The Museum in motion

In a large museum, changes are orchestrated by the movement of artworks. With new displays, recent acquisitions, returning loans, restorations, new combinations and deposits, small adjustments or major transformations, the presentation of the collections is continually evolving. On this page you will find regularly updated information on the principal changes in the Musée d'Orsay galleries, and on new discoveries to be made.

Salon Painting

Henri GervexMeeting of the Jury© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / DR
Galerie Seine
By the second half of the 19th century, the Salon, created in 1699, had become the official and highly popular exhibition where artists could establish their reputations. A Session of the Painting Jury by Gervex demonstrates the importance of this event and shows the reactions of the jury awarding the prizes and the critics writing for their newspapers. The official taste of the establishment is reflected in the Musée d’Orsay collections as, when the Salon closed, the State would acquire many paintings for the Musée du Luxembourg, which specialised in the art of the period.

Although the Salon has long been considered a champion of Academism, it did in fact bring together a variety of artistic experiments. Artists, such as Elie Delaunay, who took subjects from Antiquity or from the Bible, revitalised traditional conventions through style and composition, whilst others, like Jean-Paul Laurens, favoured literary subjects or great French historical events. These paintings thus echoed the innovations of the avant-garde painters, and, in their presentation, heralded the cinema of the following century.

"The Dream of Happiness" by Papety

Loan from the Musée Antoine Vivenel, Compiègne : The Dream of Happiness by Dominique Papety on display room 7

Musée d'Orsay, salle 7© Musée d'Orsay / Sophie Boegly
A student of Augustin Aubert in Marseilles, then of Léon Cogniet in Paris, Dominique Papety received the Prix de Rome award for painting in 1836, and completed five years of training at the Académie de France (French Academy) in Rome under the direction of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres.

The Dream of Happiness is the masterpiece of Marseilles-born artist Papety. Inspired by the progressive and utopian philosophy of Charles Fourier, the composition portrays an ideal, peaceful and happy society.
To the left, half-naked figures symbolise love (the word "amour", French for "love", is engraved on the tree trunk) and the pleasure of the senses, people are drinking a toast to Harmony, a young girl is braiding flower garlands to decorate her hair, and a poet is contemplating lines by Horace ("Thrice and more greatly lucky, those whom an unbroken bond holds, whom, not separated by wicked arguments, love parts on their final day", Odes, I, 13).

On the right-hand side, Papety depicts the world of spirituality. Young people can be seen immersed in the study of a text entitled ''Unité universelle" (Universal Unity). In the centre are the figures of maternal love, childhood and work (the spinner, the bales of hay in the background).
They are all united by the divine music of the harp. Prepared using numerous studies and sketches (oil studies housed at the Musée Antoine Vivenel, preparatory watercolours at the Musée Fabre in Montpellier), this ambitious painting paradoxically draws on sources of art of the past (Greek classicism, Titian, Poussin, Ingres) to portray an image of a future happiness.

Presented at the 1843 Salon, the painting was the subject of much debate. It received great praise from Gabriel-Désiré Laverdant, an art critic open to Fourier's ideas on the social role of art. Papety conforms to the mission he assigned to artists: to "reveal the cure for human misery" to open up "happier horizons" and to display "glowing images of the golden age that we are moving towards".
Other authors, disconcerted by the complexity of the painter's allegoric language and philosophical notions, mockingly called his work a "large Fourierist caricature, frighteningly ugly" (Paul de Saint-Victor).

The Dream of Happiness was not acquired by the State, but by Antoine Vivenel, a rich building contractor and a fervent Fourierist. In 1843, he bequeathed his collection to the town of Compiègne to found an encyclopaedic museum for the education of society.
The painting by Papety, first presented at the Hôtel de Ville, has not been displayed since 1939. Restored by the Centre de Recherche et de Restauration des Musées de France (Laboratory of the Centre of Research and Restoration of the Musées de France), the work has been loaned to the Musée d'Orsay for five years by the Musée Antoine Vivenel and the Town of Compiègne.

The Luxembourg Rooms

Musée d'Orsay - Salle 1© Musée d'Orsay / Sophie Boegly
The first rooms in the museum tour, which have just been renovated, are now called "Luxembourg Rooms", after a museum that played a key role in the artistic life of France in the 19th century: the Museum of Living Artists, located in the Luxembourg Palace and its Orangerie (Paris).

Between 1818 and 1937, when the Museum of Modern Art was established in the Palais de Tokyo, this institution housed paintings, sculptures and, later, drawings bought or commissioned by the state from artists who were still living or had died in the previous 10 years, as well as privately donated works.

