Musée d'Orsay: Sculpture


From Excess to Oblivion

The 19th century was a remarkably prolific period for sculpture: the triumphant middle-class and the political powers eagerly appropriated this art form, the former to decorate its homes and proclaim its social status and the latter to inscribe the ideals and beliefs of the period in stone and bronze. There was huge demand for sculpture which, because of its cost, depended almost entirely on commissions. But from 1945, the art world turned away from the works produced in this period, regarded as too official, and many works vanished into the store rooms for a season in purgatory that lasted for several decades. Only a few major "modern" figures, such as Rodin, escaped from the general disenchantment.

The Central Nave© Musée d'Orsay
In the 1970s, the idea of converting the Orsay railway station into a museum gave sculpture from the second half of the 19th century a new lease on life. The new museum offered an ideal space for displaying sculpture: the great central nave lit by the changing daylight streaming through the glass roof. The public was able to rediscover the wealth and diversity of sculpture from this period. When it opened in December 1986, the Musée d'Orsay had assembled some 1,200 sculptures, mostly from the former collections of the Musée du Luxembourg, the Louvre and state loans.

The Origins: the Musée du Luxembourg

The Musée du Luxembourg was set up in 1818, during the reign of Louis XVIII, to exhibit the works of living artists, most of which were bought by the State during the Salons. The Musée du Luxembourg played the role of a modern art museum but for many years refused avant-garde painting, accepting only artists recognised by the official authorities.

Auguste Rodin
 L'Age d'airain [The Age of Bronze]
 Between 1877 and 1880
 Bronze statue
 H. 178; W. 59; D. 61.5 cm
 Paris, Musée d'Orsay
Auguste RodinThe Age of Bronze© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Thierry Ollivier
Most of the collections were devoted to painting, and sculpture played only a minor role. So in 1852, the inventory of the Musée du Luxembourg listed a mere twenty-five sculptures. In 1875, on the death of Barye, a recognised artist and a member of the Academy, models used for casting and wax sketches entered the museum. The value of the creative act was thus placed ahead of the material, which was a real revolution in the perception of sculpture.

In 1887, the Musée du Luxembourg owned over a hundred sculptures and had begun to open its doors to more modern artists. The first Rodin, The Age of Bronze, was bought in 1881. 1891 saw the purchase of Daumier's Ratapoil, although the committee still hesitated to exhibit this "interesting figure but one whose particular merits in no way correspond to the aesthetic character of the Musée the Luxembourg". In 1905, it was Bourdelle's turn to enter the museum, with a head of Beethoven. Space became an increasingly pressing problem as years went by, although in 1886 the number of works by the same artist that could be accepted by the museum was theoretically limited to three.

Sculpture at the Jeu de Paume

For many years foreign artists were ignored by the Musée du Luxembourg and the collections of the Musée d'Orsay still suffer from this short-sightedness.
In the 1860s, Philippe de Chennevières, the curator of the museum, had nonetheless struggled in vain against this situation. In 1879, Etienne Arago, his successor, admitted the weakness of the foreign collections although he pointed out that "the exhibition of 1878 shows that dazzling progress has been made". It was not until 1890 that two works by a foreigner, the Belgian Constantin Meunier, were bought at the Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts.

Edgar Degas 
 Petite danseuse de 14 ans [Small Dancer Aged 14] 
 Between 1921 and 1931
 Model between 1865 and 1881
 Bronze statue patinated in various colours, tulle tutu, pink satin ribbon in the hair, wooden base.
 Paris, Musée d'Orsay
Edgar DegasSmall Dancer Aged 14© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / DR
In 1923, the foreign collections had nonetheless become large enough for a museum of foreign schools to be opened at the Jeu de Paume in the Tuileries Gardens, attached to the Louvre. The new museum relieved the Musée the Luxembourg of part of its collections of paintings and sculptures but it was not sufficient to solve the space problem. The Musée des Ecoles Etrangères stayed open until 1940.
The Jeu de Paume opened again in 1947, but it had become the Impressionist Museum. Sculpture played a very secondary role there. Although a few Rodins were exhibited for a while, hardly any sculptures remained except Degas' Small Dancer, Aged Fourteen and sculptures by Gauguin which were easy to associate with paintings by the same artists.

The Musée National d'Art Moderne and Sculpture

Aristide Maillol 
 Méditerranée also called La Pensée [Mediterranean also called Thought]
 Between 1923 and 1927
 Paris, Musée d'Orsay
Aristide MaillolMediterranean© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
The Musée du Luxembourg finally closed its doors in 1939. A museum of modern art had just opened in the Palais de Tokyo, built in 1937 for the International Exhibition. But the new museum kept only a third or so of the collections of the Musée du Luxembourg, particularly the most "modern" works (Bourdelle, Bernard, Maillol...). In the 1950s, they too began to leave the museum for various destinations: a large number of Bourdelles were sent to Montauban, the artist's home town, while in 1964 several major works by Maillol were placed in the Carrousel Gardens. When the Musée d'Art Moderne was transferred to the Centre Pompidou, in 1977, the remainder, some 175 works, was sent to the Louvre.

