Musée d'Orsay: The digital worlds of Orsay

The digital worlds of Orsay

The digital worlds of Orsay: a connected history of the collections

Historical research has been at the forefront of the Musée d'Orsay’s identity since the very beginnings of the museum: while it is an art museum, its diverse collections showcase a time of political, economic, social, media, artistic revolutions. Building up on the legacy of this connection between history and art history in the aim of providing an account of this extraordinary period, the Musée d'Orsay has invited the historian Pierre Singaravélou to conceive the digital program “Les mondes numériques d'Orsay” (“The Digital Worlds of Orsay”), as a prelude to his research and lecture program “Les mondes d'Orsay” (“The Worlds of Orsay”, spring 2021), which offers to engage with the museum's collections in a global context.

Three times a week (on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday) during the time of the second lockdown, Singaravélou will offer a new text on famous or unknown works, according to the method of world history. It therefore becomes clear that the great movements of history took place in a world that is much more connected than we thought - yesterday and today.

Pierre Singaravélou, Professor of History at King’s College London and the University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, has mainly worked on the history of colonization and globalization in the 19th and 20th centuries. He recently published Pour une histoire des possibles (Towards a History of Possibilities, Seuil, 2016, with Q. Deluermoz), Tianjin Cosmopolis (Seuil, 2017), Le Monde vu d'Asie (The World Seen from Asia, Seuil, 2018), and co-edited with S. Venayre L'Histoire du Monde au XIXe siècle (The History of the World in the 19th century, Fayard, 2017) and Le Magasin du Monde (The Shop of the World, Fayard, 2020).

"And if there's only one left, I'll be the one"

Charles Hugo
 Victor Hugo standing in front of Outcasts Rock
 Circa 1853
 Salted paper print
 H. 10.3; W. 6.3 cm
 Paris, Musée d'Orsay, gift of Marie-Thérèse and André Jammes, 1984
Charles HugoVictor Hugo standing in front of Outcasts Rock© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / DR
To shape his own image as the main opponent of Napoleon III, Victor Hugo became a pioneer of political photography, long before it transformed communication and the media.
"And so, it is a photographic revolution that we want to create (while we are waiting)" to put an end to the Second Empire: those were Hugo’s words in 1853, while his son Charles was making this salt print.
The writer measured the power of this new medium - which allows a person to make absence present: he staged himself on the Rock of the Exiles, looking at France from the Anglo-Norman island of Jersey where he was exiled.

This photograph was to be published in a book that the editors did not release for fear of displeasing the Emperor; it eventually found its way into an album reserved for family and friends.
Jersey, "a piece of France fallen into the sea and picked up by England" to use Hugo's expression, is a small paradise for people in exile: life is cheaper there than in London, an and its proximity to the Cotentin – only 22 kilometers away – allows for easy communication with the motherland.

Before Hugo and his Republican "brothers", the island successively welcomed Huguenots during the Wars of Religion, Chateaubriand and royalists during the French Revolution, and Spanish, Italian and Polish nationalists in the years 1820-1830.
They were joined in 1852 by around 200 French people banished by Louis Napoléon. Hugo is just the most photogenic of them!

For further information:
-Sylvie Aprile, Le Siècle des Exilés. Bannis et proscrits de 1789 à la Commune, Paris, CNRS Éditions, 2010.
-Françoise Heilbrun et Danielle Molinari (dir.), En collaboration avec le soleil, Victor Hugo . Photographies de l’exil, Paris, Réunion des musées nationaux, 1998
-Jann Matlock, « Hugo ailleurs : la photographie de l’exil », dans Sarga Moussa et Sylvain Venayre (dir.), Le voyage et la mémoire au XIXe siècle, Paris, Creaphis Éditions, 2011.


In praise of the colonial Empire

Bourgonnier Claude (1858-1921). Paris, musée d'Orsay. INV20707.
Claude BourgonnierSketch of the Colonial School's ceiling© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Stéphane Maréchalle
The quintessentially French Ecole Nationale d’Administration harbors the mysterious vestige of an abandoned ambition: that of governing the world, or of "civilizing" it. One of the most eloquent pictorial exaltations of the French colonial Empire is to be seen on the ceiling of the school’s library.
Indeed, the ENA was created in 1945 on the model of the Colonial School, whose location it inherited. The “Colo” was founded in 1889 to welcome future colonial administrators, providing them with a traditional education combined with the human sciences.

