay train station...was constructed to coincide with the 1900 World's Fair and accommodated the lines from southern France, until the short platforms were no longer suitable for the longer trains. After it was closed to rail traffic, it was used as a mailing center during WWII and then as a film set. Today, it houses an astounding amount of impressionist and post-impressionist masterpieces. Basically, if you know anything about art from the late 1800's, you'll recognize something in the Orsay. 

The proposed idea behind the Orsay was to bridge the gap between the 1700's art of the Louvre and the ultra-modern here and now art of the Pompidou. This also happens to be my favorite period of art history. I grew up with prints of water lilies hanging in Mom's bedroom and attending Renoir exhibits at the Art Institute in Chicago. Monet, Manet, Degas, Gauguin, Cezanne, Seurat, van Gogh, Cassatt, Toulouse-Lautrec...I don't love it all, but I recognize and respect the talent.

So...the down and dirties on Musee d'Orsay...absolutely no large bags allowed in the museum. And baggage check does not accept coats or anything of cameras. So we shoved the big ass camera that we weren't allowed to use into the tiny black purse that I toted all day. And do not get too attached to the idea of where a painting should be. For example...apparently, when Rick Steves wrote his travel guide for Paris, the Musee d'Orsay had an additional floor. As in...floor 1, floor 2, floor 3. It's now missing an entire floor (I find this incredulous as we had the 2011 version of his guidebook. So either he has gotten lazy with the updates or the Orsay has nixed a floor in the past few months...). Also, after following along with the podcast and the guidebook for 2 rooms, nothing was where it was supposed to be. Admitting defeat, we put it all away and just walked aimlessly through. 

You are probably mumbling to yourself something like, "that's the best way to see a museum! Stop trying to control the situation! Relax!" And that is true. However, I enjoy a museum best when I have a story to take away from what I've just seen. And although I know these artists and the work they've done, I still like to have some nugget of backstory to share with...whomever. It's not about being a's about understanding the circumstances surrounding a piece of art.

Also...Neal and I can now say with absolute certainty that a train station is a horrible design for an art gallery. The platforms restrict traffic flow and you find yourself doubling back and questioning whether you've been in this room or down that hallway. It's a twee bit maddening. If it were anything but impressionist art, I would have lasted about an hour before waving the white flag and begging for a glass of wine. To complicate matters, it was, of course, Shark Week and I was soon familiar with every single bathroom. It's truly a miracle we stayed for over 2 hours.

But I was captivated both by the art and by the very idea that I was staring at the original after the postcards had hung on my walls for so many years. A few of my favorites included:

La Classe de danse (The Dance Class) by Edgar Degas
Although ballet dancers and Degas are practically synonymous to me, it should be noted that he mainly painted these scenes because people loved them and he knew they would sell...which did help when it came time to pay the bills. 

Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe (Luncheon in the Grass) by Edouard Manet
Oh how Manet loved to give the cauldron of controversy a good stir. The nude female loses the angelic perfection often depicted in Medieval art...and since she's the only one not clothed at this picnic, we Southerners would call her nekkid (as in, "I had this dream I was dining on fruit and bread with 2 bearded and well-dressed gentleman and one hand maiden. But I was nekkid.")

 La Danse mauresque by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Toulouse-Lautrec was drawn to the tawdry nightlife of Paris because he sensed it was where he belonged. His parents, being first cousins, produced a child with numerous health problems and by the age of 14, he had broken both femurs. This resulted in a stunted growth of the legs but a continued growth of his torso. In addition, Wikipedia adds that he may have had hypertrophied genitalia (do you ever wonder if someone just types this crap in to see if anyone catches it?). Shrinky dinks or not, he became thick as thieves with the prostitutes of Montmarte. The underworld of cabaret is where the outcasts would gather after the average man went home to his wife and kids. And this is where you would have found Toulouse-Lautrec, drinking his signature cocktail which was 1/2 absinthe and 1/2 cognac. That right there will give you hypertrophied genitalia. 

L'Eglise d'Auvers-sur-Oise (The Church at Auvers-sur-Oise) by Vincent van Gogh
van Gogh was a little batshit's difficult to deny that. He attacked his BFF, Gauguin, with a knife and basically drove him out of Arles after just 9 weeks. But if you happened to catch the recent 60 Minutes story about him, then you know that researchers believe he may have suffered from a constant ringing in his ears, which eventually drove him to lop one clean off. Not quite as romantic as thinking he severed it due to the unrequited love of a woman...but much more conceivable. Also, they now believe that van Gogh was accidentally shot by 2 brothers and, instead of identifying them, lead everyone to believe that he had committed suicide. After years of depression and a couple of failed suicide attempts, that wasn't such an unreasonable notion.

