The Musée d’Orsay is the second biggest museum in Paris and there is a lot to see. If you are going, you have probably heard that this is the best museum for Impressionism, but which paintings are a must-see? In this article, we’ll guide you through the top things to see in the Musée d’Orsay.
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Most Famous Artwork To See at Musée d’Orsay
The Musée d’Orsay is Paris’ second largest museum and houses the most famous impressionist artwork in the world. Sadly, most visitors miss out on this art gem. But not you! As you get ready for your visit, also check out the best restaurants nearby.
In this article, we’re counting down the must-see paintings and why you should see them. You’ll definitely be prepared for your visit! Prefer to discover the museum with skip-the-line tickets and a passionate local guide? Check out our Musée d’Orsay tours. Here are the top things to see at Musée d’Orsay!
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10. Women Ironing
Edgar Degas has captured the ideal genre moment in this painting: women ironing. Looking at this painting, we can travel back in time and look through a window into a particular person’s life.
Degas, like Manet, was a classical painter who loved to paint ballet dancers, racehorses, and working women. While he dismissed the idea of painting in Plein air, which was a central theme of Impressionism, he is considered an impressionist. This is because of his fondness for modern themes, loose brushwork, and capturing the fleeting moment, which was also central to Impressionism.
In the painting, you can see two women in a working-class setting. One of them yawning and the other ironing. The picture represents a very unflattering look into the lives of these women.
Degas, while believing in catching the fleeting moment, obviously did many preparatory sketches to ensure the work was perfect. You’ll notice the first woman whose yawn has been perfectly captured. You can tell she’s exhausted, whether from the heat or the wine she’s drinking. The other woman’s head is pointed down in concentration as she irons the clothes with her second hand pushing down hard to work out those wrinkles.
During his lifetime, Degas was loved by some and not by others. While he was a classicist, he felt that the Accademy was too rigid. So, he joined forces with the impressionists early on. He is considered one of the founders of Impressionism and, while he had no formal students, he was known to have later influenced many a painter. He was especially admired by Henri de Toulouse- Lautrec.
9. Poppy Field
In this painting, Monet captured a moment of peace and harmony. It has a calming effect and brings to mind pleasant thoughts of spring. Monet returned from England in 1871 and moved to Argenteuil where he had many happy years. Nowhere is that more clearly depicted than here.
In the painting, you can see a woman and child in the foreground walking down a gentle slope with red, poppy flowers on their left. It is assumed that this is his wife Camille and their son Jean. There’s another couple at the top of the hill, but they don’t seem to be connected with the figures below.
The scene is probably one taken close to where they lived at the time given the people wearing middle-class fashion and the nice villa in the background a nice villa, which is where they seem to be coming from.
The painting was exhibited in 1874 at their independently organized art show, which is where the name Impressionist was first used by art critic Louis Leroy. The idea behind it was that this new style of painting was meant to prioritize the immediate impression of the scene.
This was contrary to the established idea of painting back in the day of looking for a deeper meaning. This interpretation seems to be on point with this painting by Monet. What do you think?
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8. Camille sur son lit de mort
Claude Monet is one of the most famous Impressionist painters that ever lived. What could be more powerful than an artist painting his own wife on her deathbed?
And that is exactly what this painting captures. Monet’s wife, Camille, had complications after giving birth and died soon after from either cancer or a malpractice abortion.
Monet used shades of blue and pink to bring some life into the darkness. Her face is shrouded by a veil, eyes closed and lips slightly parted. Look closely and you’ll see a bouquet of flowers on her chest signaling the end is here.
Camille posed for other paintings by Monet, as well as for his colleagues Manet and Renoir. 40 years later, Monet is quoted as saying, “I found myself staring at the tragic countenance, trying to identify the shades in the color, the proportion of light and the sequence.” He continued: “the thought occurred to me to memorize the face that had meant so much to me.” This piece was never submitted to an exhibition and Monet himself never signed the painting.
7. The Floor Scrapers
This painting by Gustave Caillebot is a stunning example of Realism. It’s also one of the first examples of a representation of the working class in Paris. Before this time, the working class was almost exclusively portrayed as peasants in the field.
Gustave himself came from an affluent Parisian family who was more known for his generosity in buying other artists’ paintings (see Renoir). Only in the 20th century were his paintings more appreciated.
This work of art depicts three workers scraping the wooden floor in an apartment (supposedly, it was Caillebot’s studio). With light coming in from the window in the background, the painting conveys the back-breaking work of scraping a floor of its paint. You can also see many of the scraping tools they used together with an open bottle of cheap wine.
Caillebot was a classically trained painter, which you can see from the perspective of the painting. The bodies and movements of the workers are idealized. You witness the classical movements he used imitating ancient, Classical statues.
At the Salon of 1875, this painting was rejected for being too vulgar. At this point, he joined the impressionists and exhibited this painting again at the Impressionist Exhibition of 1876.
Paul Gauguin’s life was as colorful as his Tahiti-themed paintings. Considered a post-impressionist artist, he is most famous for his paintings created during his first stay in Tahiti. True to the term of “starving artist,” he did not gain any fame during his lifetime. Unfortunately, he became famous long after his death.