The Musée d'Orsay holds the sketch of the work commissioned in 1913 from Claude-Charles Bourgonnier: in the center, we can see the figure of a woman with the torch of virtue – France – standing out against the vast tricolor flag. The representatives of the African and Asian peoples of the Empire bow before her.
To the right, the founders of the Colonial School are depicted according to the Venetian tradition. In the middle, we can see History writing at the dictation of Truth. Thus, painting, like the cameral sciences, was placed at the service of imperial propaganda, at a time when colonial domination seemed to have become the consensus – in Paris.

Pour aller plus loin :
-William B. Cohen, Empereurs sans sceptre, Paris, Berger-Levrault, 1974.
-Pierre Singaravélou, Professer l’Empire. Les “sciences coloniales” en France sous la IIIe République, Paris, Editions de la Sorbonne, 2011.


Is the Statue of Liberty of Egyptian origin?

Frédéric-Auguste BartholdiLiberté© Musée d'Orsay, dist. RMN-Grand Palais
Nothing is more international than the construction of national identities. They are the result of multiple cultural and artistic movements, as evidenced by the history of the Statue of LibertyStatue de la Liberté: this symbol of the United States was inaugurated in 1886 in New York harbor.
This statue, of which the Musée d'Orsay has a reduced model, comes from the studio of French sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi. Bartholdi intended to celebrate the centenary of US Independence and the close links between the two venerable universalist republics amid a world dominated by monarchical regimes.

Bartholdi neo-classical inspiration - radiant crown, torch, drape, table of the law - appears evidently rooted in the Western history of sculpture. In fact, it finds its source in a project that Bartholdi developed in 1869 for Ismail Pasha, the Khedive of Egypt: a huge lighthouse - Egypt bringing light to Asia - which was to take the form of an Egyptian woman peasant, wearing a dress and holding up a torch.
Bartholdi's pharaonic proposal was deemed far too costly and refused by the Egyptian sovereign. However, it allowed him to outline the fundamental features of the future global icon, whose crown points represent the seven continents: North America, South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, Oceania and Antarctica.

For further information:
- Yasmin Sabina Khan, Enlightening the World: The Creation of the Statue of Liberty, Cornell University Press, 2010 pp. 53-54.
- De la Vallée des Rois à l’Arabie heureuse. Bartholdi en Égypte et au Yémen, Belfort, éditions Snoeck, 2012.




Imperial Blackness

Pierre Puvis de ChavannesYoung Black Boy with a Sword© Musée d'Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
This work made an ironic journey through the former French colonial empire: unearthed in 2009 in South India in Pondicherry, it represents the end of slavery in the French West Indies in the mid-19th century.
With the Young Black Boy with a Sword, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, barely 26 years old, challenged aesthetic codes: he dared to apply the conventions of the academic nude to a black man (classic studio pose), to arm him with a sword, and have him sit on a sumptuous cloth – one worthy of a Renaissance aristocrat.

The character's serenity contrasts sharply with the drama that plays out in the twilight-colored background. This was 1850 and the artist intended to celebrate the abolition of slavery (1848), which had provoked violent resistance from planters in the West Indian colonies.
At this time, people of color were rendered invisible or depicted in a pejorative manner. On the contrary, Puvis de Chavannes – without escaping the orientalist clichés of romanticism – reproduces the innumerable shades of this young man’s black skin and portrays him as a decider, a master of his destiny.
In this way, his work echoes the Portrait de Madeleine by Marie-Guillemine Benoist, which in 1800 paid a tribute to the first abolition of slavery by the French revolutionaries.

For further information:
- Francois Blanchetière, “Puvis de Chavannes. Une voie singulière au siècle de l’impressionnisme”, Amiens de Picardie, 2005-2006.
- René Jullian, “L’oeuvre de jeunesse de Puvis de Chavannes”, Gazette des Beaux-arts, n 140, novembre 1938, p. 237-250.
- Le modèle noir, de Géricault à Matisse, musée d’Orsay – Flammarion, 2019.