It was the world’s leading contemporary art museum, with prestige and influence to match, and many artists - French only until 1861, when the intake was gradually broadened to include foreigners - dreamed of seeing their work exhibited there. Indeed, acceptance by the Luxembourg allowed them to hope that they might even find a posthumous place in the artists’ true pantheon - the Louvre.

Musée d'Orsay - Salle 4© Musée d'Orsay / Sophie Boegly
Some of the artists who helped to reform the art scene (e.g. Delacroix, Ingres, Rodin, and Gustave Moreau) were admitted relatively early, but the Museum’s courage did not stretch to all the avant-garde movements of the time, and Courbet, Millet, Manet, Lautrec and Van Gogh were among those who never graced its walls in their lifetime.
In the 1870s, it was increasingly accused of turning its back on the innovators, and backing only “official” and “academic” artists. Gauguin, one of the excluded, denounced it as a “vast prison and obligatory brothel”, where only those prepared to prostitute their talent could expect to find a welcome.

It should be remembered, however, that it also had enlightened directors, like Philippe de Chennevières and Léonce Bénédite, as well as great donors, like Gustave Caillebotte, Isaac de Camondo, Etienne Moreau-Nélaton and Alfred Chauchard, who filled gaps by bringing in the Barbizon painters, Manet and the Impressionists, housed in the Jeu de Paume Museum from 1947 to 1986 - and so played a major part in laying the foundations of the Musée d’Orsay’s present collection.

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Thamar of Alexandre Cabanel back from a long term loan

An Academic painter who had been showered with honours since the Second Empire, Alexandre Cabanel renewed his style of painting in the 1870s, adopting the Orientalist Romanticism of artists like Henri Regnault.
This scene comes from an episode in the Old Testament where King David’s children tear each other apart: raped by her own brother Amnon, Thamar takes refuge with her other brother, Absalom, who swears to take revenge. Absalom’s theatrical gesture and his fierce expression, in contrast to Thamar’s wantoness, are reminiscent of Byron’s world; the plethora of shimmering fabrics and glittering jewellery was inspired by Delacroix’s paintings. The black servant girl in the shadow on the right quotes Delacroix’s Women of Algiers (1834, Louvre).

Bought by the State at the 1875 Salon for the Museum for Living Artists in the Palais du Luxembourg, the painting was on long-term loan to the Musée des Beaux-Arts Jules-Chéret in Nice since 1927. Restored in 2012, it is now on display in the Musée d'Orsay.

Alexandre CabanelThamar© Musée d'Orsay / Sophie Boegly

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Gauguin's Paintings on Glass

Paul GauguinTahitian Woman in a Landscape© RMN-Grand Palais (musée d'Orsay) / Daniel Arnaudet
There are two works in the Musée d'Orsay collection that, ever since it opened in 1986, the museum has never been able to exhibit. These are paintings on glass that could not be shown because of their condition, and because there was no suitable space to accommodate them. Today, after a long restoration process, and presented in new display cases made specifically for them, visitors can enjoy them at last.

Floral and Plant Motifs and Tahitian Woman in a Landscape, date from 1893 when Gauguin moved to Paris after his first visit to Polynesia. At that time he was continuing the decorative research that he had embarked on in the late 1880s when he decorated the windows of Marie Henry's inn at Le Pouldu, and which he pursued again in Tahiti in 1892, painting the glass panes in the window of a house.
Paul GauguinFloral and Plant Motifs© RMN-Grand Palais (musée d'Orsay) / Daniel Arnaudet

Wishing no doubt to create his own exotic decor on his return to Paris, on this occasion he chose the glass panes of the doors of his studio in rue Vercingétorix as a support, and composed these two landscapes. They remained in situ when the artist left for his last trip in 1895 and were only placed on deposit in 1905. In the end it was the widow of the American painter Harold English, their last owner, who gave them to the French National Museums in 1958.

This presentation is therefore quite an event, as these works from the reserve collections demonstrate one of Gauguin's principal concerns, as he stated in a letter to his friend Daniel de Monfreid: "Painted glass which attracts the eye with its groupings of colours and forms, is still the best".