19th-Century Sculpture in the Louvre

Aimé-Jules Dalou  
 Paysan retroussant ses manches [Peasant Rolling up his Sleeves]
 Circa 1902
 Bronze sketch
 H. 14.5; W. 8.1; D. 6cm
 Paris, Musée d'Orsay, gift of Mrs David-Nillet in memory of her husband, 1933
Aimé-Jules Dalou Peasant Rolling up his Sleeves© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
The pick of the works in the Musée du Luxembourg were given the honour of being accepted by the Louvre. Rude was given his own room in 1880 and Carpeaux in 1900. Collectors participated too. The Thomy-Thierry room was opened in 1906, the Chauchard collection in 1910 and the two Zoubaloff rooms dedicated to Barye in 1913-1914. But, once again, lack of space condemned 19th-century sculpture to long years in the storerooms. In the 1960s, the Ministry of Finance vacated the Pavillon de Flore, previously occupied by the national lottery board. Sculptures at last had enough room to be properly exhibited, but only a small place was given to the second half of the 19th century. Grouped around Carpeaux were a few works by Chapu (Bonnat, Youth), Falguière (Tarcisius, The Victors of the Cock Fight), Fremiet (St George), Dalou (Large Peasant), Rodin (The Age of Bronze) and a few sketches.

A Paradise for Sculpture: the Musée d'Orsay

Ernest Barrias
 La Nature se dévoilant devant la Science [Nature Unveiling Herself to Science]
 Marble and polychrome onyx from Algeria, grey granite pedestal, malachite scarab, lapis lazuli ribbon
 H. 200; W. 85; D. 55 cm
 Paris, Musée d'Orsay
Ernest BarriasNature Unveiling Herself© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / René-Gabriel Ojéda
The idea of converting the Orsay railway station into a museum was mooted in the 1970s. A place had to be found for the Impressionist collections which were too cramped in the Jeu de Paume, while the opening of the new modern art museum in the George Pompidou Centre required a new home for the older works. The sculptures found their place under Laloux's metal girders. Through a number of exchanges, the Musée d'Orsay managed to obtain works which had been exhibited in other museums (The Thought and The Gates of Hell from the Musée Rodin) or institutions (Nature Unveiling Herself to Science by Barrias which had graced a staircase in the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers).

Works less visible to the public were often easier to obtain: Goethe by David d'Angers was at the top of a tower in the city of Saumur; Gérôme's Gladiators were in the Mont Valérien fort; Schoenewerk's Young Tarantine had been forgotten in the old kitchens of the Château de Compiègne. One of the most famous examples was the Six Continents. Now presented on the esplanade in front of the museum, these sculptures designed for the Trocadero Palace of the Universal Exhibition of 1878 had been lying in a public rubbish dump in Nantes since 1963. The Musée d'Orsay secured them in exchange for a painting by Sisley for the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes.

Camille Claudel 
 L'Age mûr [Maturity]
 Circa 1902
 Bronze group in three parts
 H. 1.14; W. 1.63; D. 0.72 m
 Paris, Musée d'Orsay
Camille Claudel Maturity© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Thierry Ollivier
Special purchases enabled the Museum to complete its collections: one of the panels of Gauguin's Be Mysterious (bought in 1979), the entire set of Daumier's Célébrités du Juste Milieu (busts of celebrities, mainly parliamentarians, bought in 1980), Claudel's Maturity (bought in 1982)... Lastly the generosity of art lovers, descendants of artists and the friends of the Musée d'Orsay brought the museum over 200 works in the years prior to the opening date.
Medardo Rosso
 Ateas aurea dit L'Age d'or [Ateas aurea called The Golden Age]
 Bronze relief
 H. 50; W. 37.8; D. 26.5 cm
 Paris, Musée d'Orsay
Medardo RossoAteas aurea © DR - RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Jean-Gilles Berizzi
Since 1986, through purchases, gifts and acquisitions in lieu, the Musée d'Orsay has been able to fill in some gaps in its collections, especially in the field of foreign sculpture (Aetas aurea by Medardo Rosso in 1988, Cassandra by Max Klinger in 1990...), and to acquire major works (Torso of Clotho by Camille Claudel in 1988...). Its sculpture collection now numbers over 2,200 pieces, including loans to other establishments. The collection is more vigorous than ever, keeping alive the desire to know and admire the sculpture of the second half of the 19th century.

Recent acquisitions

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