Musée d'Orsay: Painting


Origins: the Musée du Luxembourg

Gustave Le Gray  
 Salon of 1852, large north gallery (centre: "The Village Girls" by Gustave Courbet)
 Salted paper print from a paper negative, glued on card
 H. 19.4; W. 23.6 cm
 Paris, Musée d'Orsay
Gustave Le Gray Salon of 1852, large north gallery (centre: "The Village Girls" by Gustave Courbet)© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
The origin of the painting collections in the Musée d'Orsay goes back to the Musée du Luxembourg, which was founded by Louis XVIII, in 1818, to exhibit the works of living artists.
The arrangement was that ten years after the death of the artist, works whose "glory had been confirmed by universal opinion" would be transferred to the Louvre; the others were sent to other institutions or departments.

At the beginning, the collections in the Musée du Luxembourg were almost exclusively built up by purchases at the Salon. They therefore reflected the official taste of the period with an emphasis on history painting, portraits and classical landscapes according to a clearly established hierarchy of genres.
Until the 1880s, the Musée du Luxembourg remained closed to the latest experiments in art. Courbet and Millet, for example, were not exhibited there in their lifetime.
It took a concerted effort by the artists, their families, collectors and some civil servants for contemporary art at last to enter French national collections.

The Avant-garde at the Musée du Luxembourg: From Realism to Impressionism

Jean-François Millet
 Des glaneuses also called Les glaneuses [Gleaners, also called, The Gleaners]
 Oil on canvas
 H. 83.5; W. 110 cm
 Paris, Musée d'Orsay, donation by Mrs Pommery with life interest reserved, 1890
Jean-François Millet Gleaners© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Jean Schormans
It was initially private generosity which enabled French museums to open their doors to the most innovative artists. Donated by the artist's sister, A Burial at Ornans by Courbet entered the Louvre in 1881. Next came Millet's Spring given by Mrs Hartmann in 1887 and Gleaners by the same artist, donated by Mrs Pommery in 1890. Alfred Chauchard's rich collection brought a formidable ensemble of paintings by the Barbizon School, including Millet's famous Angelus, in 1909. But the second half of the 19th century was also characterised by the growing influence of art critics and dealers in the art world. The traditional system of the Salon and private patronage was poorly adapted to the expansion of the art market and artists' reputations increasingly depended on the opinions of critics and the choices made by art dealers.

E. ManetOlympia
This change was conducive to the development and recognition of new schools. Thus, in 1890, a group of subscribers led by Monet managed to open the doors of the Luxembourg Museum to Manet's Olympia even though the artist had died in 1883.
However the change in mentality was not a smooth process as is shown by the episode of the Caillebotte bequest. Caillebotte was a friend and patron of the Impressionists and when he died in 1894 he bequeathed his collection to the state. It numbered over sixty paintings by Degas, Manet, Cézanne, Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Pissarro and even Millet. Faced with a lukewarm reception from the administration of the Fine Arts Department, the trustees, including Renoir, were determined that Caillebotte's wishes would be honoured.
Caillebotte wanted all the works in his bequest to be displayed and not relegated to the storerooms. Discussions dragged on for nearly two years before an agreement was signed in February 1896, under which the national museums kept only forty works but formally undertook to exhibit them. Despite these difficulties and the official protest lodged by the Academy of Fine Arts, the Caillebotte bequest swept the Impressionists into the Musée du Luxembourg.
Pierre Puvis de Chavannes 
 Le pauvre pêcheur [The Poor Fisherman]
 Oil on canvas
 H. 155.5; W. 192.5 cm
 Paris, Musée d'Orsay
Pierre Puvis de Chavannes The Poor Fisherman© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

At the same time the State began to buy the works of more modern artists. Examples include The Poor Fisherman by Puvis de Chavannes in 1887, A Studio at Les Batignolles by Fantin-Latour and Girls at the Piano by Renoir in 1892 as well as Carrière's The Artist's Family in 1896.
In the years that followed, the Impressionist collection was enlarged through gifts from the artists' heirs or from major collectors. Between 1883 and 1927, Etienne Moreau-Nélaton made several gifts and bequests which brought the national collections paintings such as Manet's Lunch on the Grass.
In 1911, Isaac de Camondo bequeathed a set of works including four of Monet's Cathedrals.

French painting was not the only section to benefit from this development. In the late 19th century, the Musée du Luxembourg opened up to foreign schools, with in particular Summer Night by Winslow Homer and Whistler's Mother. The foreign section eventually became large enough to justify the creation of a separate museum in the Jeu de Paume in 1922.
In 1929, the entire Impressionist section was transferred to the Louvre.


