How was Impressionism invented 150 years ago? The answer is at Musée d’Orsay.

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Auguste Renoir, “La Loge”, 1874, London, The Courtauld, first Impressionist exhibition n°142

It is an important moment in History of Art that Musée d’Orsay offers with its new show “Inventer l’Impressionisme” curated by Sylvie Patry and Anne Robbins. The movement which became the most important artistic moment in the 19 th century, was first named at the dissident show of April 15, 1874, when a small group of artists Monet, Renoir, Degas, Morisot, Pissarro, Sisley and Cézanne decided to exhibit their works at 35 bd des Capucines. This was photographer Nadar’s former studio, in the new trendy quartier of “Opéra Garnier”, instead of the Salon which took place at Palais de l’Industrie (now the Grand Palais) which showed 2 000 works. A month later, on May 15, 3 500 visitors have seen the Impressionist’s show: only four works were sold but sixty press articles were published. The name came from a satyrical journalist who commented “Impression, Soleil Levant” by Monet and referred to Impressionism in a derivative way. The word was picked up by another critic Jules Antoine Castagnary. The exhibition shows painters from both salons (some exhibited in both) and I found that this creates a mental and visual confusion for the visitor.

A general view of the official Salon paintings of 1874

But the aim is to recreate the ambiance of the time and the first room is devoted to the building of the Opera by Garnier and the former Nadar studio which serves as exhibition place, with seven or eight rooms on two floors and a lift! The show remained open at night so as to attract a wider range of visitors and included 200 paintings selected by the artists themselves, without the authority of a jury or the involvement of a dealer. One knows how important photography became for Impressionist painters, so the location made perfect sense.

The exhibition opens with the best sellers: “La Loge”, “La Parisienne” and “La Danseuse” by Renoir lent by the Courtauld in London, the National Gallery in Washington and Cardiff, Museum Wales. They hang on red walls as they did at the time. Claude Monet’s “Boulevard des Capucines”, lent by the Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City, was also part of the dissident show as was Edgar Degas'”Ballet class” from the Metropolitan museum, Auguste Renoir’s “Flowers in a vase” from MFA in Boston. Then suddenly amid all these famous paintings comes a forgotten painter, Edouard Brandon with “La Synagogue”, Pierre Bureau with “Moon light on the banks of l’Oise in L’Isle Adam” and the older Adolphe Félix Cals, “The Old Fisherman” or Gustave Henri Colin.

Berthe Morisot, “Portrait of Madame Edna Pontillon”, born Edna Morisot, sister of the artist, 1871, pastel on paper, Musée d’Orsay, First Impressionist exhibition 1874

After an introduction of the most famous “Impressionist” paintings, we enter a large bright red room with a selection of the “pompier” paintings of the official salon. It opened on May 1, 1874, on the Champs Elysées. Paintings hung one above the other and were hard to single out. A few tragic paintings describe the 1870 war against Prussia for some artists were fighting on the front. And what is interesting is that twelve artists chose to exhibit in both salons. Giusepe de Nittis for example shows “In the Wheats” at the salon but his “Road in Italy” is in the “Impressionist’s show. Edouard Manet had a painting refused “The ball at the Opera” but his ” Railway” was selected. Berthe Morisot had works in both venues. Boudin, Sisley, Monet, Pissarro certainly belonged to the Impressionists’ show and so did Stanislas Lépine. Manet refused to leave the official Salon.

Camille Cabillot-Lassalle, “The Salon 1874”, Paris Musée d’Orsay, gift Gallery Ary Jan and Segoura Fine Art

There are many beautiful paintings in this show but I came out of it totally confused. Modern life and Open air paintings as motifs, eclecticism and independence, I found it difficult to draw a strict line between the different artists. We are going through a difficult post Empire period, where the new Republic needs to prove itself. Life is ebullient on the boulevards with music and dance, industrialism is starting and the new vision of Impressionists will revolutionize the art of the next 25 years. This exhibition curated by Sylvie Patry (who is rumored to be the next President of Musée d’Orsay) and Anne Robbins will travel to Washington from September 8 to January 19.

Until July 14, Musée d’Orsay.

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One Comment on “How was Impressionism invented 150 years ago? The answer is at Musée d’Orsay.”

  1. The last painting,’Salon 1874’ shows best what mayhem it must have been, paintings displayed frame to frame with no space between them. It’s clear each figure modeled individually, for all the details included. They look nothing like today’s motley gallery visitors in puffer coats and baskets.

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