The painting shows two local women in a seated position with a red dog in the foreground. In the background, you can see women praying to an indigenous Maori statue, which Gaugin blew up to be as big as an enlarged Buddha. It appears that this was not a real rite in Polynesia. So, by creating this, Gaugin idealizes the primitive way of life where man lives in a world protected by the Gods.
Upon returning to Paris, Gaugin submitted a series of paintings, including this one. In November of 1893, they were exhibted. Ideally, Gaugin wanted to show off his experience in Tahiti, but the exhibition didn’t go very well for him.
He was criticized on many points, one of which was that all the names of the paintings were in the Polynesian language. He received some sarcastic comments because of the fact that he painted a red collarless dog. In the end, divorced from his wife and disappointed with how things turned out in Paris, he decided to move back to Polynesia in 1895 and never returned.
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5. Self Portrait
Vincent Van Gogh
Painted in 1889, this is one of more than 40 self-portraits that Van Gogh made of himself over 10 years. Like older masters, he observed himself critically in a mirror. Rumor has it that he painted so many self-portraits because he didn’t have money for models.
In this particular self-portrait, the light blue contrasts brilliantly with the fiery red of his hair and beard. His face is extremely thin and his green eyes are a bit sunken with a certain sadness to them. Interestingly, he is wearing a suit jacket instead of the usual pea jacket that he worked in.
Art historians have discussed whether this was his last self-portrait or not. In a letter to his brother Theo, he said the following about the painting after sending it to him: “You will need to study [the picture] for a time. I hope you will notice that my facial expressions have become much calmer, although my eyes have the same insecure look as before, or so it appears to me.”
4. Starry Night
Vincent Van Gogh
Vincent Van Gogh is probably one of the most famous Impressionist painters of all time. He was actually Dutch and moved to France right in the middle of the exciting Impressionist movement. Starry Night was painted when he moved to Arles in Southern France in 1888.
The painting itself shows the Rhône River, which was only a few minutes from the house on Place Lamartine. The composition is very calm with the stars burning brightly, lighting up the sky. The lights from various buildings are reflected on the water, which illuminates the painting even more.
In the lower right-hand corner, there’s a couple in love walking along the river. Van Gogh painted another Starry Night, which you can find today in the MoMa in New York and the contrast is visible. The MoMa Starry Night is very violent in its colors and shows the mental state of Van Gogh. He had recently been institutionalized at a mental health institute.
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3. Luncheon Grass
This unorthodox painting shot Manet into the spotlight in 1863 with the shocking figure of a nude woman, sitting with men having a picnic in the forest. Nude women were nothing new, but they had always been portrayed as a divine God (think of the Greek Aphrodite) and not as a regular woman.
Manet refused to be a conformist and go along with the tastes of the French Academy of Fine Arts. He wanted to paint everyday scenes and situations that, upon meeting others from the Impressionist movement, allowed a happy marriage between them all.
This was very risky since the Academy organized the salons where paintings were exhibited and were, therefore, the way to success. The painting was entered into the Salon des Refuses, which was an alternative salon for paintings that didn’t make it into the official Salon.
Shunned by some when it was introduced, over time the painting broke important barriers that had previously prevented taking Modern French painting to the next level.
The painting is huge in scale—81.9 by 104 inches. When you first look at it, it definitely makes a strong impression on you—positive or negative. In essence, we can thank Manet for pushing the envelope and pushing Modern French painting into a newfound freedom and reinvention of pictorial space.
2. Bal Moulin Galette
This is one of Renoir’s most famous paintings and easily a masterpiece of early Impressionism. There’s plenty going on in this painting, but your eyes move back and forth with ease as the vibrant colors make it extremely easy to explore.
The Moulin de la Galette was one of many windmills at the Butte de Montmartre. On Sundays, people would gather to dance and eat their famous cakes, which you see in the painting above. Entrance for women was free (nothing has changed!) and, supposedly, even women with “looser morals” would frequent the open-air dancing.
Renoir was intrigued by this weekly event and actually rented a small studio close by so he could observe the happenings and capture them perfectly. He received some criticism early on since the brush strokes were blurred but overall it was well-received.
This painting was actually made for another contemporary painter, Gustave Caillebotte. Upon the artist’s death, the painting was handed over to the French authorities as payment for his debts.
1. Card Players
By far one of the most famous paintings in the museum, its stunning simplicity makes it easy to take in the entire painting. Cezanne would most certainly have been influenced by another painting, Card Players, painted by the Nain Brothers, which was on display in Aix where he resided in the late 19th century.
When you look at the painting, you can see that the central focal point is the bottle between the two players. The tavern where they’re sitting could have been anywhere in the city of Paris, but it definitely looks like a middle-class establishment. The table is bare and simple. Both players are focused on their hands and what their next move will be.
The Card Players is actually a series of five paintings with this one at the Musée d’Orsay being one of the most bare-boned. Due to the number of paintings on this subject, many question whether it symbolizes the artist himself with his father, trying to get his father’s acceptance for his painting overall.
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There is more to see then Impressionism. It’s way over hyped and it’s getting a little old.
You picks didn’t surprise me typical and boring. All paintings and Impressionist why.?