Any first time visitor to Paris with even a modest appreciation for art and art history has to include the Musee d’Orsay in the “must-see” category of their itinerary. The Orsay is recognized as the home of arguably the greatest collection of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings in the world. While the Musee du Louvre features a massive pre-1848 collection and the Pompidou Center, with its Mad Max inspired post-modern design, features more modern art, the Orsay houses the period in between. Within it’s doors you’ll find many mid-19th century to early 20th century works from Monet, Manet, Renoir, Degas, Van Gogh and a host of other brilliant artists. It’s a spectacular collection.
My wife and I are art experts but only within the confines of our naive yet imaginative minds. We both know Da Vinci painted Mona Lisa and Monet’s Nymheas, or Water Lilies, were depictions from his flower garden at his home in Giverny. I take great pride in being able to recognize Paul Cezanne’s painting style and of having Gustave Caillebotte as my favorite Impressionist-era painter – a hip, lesser known choice without a doubt. But as with many things my “expertise” only shines as bright as my surroundings allow it to. If in the company of a group of savvy, erudite art aficionados, I would quickly be exposed as the least knowledgeable person in the room. But to my 8 and 10-year old children, I could be the curator to all of the world’s most illustrious museums.
So describing us as “art experts” is a little like a drunken man’s delusion. I guess a better description of us would be ‘art appreciators’. I would even go as far as to call us ‘art lovers’ but with a small asterisk. It’s hard to be a true lover of something if you have almost no access to it. The ability to spend time with and connect with the object of your love is key to nurturing and solidifying your affection. And that’s the problem with us and art. When home, we are hundreds of miles away from any art museum of consequence and the pleasures of making regular visits are simply unavailable. Therefore we rely on our large fifty pound art books – massive volumes that would cause any coffee table to collapse under their weight – and a host of informative internet resources to satisfy our appetites. But there’s just nothing like seeing the amazing works of art in person which is why the Musee d’Orsay was one of our first things to see in Paris.
A visit to the Orsay is an unforgettable experience but it can also be a frustrating one. We arrived there early on an overcast June morning but were still met by a large crowd moving like slow herded cattle through the long,winding, back-and-forth security line. While waiting, the clouds opened up and showered just enough to cause a colorful assortment of umbrellas to pop up throughout the outside line. A group of men equipped with plastic bags sprang into action – whether they were opportunists or entrepreneurs I don’t know – selling cheap umbrellas for 5 euros to those without. We noticed a little old lady no higher than my belt buckle and clearly tired of waiting in the rain slithering through the line, cutting in front of people with surgical precision without ever being noticed. She seemed like a local and this wasn’t her first rodeo.
Once finally inside the museum we quickly found ourselves facing the beautiful central hall with its array of sub-Louvre quality but still impressive sculptures. I actually found myself more enamored with the high crescent ceilings and huge ornate clock which hint back to the building’s roots. A quick look around and you can tell you’re standing in what was once the Gare d’Orsay Railway Station. The journey from railway station to museum wasn’t without difficulty. In fact after enduring threats of demolition, the official decision to save the building and turn it into a museum came in 1977. It was finally completed and opened to the public in 1986. Now it’s one of the most stunning and recognizable buildings you’ll see while cruising the Seine and it’s treasures inside draw visitors from all around the world. But finding those treasures can be a little…well, annoying.
Maneuvering through the Orsay, even with the help of the free interior map, would challenge even the most skilled ocean navigator and helmsman. The inside in deceptively large. Connecting rooms run down both the left and right sides of the museum, some affixed by short hallways and others by stairs leading to the floor above where a different but equally disjointed floor plan awaits. People would enter and exit rooms from different directions each following their own well thought out and fluid course while wondering, as we certainly did, if they had missed a room along the way. The upper floors on each side of the museum were sometimes connected but sometimes roped off contributing to more human traffic jams and backtracking. And between all of this was the large central hall – a sanctuary where people could come up for air after tackling the masses. Now by masses, I’m referring to the several thousand fellow summertime tourists as well as a few groups of school children on field trips (who, by the way, in many instances behaved much better than the adult tourists we encountered).