The Musée d'Art Moderne and the Musée du Jeu de Paume

In 1937, the Musée du Luxembourg was replaced by the Musée d'Art Moderne, located in the new Palais de Tokyo, which had been built for the International Exhibition. Its programme began with Neo-Impressionism (without Seurat), the Pont-Aven School (without Gauguin) and the Nabis.

Henri Rousseau
 La charmeuse de serpents [The Snake Charmer]
 Oil on canvas
 H. 169; W. 189.5 cm
 Paris, Musée d'Orsay, bequest of Jacques Doucet, 1936
Henri RousseauThe Snake Charmer© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
With the reorganisation of the Louvre, the Impressionist collections moved again in 1947. They were now housed in the Musée du Jeu Paume and included works from Boudin to Seurat, as well as those by Toulouse-Lautrec or Henri Rousseau. In the post-war period, the collections were enlarged by an active acquisitions policy which encouraged gifts by artists.
Marginally higher funding, the help of the Friends of the Louvre and private generosity facilitated several essential acquisitions, particularly paintings by Seurat, Cézanne or Redon. Growing public enthusiasm for the Impressionists gradually made the Jeu de Paume too small to exhibit the works safely and comfortably.

In 1977, it was decided to convert the disused Orsay railway station into a museum for the art of the second half of the 19th century and the early 20th century. This project also solved the problem raised that year by the installation of the Musée d'Art Moderne in the Centre Georges Pompidou: a home had to be found for works which fell outside the programme of the new museum (the Pont-Aven school, Neo-Impressionism and the Nabis).

The Musée d'Orsay gathered the collections from the Jeu de Paume, works left in the Palais de Tokyo by the Musée d'Art Moderne – which were exhibited from 1977 to 1986 as "a foretaste of the Musée d'Orsay" – and works from the Louvre dating from the second half of the 19th century.
However the newly formed collection would not have been sufficient to give a full picture of the complexities of a period that was unusually fertile.

The Musée d'Orsay's Acquisition Policy

Paul SérusierThe Talisman© Musée d'Orsay, dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
An acquisition policy was implemented in 1978. Paintings that had been dispersed throughout France following the closure of the Musée du Luxembourg were called in, sometimes in exchange for other works so as not to disadvantage the museums that had looked after them for so many years. Thus, the collections of Realist painting from 1848-1850, late Romanticism, the Eclecticism of the Second Empire and the official art of the Third Republic were greatly enhanced.

The second concern was to complete, balance and consolidate the collections to give the best and most comprehensive view of this particularly rich period in the history of art. For example, in 1985, Sérusier’sTalisman was acquired, completing a succession of prestigious gifts of works by Bonnard and Redon. The series of paintings by Neo-Impressionists and the Pont-Aven school in the museum’s collections testify to the generosity of the artists’ descendants and of great collectors.

Auguste RenoirThe English Pear Tree© Musée d'Orsay, dist. RMN / Patrice Schmidt
Furthermore, right from the outset, the Musée d'Orsay benefited from the system of Acceptance in Lieu (dation), whereby works of art can be donated to the museum to offset inheritance taxes. Over the years, paintings by some of the greatest artists have entered the collections by this means. Among them are: Blanche's Portrait of Marcel Proust de Blanche (1989) ; Boldini’s Scène de fête (2010) ; four Bonnard's Women in the Garden (1984) (1984) and L'après-midi bourgeoise [A Bourgeois Afternoon] (1988); five large paintings by Bouguereau (2010); by Cézanne: several Bathers and La Tentation de Saint Antoine [The Temptation of Saint Anthony] (1982), L'Avocat [The Lawyer] and a Portrait de Madame Cézanne [Portrait of Madame Cézanne] (1991), Le Christ aux limbes [Christ in Limbo] (2005) and the large format Paysan assis [Seated Peasant] (2009); Courbet’s Femme nue au chien [Nude Woman with a Dog] (1979) and L'Origine du monde [The Origin of the World] (1995); two pastels of Dancers by Degas (1979 and 1997); Denis’ Le menuet de la Princesse Maleine [Princess Maleine’s Minuet] (1999) and Paysage aux arbres verts [Landscape with Green Trees] (2001); Manet’s Combat de taureaux [Bullfight] (1976) and L'évasion de Rochefort [Rochefort’s Escape] (1984); Luxe, calme et volupté [Luxury, Calm and Voluptuousness] by Matisse (1985); Monet’s La Rue Montorgueil (1982), Le déjeuner sur l'herbe [Luncheon on the Grass] (1987) and Effet de vent [Wind Effect] (2002); a set of fifteen works by Redon (1988); Renoir’s Danse à la ville [City Dance] (1978), Julie Manet (1999) and Le poirier d'Angleterre [The English Pear Tree] (2012); Vuillard’s Femme de profil [Profile of a Woman] (1990) and Intérieur [Interior] (2001). In all, over one hundred paintings and pastels have come into the museum’s collections through the Acceptance in Lieu system.

