Inventing Impressionism at the Orsay

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Inventing Impressionism at the Orsay
One evening in April 1874, as I strolled the Boulevard des Capucines, admiring the horse-drawn carriages rumbling past me, something unexpected happened. Rose, in a pretty full-skirted dress and demure bonnet, who introduced herself as an artists’ model, invited me to follow her into number 35 where a group of artists had just opened a new exhibition. And so I found myself in the very room where Monet had set his easel up at the window and painted the bustling street scene for the work he entitled Boulevard des Capucines.  Rose took me round the various rooms, where Degas, Pissarro and their fellow artists waited to tell me a little about their works. Then we went out to the station and took a train to the countryside just west of Paris where the flowery meadows and river made me feel I had slipped into an Impressionist painting. We wandered past bathers in striped full-body costumes and a boathouse where you could hire canoes. Rose stumbled momentarily at the water’s edge – imagine my surprise on looking up to find Monet standing at his easel and hear him remark that he was keen to capture on his canvas the ripples she had made in the water. Our tour ended in a hotel room in Le Havre, watching Monet put the finishing touches to his Impression, Sunrise painting and asking us whether we found it “a little too bright.” The VR experience, An Evening with the Impressionists, at the Musée d’Orsay, makes a novel way to rediscover the origins of the 19th century movement which was to conquer the art world. It supplements their main, more conventional exhibition, Inventing Impressionism, Paris 1874. Don a free-roaming headset, take in one or two instructions from the staff, then set off for a 45-minute tour through the exhibition which began it all and the places where the artists loved to paint. I’m a technophobe and prone to skepticism, but, reader, I loved every minute. I would just caution you to make sure you book advance tickets for the experience as well as for entry to the museum. It’s proving very popular and I fear you will not be able to make a spur-of-the-moment decision to go. Claude Monet, Boulevard des Capucines (1873), seen at the Orsay exhibit. Photo by Marian Jones Exactly 150 years after that first exhibition, it’s good to recall some context. In 1874, Paris was gripped by a new excitement. After defeat in the Franco-Prussian war and the siege of 1870, the era which would be known as the Belle Époque was just beginning. Here in Boulevard des Capucines, where the new Opéra Garnier was being built, a group of artists who were disillusioned with the stuffiness of the art establishment had clubbed together to hire rooms, formerly the studio of the photographer Nadar. They wanted to stage an exhibition to show – and hopefully sell – their work. The 30 or so artists called themselves the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors and Printmakers and among their number were some of the future impressionist movement’s best-known artists: Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, Berthe Morisot, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley and Paul Cézanne. The exhibition was not a huge success, the society dissolved a year later, but this was nevertheless later regarded as the moment when impressionism was born.  Berthe Morisot, The Cradle, 1872, as seen at the Orsay exhibition. Photo by Marian Jones

Lead photo credit : Claude Monet's "Impression, Sunrise" at the Orsay exhibition. Photo by Marian Jones

More in Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, Impressionism, Musée d’Orsay, Orsay Museum

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Recently retired from teaching Modern Languages (French and German), Marian now has time to develop her interests in travel and European culture and history. She will be in Paris as often as she can, visiting places old and new, finding out their stories and writing it all up as soon as she gets home. Marian also runs the weekly podcast series, City Breaks, offering in-depth coverage of popular city break destinations, with lots of background history and cultural information. She has covered Paris in 22 episodes but looks forward to updating the series every now and then with some Paris Extra episodes.


  •  Hazel SMith
    2024-04-29 03:34:11
    Hazel SMith
    Thank you Marian, for your interesting article. The VR looks amazing, I wish I could be there for real. It was the critic Louis Leroy, an artist himself, who came up with the less-than-flattering review of Monet's work. He said ‘Impression — I was certain of it. I was just telling myself that, since I was impressed, there had to be some impression in it … and what freedom, what ease of workmanship! A preliminary drawing for a wallpaper pattern is more finished than this seascape.' In this way Leroy inadvertently named the group. Monet and his friends took the epithet Impressionist for themselves: it perfectly described their technique.


    • Marian Jones
      2024-04-30 10:49:58
      Marian Jones
      Thank you, Hazel. Yes, the VR was great fun and really got across the idea of how new all this must have seemed at the time. I think the Orsay did well to get across something lesser-known about the beginnings of impressionism, ie the fact that it was just one of several styles attracting attention when it began. And yes, it's interesting to note that this critic's dismissal turned out to resonate for a century and a half - and counting!