Three things struck me while walking through the vast galleries in the Musée d’Orsay. Firstly, how surreal it was to turn a corner and suddenly be confronted with a particular painting that is so famous and which I have seen so many times in various books, it is almost like bumping into an old friend. The actual size of many of these is nearly always a surprise from the magnificence of Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l'herbe and Whistler’s Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, famous under its colloquial name Whistler's Mother to the relative smallness of Cezanne’s Card Players. To see ‘masterpieces’ such as these, as well as paintings by Van Gogh, Gaughan, Corot, Courbet and Monet up close and personal is a true joy and well worth having to become another (somewhat) patient tourist within the throngs queuing to get in.
Secondly, in this immense collection of art created between 1848-1914, only five female artists are represented and only with a miniscule number of their works – a couple of paintings by Berthe Morrisot, one Eva Gonzalez, one Mary Cassatt, one Marie Bashkirtseff and one Camille Claudel. Unarguably the time period the museum covers was notoriously difficult for female artists, but even so, notable absences to my mind are Gwen John, Marie Laurencin and Suzanne Valadon, to name but three.
Thirdly, for lovers of paintings of idealsed beautiful women presented as openly sexually alluring and passively available or caught in scenes of verious states of undress, then this is the place to come! Any and every excuse to portray a naked woman has been explored by the vast majority of artists included at Musée d’Orsay, from Courbet’s The Artist’s Studio, as well as his infamous L’Origine du Monde, to an endless array of minor nineteenth century predominantly French artists through to Degas and Renoir, etc, etc. If that wasn’t enough, the museum also has on display a collection of nineteenth and early twentieth century artist photographs, again concentrating on their naked models, all of which offer various degrees of titillation and in some cases, pornography. The museum does attempt some kind of rhetoric to accompany the sheer scale of such images on display, but its approach is problematic.
Despite my misgivings and mixed emotions at being confronted by such a celebration of female objectivity, Musée d’Orsay is still worth a visit. Its collections present a fascinating window into a period of art history which underwent immense change and eventual challenge, much to my delight.