150 years of Impressionis at musée d’Orsay in Paris

The Musée d'Orsay in Paris, one of the finest museums in the world of 19th century art, presents the exhibition Paris 1874: Inventer l'impressionnisme until 14 July 2024. Curated under the direction of Anne Robbins and Sylvie Patry, this exhibition commemorates the 150th anniversary of the first impressionist exhibition, held in the heart of France's capital city in 1874.



During this period of fervent change, the City of Light underwent profound transformations among a backdrop of contrasts — from poverty to opulence, from chaos to grandeur. In the 19th century Paris bore the wounds of the Franco-Prussian war, yet it also heralded the audacious urban initiatives of Prefect Georges-Eugène Haussmann. Haussmann's sweeping transformations reshaped the cityscape of Paris, replacing its mediaeval tissue with a modern urban tableau where expansive boulevards were flanked by full-grown trees, sparkling decorated lamp posts and cream-coloured apartment buildings adorned with wrought iron railings and zinc-covered roofs. Amidst this architectural ferment a vibrant array of cultural and social establishments emerged — from theatres and museums to restaurants, dance halls, casinos, and cafés. The inaugural room of the exhibition celebrates this metropolitan life rich of contradictions, first captured by two lithographs by Édouard Manet depicting a Paris torn apart by the Franco-Prussian war and its aftermath (La Barricade” and “Guerre civile”).


Additionally, this visual narrative is enriched by the photographs of Louis-Émile Durandelle, who immortalised the monumental construction works of the Opéra Garnier, epitomising the baroque opulence of the Second Empire, and of the surrounding, dazzling network of boulevards that is still today synonymous with the timeless grandeur of Paris. Here, the spirit of Charles Baudelaire's evocative prose comes to life - a dimension where “modern life” assumes an epic heroism, in which we “are big and poetic in our ties and shiny shoes”.


It was therefore in this exuberant city that the conditions for the greatest artistic innovation of the century blossomed. Embracing Baudelaire's invitation, Impressionists abandoned the representation of historical, religious, or literary subjects of the past, opting instead to interpret this iridescent reality in a spontaneous and immediate manner. The Paris of the terrasses, the avenues and the theatres is thus captured in quick and genuine bursts of pure colour, forsaking the meticulous detail favoured by the Académie des beaux-arts. This aesthetic impulse is palpable in the artworks on display in the second and third rooms of the exhibition, which focus precisely on the first exhibition where, from 15 April to 15 May 1874, these French painters boldly challenged the artistic established order to present their creations to the public. Among these works, Renoir's "La Danseuse" and "La Parisienne" crystallise 19th-century myths of dance and social escapades...


Monet's "Boulevard des Capucines" immortalises Parisian society amidst its peak splendour, bustling along the youthfully ebullient boulevards...


Meanwhile, Degas offers intimate glimpses into the world of dance with "Classe de danse" and "Répétition d'un ballet sur la scène," revealing scenes "seen as if he was looking through a keyhole," as the artist himself described.



The exhibition also sheds light on lesser-known artists, such as Zacharie Astruc, whose Oriental-themed paintings bear witness to the profound influence of Japanese art on Western genres; Félix Bracquemond, known for his reproductions of masterpieces by Ingres and Turner; and, finally, Ludovic-Napoléon Lepic, who preferred capturing the spirited personalities of two small dogs, Jupiter and Cesar, over emulating the styles of renowned masters of the past.

The Impressionist exhibition turned out to be a debacle: the public was not ready to appreciate what they considered to be 'wallpaper in its embryonic state', to borrow the words of critic Louis Leroy (ironically, he was the first to coin the term "Impressionism," albeit in a derogatory manner). In stark contrast, the Salon of 1874, the main rendez vous of European art that year, was a resounding success: yet it was not the event that would be later recorded in all art history books. Nevertheless, despite the scepticism expressed by critics like Zola, the wealthy bourgeoisie of the time eagerly crowded the 24 exhibition rooms.