But even with the surprisingly large area to explore and the sometimes convoluted layout, we were mesmerized; stricken by the reality of actually being in such a spectacular place. We approached the Orsay like adventurers. We explored many rooms, completely missed others, and discovered many treasures. We found the quirky and stylistic work of Toulouse-Lautrec. We stumbled upon Vincent Van Gogh’s room and the mass of people gathered around to see his self-portrait and “The Church at Auvers”. We stood by as two defiant twenty-somethings, not at all intimidated by the museum’s strict no photo policy, photographed their garden gnome with perfect “Amelie” style in front of the beautiful “Starry Night Over the Rhone”. We even found the massive clock facing the Seine River with its lovely view of the right bank.
So the Orsay had treated us well but we were unfulfilled. It was as if we had seen the early matches on a fight card but missed the main event. It was like watching the opening acts at a concert but skipping the headlining band. Where were these magnificent and celebrated works of great impressionist’s art – the hallmark of the Orsay museum’s collection? The museum’s reputation had been built upon these masterpieces that we had so far only tasted through small portions. We were ready for the main course but we couldn’t find it.
We floundered around following the floor plan about as astutely as my 8-year old would have before finding a set of stairs that seemed to be attracting a lot of traffic. Those stairs led to more stairs and then escalators and it felt as if we were ascending high up to the museum’s attic. Before long we started noticing little signs that verified we were heading in the right direction. And then, lo and behold, just like boxed up old clothes, plastic tubs of christmas ornaments, and sentimental childhood toys in your attic at home, we found the Impressionists collection. We also found a swarm of people who made the busiest rooms below seem as empty as the Army Museum at Les Invalides two minutes after closing time.
Throwing personal safety out the window and with fortitude and conviction we headed into the crowd of people. The chaotic flow of humanity in the rooms resembled the hazardous bumper-to-bumper street traffic that battles for position daily at Place Charles de Gaulle. The cramped people moved slowly in what looked like a pickpocket’s playground, all jockeying for position to get the best view of Renoir’s magnum opus “Dance at le Moulin de la Galette “, Manet’s hyper-sensual “Olympia”, or Monet’s elegant “Woman with the Parasol” paintings. If you were fortunate enough to get up close, the impatient crowd expected you to look briefly and then move along. If you actually dared to examine and admire the painting, you could be subjected to several groans and sighs from those behind you. Fortunately some of the lesser known but equally impressive paintings offered a type of refuge. I loved slipping out of the crowd and into the corner to enjoy my time with Caillebotte’s realism meets impressionism gem “The Floor Planers”.
We finished the Impressionists wing and made our way back down and to the exit. I remembered feeling overwhelmed by the sheer volume of classic, world-renowned art that I had seen. I remember the satisfaction of being able to say I have seen with my own eyes the great works of the French masters that I had previously only seen in books. But over time I also began to feel that I had missed something. Getting caught in the assembly line movement of people from painting to painting didn’t feel like art appreciation. Yes I had “seen” the great works but had I experienced them? Had I appreciated them?
Reflecting back, I now wonder if maybe it wasn’t the Orsay with its smaller rooms that are unwelcoming to bigger crowds or its tricky interior layout that left me feeling slightly unfulfilled. Perhaps it was my lack of dedication to each individual work of art that I wanted to see. Perhaps I let a few sighs, moans, and shoulder bumps determine my experience rather than the beautiful oils put together by masterful hands on the canvases before me. Perhaps I was the reason I missed out on all that the Orsay had to offer.
Nonetheless I loved our visit to the Musee d’Orsay and, being that it was our first full day in Paris, it was our baptism into the Paris art scene. We would go on to see several other museums throughout the city but the Orsay set the table for us. This grand building, an old railway station that was once in danger of being demolished, is now one of Paris’ most popular attractions. The lower floors tease you with a variety of art – sculptures, paintings, photography, and even decorative arts – much of it phenomenal, some not as much. But the real treasures are hidden and almost begging to be discovered – treasures made significant by the names attached to them – Monet, Renoir, Manet, Cezanne, Degas, Courbet, and even Gustave Caillebotte. The Orsay has many artistic delights but, as I’ve said, it’s true treasures are in the attic.