The Birth of Modern Life at Musée d’Orsay

In the nineteenth century, Paris became the city of modernity. But art, it seemed, needed to catch up – Baudelaire wrote about this. His 1846 On the Heroism of Modern Life issued a rallying cry for artists to search for the epic in modern life, declaring that “we may assert that since all centuries and all peoples have had their own form of beauty, so inevitably we have ours”. Where was the modern hero and beauty to be found? Paris, of course. Baudelaire asserted that “The life of our city is rich in poetic and marvellous subjects”, and it is in the city that the artist strolled the boulevards, becoming the flâneur, an observer of modern life who searched for the artistic and the eternal in the modern age.



My Mum’s fabulous picture looking through d’Orsay clock towards Sacre Couer!!

A large proportion of the collections at the d’Orsay show this preoccupation with modernity – evident in new subjects and styles. They evolved quickly – for instance, look at Courbet’s 1849 Burial at Ornans, a huge Realist painting celebrating local tradition. Gone were the classical subjects of the preceding decades, and instead Courbet had taken a moment inhabited by ordinary people and elevated it to the stature of history painting, something entirely anti-academic and shocking at the time. This was done simply by painting it on a grand scale. Courbet, whose Realist convictions compelled him to paint ordinary people at their own time, truly looking for the epic in the modern, wrote that “Painting is an essentially concrete art and can only exist of real and existing of things”. Whilst in the 1850s, Courbet looked incredibly modern, when we move to the rooms housing works by Manet and Degas and then upstairs to the Impressionist collection, his work begins to look outdated, overtaken by new works responding to the spectacle of modern Paris and modern life.



Manet’s incredible, Renaissance-inspired Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe 

I previously mentioned Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe was inspired by Titian, and it was one of the paintings that when we visited the d’Orsay I had my breath taken away by. Bigger than I expected, and full of rich green pigments, it truly is a modern homage to a Renaissance master. Gone is the allegory to poetry, replaced by a seemingly theatrical scene we have stumbled across, two well-dressed men picnicking with a naked woman, her clothes discarded, her gaze staring brazenly at the viewer. Another naked woman is behind them, but seemingly disjointed. It seems to refer to clandestine prostitution in modern Paris, and technically is quite avant-garde. It seems to be painted in a more casual style – not quite as loose as the brushstrokes of the Impressionists (whom Manet is often associated with, but interestingly he never exhibited with them at the eight Impressionist exhibitions between 1874 and 1886), but definitely not the sculptural, defined style you would find in the contemporary salon. The naked woman is also very different to the academic Venus salon nudes – she is not nude, but naked. Manet always seemed to invite the viewer to ask questions, exhibiting perhaps some Realist tendencies inherited from Courbet.



Another fabulous picture by my Mum of the copy of Little Dancer Aged 14

Realist heritage was also picked up by Degas, who was one of the key movers in shaping the Impressionist Exhibitions. He wanted to name them not only after Impressionism, but also Realism as well, revealing his quest to ask questions beyond the surface phenomenon of the work of Impressionists such as Monet, Renoir and Sisley. His beautiful colouristic paintings of dancers show new modern influences: dancers were not a new subject, but they embodied the new bourgeois leisurely modern spectacle of Paris, and he produced numerous images of dancers at different angles in different locations of the opera house in various mediums and sizes; one of the stars of the Impressionist gallery at the d’Orsay is a bronze copy of his 1876-81 statue Little Dancer Aged 14, with the original executed in a vast array of materials, including beeswax. Compare this to its near contemporary, Carpeaux’s sculpture The Dance in the main hall, and you can see again just how far art had evolved in a few short years.



Carpeaux’s The Dance

The loose brushstrokes of Impressionism here show even more artistic evolution. So transitory and superficial compared to the questions invited by Manet and Degas, leisure and pleasure came alive in sketchy images designed to look unfinished, as if they were captured in mere moments and convey a sense of light and atmosphere at a particular moment. I think this is what I love so much about Musée d’Orsay. Of course, other art museums (such as the Louvre, which I have already rambled on about so much) show the evolution of art, but what strikes me here is that the period exhibited in which this artistic progression has taken place is so contracted, the change so rapid that we move from Courbet to Toulouse-Lautrec in five decades. Artists must have constantly been searching for the new modern, prompted by Baudelaire, to satisfy new artistic, cultural and political needs (because the political backdrop of this turbulent century cannot be ignored in shaping modern French culture) – and that is what makes this so completely exciting!


  • Baz Lurhmann’s spectacular spectacular (sorry, couldn’t resist!) Moulin Rouge – Ewan McGregor’s character Christian befriends Toulouse-Lautrec and I love the exuberance of this film, which I think shows Paris as the modern spectacle it must have been.


  • Like the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay also opens late one night a week, until 9.45pm on a Thursday night! Take it all in then go for a magical (almost) moonlit stroll along the Seine…
  • I forgot to mention that a lot of museums in Paris allow EU resident 18-25 year olds in for free, providing that you show your passport – it’s worth checking the websites before you visit, because they also do several concession rates and discounts. You can also get a Paris Pass (this is what me and my mum have had both times we’ve visited), which includes skip-the-line entry to many of the big museums and attractions in Paris, including the Louvre and d’Orsay, but also places such as the crypt and towers at Notre Dame, the Arc de Triomphe, to name but a few. You also get bus, RER and Métro travel within Zones 1-3, an open top bus tour (we used this to taxi us between different places) and a river cruise on the Seine. It’s absolutely brilliant if you’re aiming to pack lots of things in during a short trip!

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