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A Showcase for the “Liberty Style”

Carlo BugattiPsyche© Musée d'Orsay / Sophie Boegly
The large display case in Room 65 on the median level of the Musée d'Orsay is now devoted entirely to Italian Art Nouveau, known as the “Liberty Style ". It brings together a unique collection recently enriched by some acquisitions of the highest order.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the decorative arts in Italy continued a great tradition in arts and crafts, with artists taking it upon themselves to express the newly unified nation’s desire for progress. Italian Art Nouveau, known as the "Liberty Style" or "floral style", became established in 1902 at the International Exhibition of Decorative Arts in Turin, where great furniture designers like Eugenio Quarti, Ernesto Basile, Carlo Zen and Carlo Bugatti, exhibited their works.
With its love of sinuous lines inspired by natural forms, at times with exotic overtones, the “Liberty Style” was close to that of other movements throughout Europe, yet still retained its own distinctive characteristics. A particularly eloquent example of this is the chair designed by Carlo Bugatti as part of a complete suite of furniture that he presented in Turin. This "games and conversation room" reproduced a snail shell on a human scale, hence the name “snail room” ("camera a chiocciola"). Other Italian designers sought out new and original forms of expression. The desk designed by Federico Tesio for his villa in Dormelletto (Novara) on Lake Maggiore, where he bred racehorses, is both a unique work and a leading example of Italian "Liberty".

Vittorio ZecchinOne Thousand and One Nights, detail© DR © Musée d'Orsay / Sophie Boegly
Similarly, the great panel One Thousand and One Nights by the Venetian artist Vittorio Zecchin, is one of the most important examples of early 20th century Italian decorative painting. It was part of a series of eleven panels completed in 1914 for the dining room of the Terminus Hotel in Venice.
The sumptuous procession of princesses and warriors arriving to pay homage to Aladdin’s wife provided an opportunity to display a lavish range of colours whose decorative impact is enhanced with gold lozenges. The influence of Klimt is particularly evident here, but its idiom remains that of the Venetian tradition: the works of Vivarini, and the mosaics and stained glass windows of the famous lagoon city.

Showcase of "Liberty Style"© Musée d'Orsay / Sophie Boegly

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New Acquisitions: Von Stuck, Ranson

On the ground floor, the display in the new Symbolist gallery has just been renewed with the addition of two important recent acquisitions: Expulsion from Paradise by the German painter Franz von Stuck (1863-1923) and The Sorceress and the Black Cat by Paul Ranson (1861-1909).
In the first painting, Stuck seizes on a famous episode from the Bible, the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, that he represents in a stark composition highlighting the human emotions. Typical of Symbolism at the end of the 19th century in its sophistication and its moral dimension, Expulsion from Paradise is also an important milestone in the history of contemporary art, as it inspired Vassily Kandinsky, a pupil of Stuck in the early 20th century, in his Study for Improvisation 8 (1909), one of the stages that would lead him towards abstraction.

From 1891 until the end of his life, Paul Ranson produced a series of esoteric works in which the figure of the sorceress appears regularly. Surrounded by cabalistic symbols and shadow play, this Sorceress and the Black Cat, remains mysterious. We do not know if the shapes surrounding her represent her malevolent powers, or if she is plagued by nightmares. The composition corresponds perfectly with the aesthetic principles of the Nabis - arabesques, thick outlines, areas of flat colour, synthetism – and reflects the group’s interest in decorative forms.

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A History Painting: Etienne Marcel, Provost of the Merchants, and the Dauphin Charles

On the ground floor of the Musée d'Orsay, at the far end of the Seine gallery devoted to Salon paintings, are the artworks that achieved success at the great annual exhibitions organised by the Académie des Beaux-arts. For his submission to the 1879 Salon, Lucien Mélingue chose an episode from the political conflicts that shook France during the Hundred Years War (1337-1453).
On 22 February 1358, Etienne Marcel, the provost of the merchants of Paris, invaded the Palais de la Cité at the head of a crowd of 3000 people, with the purpose of defending the interests of the wealthy urban traders against the policies of the Dauphin Charles (1338-1380) – the future Charles V – acting as Regent since his father, John II the Good, was taken prisoner by the English in 1356. The Maréchal de Champagne and the Maréchal de Normandie were assassinated by the rioters in front of the startled young man's very eyes. Mélingue depicts the moment when Etienne Marcel saves the life of the heir to the throne, symbolically giving each figure the other's hat. The dauphin is thus adorned in the colours of Paris – red and blue – while the provost, wearing the fleur-de-lis, affirms his support for royal power.

Acquired by the State, the painting was originally exhibited at the Musée du Luxembourg, then at the Louvre, before being placed on long-term loan in the Musée de Beaune.
Today, at the heart of the Musée d'Orsay collections, it is a wonderful example of the genre of history painting, so popular with the public in the 19th century.

Lucien MélingueEtienne Marcel, Provost of the Merchants, and the Dauphin Charles© RMN-GP (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

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