One of these spaces is in fact evoked in the second room of the Paris exhibition. Here, the Impressionist value system gave way to a profusion of historical, religious, or mythological artworks painted with meticulous precision, bordering on a polished, almost lacquered aesthetic. Notable examples include a biblical scene by Lawrence Alma Tadema (La mort du premier né du Pharaon”), an exasperatingly sophisticated interpretation of “Eros and Cupid” by Jean-Jules-Antoine Lecomte du Nouÿ, and finally “L'Emincence grise”, a history painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme.



We are significantly distant from the epic of colour and light pursued by Impressionists: yet these two dimensions were not antithetical nor impermeable to each other. Indeed, clashes between differing pictorial traditions often led to unexpected encounters: several so-called 'academic' artists explored eminently modern themes within allegorical frameworks, as in the case of Henri Lévy, who chose to narrate the drama of the Franco-Prussian war through the prism of the Iliad.


Again, numerous artists with a distinctly impressionist sensibility did not shy away from official Salon exhibitions. Alongside the pompous paintings by Ferdinand Humbert or Adelaide Salles-Wagner, in fact, the Salon of 1874 also featured Édouard Manet's “Le chémin de fer”, celebrating nostalgically the splendour of technological advancements...


Eva Gonzalès' intimate portrayal "La matinée rose," capturing a Parisian woman in the quietude of her toilette...


...and, finally, Giuseppe De Nittis' "Dans les blés", showcasing an Italian artist's embrace of Impressionism.


The exhibition at musée d’Orsay, therefore, holds the merit of meticulously reconstructing the physiognomy of an artistic movement, such as Impressionism, and of an era, the 19th century, both multifaceted and rich of contrasts. It is, however, Impressionism that shines through: subsequent rooms in the exhibition, therefore, are devoted precisely to the significant thematic and stylistic focal points of Impressionism. Chief among these is the portrayal of modern life, exemplified by numerous paintings that capture the relentless rhythms of an increasingly urbanised and globalised world. For instance, Eugène Boudin's "Scène de bord de mer" and "Plage à Trouville" vividly depict the development of seaside tourism, while Degas's graceful "Aux courses en province" focuses on the world of horse racing, where such sporting events assume both mundane and gallant dimensions.


In contrast, Monet's "Coquelicots" and Charles François Daubigny's "Les champs au mois de juin" eloquently capture the allure of promenades in the countryside through the shimmering red hues of poppy fields, a sentiment echoed also in another suave painting by Berthe Morisot, titled "Cache cache". 



Other fundamental Impressionist themes, such as plein air painting, also find representation in the exhibition. This palpable sense of modernity was in fact captured not in the amorphous enclosure of the atelier but in the open air, allowing for a more sincere and spontaneous portrayal. Notable examples include Cézanne's proto-Cubist "La maison du pendu"...


Sisley's "Le Bac de l'ile de la Loge” and “Port-Marly, gelée Blanche”, portraying a dramatic flood and a snowy autumn afternoon with serene poeticism...


...and, finally, the true progenitor of the Impressionist movement, Monet's "Impression, soleil levant", offering not a description but a "pictorial impression" of the intangible, aerial mist of a sunrise in Le Havre, thus lending its name to an entire artistic movement.


The Impressionist revolution had thus begun. Following the inaugural exhibition in 1874, a series of other showcases ensued, with the 1877 exhibition marking a pivotal moment as the first to openly adopt the label 'Impressionist'. Noteworthy paintings from this event are showcased in the final room of the Paris exhibition. Among them, Monet's “La Gare Saint-Lazare”, in which the railway becomes tangible evidence of the triumphs of industrial evolution, viewed at the time as a positive achievement; “Les dindons”, where Monet captures the serene lushness of the French countryside, and, finally, pictorially sealing the conclusion, Renoir's famous “Bal du moulin de la Galette”, an artistic hymn to the carefree joie de vivre of a sunny afternoon in Montmartre.



In summary, this exhibition is a must-see for art history enthusiasts, offering an interesting exploration of the dialectic between different schools of art. All that remains is to internalise the meaningful wish from La Semaine parisienne expressed at the exhibition’s close: "Bonne chance messieurs! Il ressort toujours quelque chose des innovations" ("Good luck, gentlemen! Something always comes out of innovations").