Franz von StuckL'Expulsion du Paradis© Musée d'Orsay, dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
Purchases have focused particularly on foreign schools with La Roue de la Fortune de Burne-Jones [The Wheel of Fortune by Burne-Jones] (1980), Nuit d'été à Aagaardstrand [Summer Night at Aagaardstrand] by Munch (1986), Départ pour la pêche [Fishing Boats] by Mondrian (1987) and Repos [Rest] by Hammershøi (1996), Vue de Capolago [View of Capolago] by Giovanni Giacometti (1997) and Paysage de neige [Snow-Covered Landscape] by Amiet (1999). We should also mention the more recent purchase of Ensor’s Au conservatoire [At the Conservatoire] (2009) that has filled a regrettable gap in the collections of works by foreign painters, and Von Stuck’s L'expulsion du Paradis [Expulsion from Paradise] (2012).

James TissotThe Circle of the Rue Royale© Musée d'Orsay, dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
Since 1986, the Musée d'Orsay has also been able to buy works by some of the greatest French painters from the period it covers. Key purchases include: Le garçon au chat de Renoir [The Boy with the Cat] by Renoir (1992); Portrait de l'artiste au Christ jaune [Portrait Of the Artist with the Yellow Christ] by Gauguin (1994); Berthe Morisot au bouquet de violettes [Berthe Morisot With a Bunch of Violets] by Manet (1998); Galatée [Galatea] by Gustave Moreau (1997); Portrait de Paul Ranson en costume nabi [Portrait of Paul Ranson dressed as a Nabi] by Sérusier (2004); and an outstanding group portrait by Tissot, Le Cercle de la rue Royale [The Circle of the Rue Royale] (2011). We should also mention Femmes à leur toilette [Women at their Toilet] by Vallotton (2011), who was one of the key members of the Nabi group, as was Maurice Denis, whose La Dame au jardin clos [Woman in a Walled Garden] was bought in 2012.

Auctions and galleries also provide the opportunity to acquire works that become permanent additions to the national collections. Let us therefore mention some of the purchases made in recent years, which visitors can now enjoy in the museum: Misia à sa coiffeuse [Misia at her Dressing Table] by Vallotton (2004), Réception de Grand Condé par Louis XIV [Louis XIV Receiving the Great Condé] by Gérôme (2004), Le bûcheron [The Woodcutter] by Hodler (2005) and Soir d'octobre [October Evening] by Maurice Denis (2005).

Maurice DenisTriple Portrait of Yvonne Lerolle© Musée d'Orsay, dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
Finally, the generosity of private donors remains one of the main sources for enriching the collections. Each year, major works enter the museum thanks to various gifts, donations and bequests.
With the assistance of Georges D. Havas, the museum was able to finance the purchase of L'enfance de Sixte-Quint [The Childhood of Sixtus V] by Gustave Moreau (2009) and the Portrait d'Yvonne Lerolle en trois aspects [Triple Portrait of Yvonne Lerolle] by Maurice Denis (2010). For this latter portrait, an important milestone in the history of Symbolism, the Musée d'Orsay was able to take advantage of the back interest on an anonymous Canadian donation together with assistance from the Heritage Fund. We should also mention the exceptional Meyer donation, made subject to usufruct in 2000, that brought together, in an area specially designed for them, paintings by Bonnard, Vuillard, Cézanne, Seurat, Degas, Fantin-Latour, Monet, Manet, Hammershoi and Mondrian. The Meyer Foundation completed this collection with the gift of Bonnard’s La symphonie pastorale [Pastoral Symphony] in 2009.
Another historic gift was agreed in early 2011, subject to usufruct, comprising 141 works by Nabi artists. This very generous gesture further asserts the Musée d'Orsay’s position as the leading institution for the work of artists such as Vuillard and Bonnard.

Far from limiting itself to the legacy of the Musée du Luxembourg and the Louvre, the Musée d'Orsay's painting collection has continued to evolve. Year after year, gifts, purchases and acquisitions in lieu keep the collection alive: across all departments, the Musée d'Orsay acquired the equivalent of over 20 million euros worth of artworks in 2009 and a further 14 million euros in 2010, offering the public an increasingly complete, fresh picture of a lively, varied period, one of the most creative in the history of art.

Recent acquisitions

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