La Naissance de Venus by Alexandre Cabanel
Here's what I can tell you about this painting...Rick Steves began describing the details of Venus emerging from the water and he droned on about how sexual this painting was for the early 1800's...basically how every French citizen would gaze upon this painting and practically orgasm right where they were standing...and we still thought he was talking about this one...
...right until we strolled through the gift shop and saw the postcard and realized that this is Botticelli. But I think both scream "Let's get drunk and screw" so I don't feel quite so bad about the confusion.

Le Bal du Moulin de la Galette, Montmartre (Dance at Moulin de la Galette) by Pierre Auguste Renoir
In true Impressionist style, Renoir depicts a snapshot of time at a district in Montmarte. Working class Parisians are shown dressed in their finest; eating, drinking, and dancing the night away. Renoir himself was a little bit of all over the place. He started out studying the French masters at the Louvre. Then he and Monet started hanging out and playing with layers of color and the ever-changing light. But after a trip to Italy and an introduction to the Italian Renaissance, he reverted to a much more severe style of painting and outlining his figures. But when it was all said and done, as arthritis crippled his hands and he had to wrap them tightly in bandages to continue working, he returned to the style of dappled light, vibrant color, and diffused lines for which he is most famous. He will always be this painting for me. 

Le cirque by Georges Seurat
My favorite painting of all time is Suerat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.
I don't know if it's the riverbank scene, the combination of colors, the random monkey or the incomprehensible amount of time it must have taken to place each tiny dot on this massive canvas (it hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago. I've seen it almost a dozen times. It takes up the entire wall)...but I've adored it from day 1. I had no idea that Seurat had painted anything else (although in the back of my mind I'm sure I knew that he must have produced other work). Seurat's circus scene is a glimpse at a moment in time, when performers defied gravity by balancing on a galloping horse and the clowns, dressed as jesters, weren't nearly as creepy.

Olympia by Edouard Manet
Again Manet shocked the public and outraged critics with his own version of La grande Odalisque. Except instead of lying seductively on a chaise, discretely covering her girldom, Manet's nude is propped up and forward while she clutches her hand protectively against her secret garden. She is anything but a goddess reclined. She is waiting on her next client. But celestial beings were hard to come by in Montmarte. Prostitutes? Not so much. You have to paint what you know, even if you are ostracized for it.
There was much more to the Orsay. A fair amount of Monet's wheat field paintings are hung there and there is an entire furniture gallery upstairs. But we were hungry, tired, cross-eyed, and ready to move on. And we still never found Whistler's Mother
I would give the Musee d'Orsay 4 out of 5 stars and absolutely insist on going again should we ever find ourselves back in Paris...but you have been warned...make a day of it and get the museum's audio guide. 

I can't quite remember where we grabbed lunch. I know we were at a food stand on the left bank, near Saint-Germain-des-Pres, and we teetered on the edge of parking barriers as we ate. It was an unusually warm Saturday in autumn and every square, park, and churchyard was packed. We were trying to escape the people...without much luck. I was feeling the evil clutches of Mother Nature and Neal was still fighting the flu, so we hopped the metro back to the hotel and then laid in the bed drinking wine until dinner time.

Dinner was a do-over with Gil & Gabrielle after I had spent my entire birthday showing how I can't hold my champagne (shameful considering I host Champagne Fridays). They are the masters of finding delightful cafes where the guests are French and the entrees are proudly authentic...and within walking distance of the hotel. Dinner at Flaubert on Rue Gustave Flaubert was nothing short of perfect. A couple of glasses of wine, an appetizer of escargot, a perfectly cooked piece of fish, and a slice of chocolate heaven for me and similarly delicious meals for my dining companions made this meal more than memorable. Somehow, it was almost midnight by the time we strolled back through the revolving doors of the Hilton. We all had big plans for the next day. Gil & Gabrielle were going to try to make it out to Giverny and we were headed to Versailles. But even with a late start to the next day, the evening before was more than worth it!


  1. Hooray for a makeup dinner! Sounds delicious, and also? I have the same picture problem. Asians have *nothing* on me. I'm *loving* learning about all of this art, Van Gogh really was a total lunatic.

  2. Hope you can get to the Phillips in D.C. while you are at Ft. Lee - many more of the originals you love. And, a definite YES on the audio guides. We always ask for them. You truly learn more and appreciate what's what. So what if you look a bit dorky!

  3. It's just so amazing that you got to see those places...I mean, I'll probably never get to see that stuff.
    You SHOULD get that on a shirt. I want one too.

  4. That is my favorite Renoir, too. And Sunday in the Park (okay, not its real name) is my favorite painting that resides in the US. I've made a number of pilgrimages to the Chicago Art Institute and I always spend extra time with this one. (Love the play and saw it with Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters, which made me love the painting even more. Or maybe vice versa.) So glad you are posting about your trip.


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