World Wide Show

Albert LondeCowgirl and Indian girl on horseback. Paris, Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show© Musée d'Orsay, dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
At what point does the Conquest of the West become a world myth, a fascinating spectacle that participates in the worldwide diffusion of American culture? In 1889 Colonel Cody, nicknamed Buffalo Bill, landed in Paris with his cowboys, his 97 “Indians” and his animals (18 bison, 10 moose, 10 mules, 2 deer and no less than 108 horses).
His< em>Wild West Show circus included a dozen women - Lillian Smith, Annie Oakley, "Ma" Whitaker, Georgie Duffy, Emma Lake Hickok ... - all gun experts and excellent riders. In this picture, we see the young “Indian” woman Lakota, who was recruited from a reservation, like her male counterparts.

The actors, often veterans of the "Indian wars", replayed the great battles, magnifying the "Conquest of the West". They were immortalized here by an expert in ... medical photography, Albert Londe, director of the photographic laboratory at the Salpêtrière hospital, who was fond of anthropological curiosities.
This show strongly influenced Rosa Bonheur who was passionate about the Amerindians and drew the animals and troop members. She painted a portrait of Cody, for which she received as a thank you gift an “Indian” stage costume. She kept it preciously, as generations of fascinated children would do in the future.

For further information:
-Louis S. Warren, “Cody’s Last Stand: Masculine Anxiety, the Custer Myth, and the Frontier of Domesticity in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West”, Western Historical Quaterly, Spring, 2003, vol. 34, number 1, pp. 49-69
- Albert Londe. La Photographie moderne, catalogue d'exposition, Paris, Cripto, 1986.
- A. Gunthert, Albert Londe, coll. « Photo poche » no 82, Paris, Nathan, 1999.
- America's Best Female Sharpshooter: The Rise and Fall of Lillian Frances Smith by Julia Bricklin, University of Oklahoma Press, 2017.



The Japanese man behind Japonism

Albert BartholoméTadamasa Hayashi© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
In the second half of the 19th century, Japanese aesthetics transformed Western art. The extraordinary curiosity of European artists towards Japan is a well-known story. We have forgotten, however, the decisive role of a Japanese man who, between 1890 and 1901, imported from Yokohama to Paris 156,487 prints, 9,708 books, 846 paintings, screens and kakemonos, and 97 drawings…
Hayashi Tadamasa (1853-1906) opened his famous Japanese store in 1883. From then on, he supplied all the collectors of the capital, including the Van Gogh brothers, Camille Pissarro, Edmond de Goncourt, Claude Monet, whose paintings he collected, and Edgar Degas who traded his paintings for prints.

Hayashi exerted a decisive influence on his contemporaries by conveying a very idealized vision of Japan, depicted as the country of the samurai and the Geishas. Hayashi also introduced Japanese painters into French artistic circles, allowing artists such as Kuroda Seiki to develop a new "Westernized" Japanese style.
At the same time, he helped popularize the Impressionists in Japan. The sculptor Albert Bartholomé immortalized his face by casting this red patina bronze in 1892, on the model of the masks of traditional Noh theater. This object reminds us that Orientalism is not an invention ex-nihilo but very often a co-production of Europeans and Asians.

For further information:
- Geneviève Aitken et Marianne Delafond, La collection d’estampes japonaises de Claude Monet a Giverny, éditions de la bibliothèque des arts, 2002.
- Hélène Bayou, “Du Japon à l'Europe, changement de statut de l'estampe ukiyo-e”, Arts Asiatiques , 2011, vol. 66, 2011, pp. 155-176
-Brigitte Koyama-Richard, Japon rêvé. Edmond de Goncourt et Hayashi Tadamasa, Hermann, 2001.


Everybody hides The Origin

Gustave Courbet (1819-1877)
 L'origine du monde [The Origin of the World]
 Oil on canvas
 H. 46; W. 55 cm
 Paris, Musée d'Orsay
Gustave CourbetThe Origin of the World© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
In 1866, right after having been painted, The Origin of the World was hidden from the public. Its commissioner, the Ottoman diplomat Khalil Cherif Pasha, separated it from the rest of the world and from his collection – which itself included many other works considered erotic - by hiding it behind a green curtain in his bathroom.
Gustave Courbet’s work was seen less as a work of art than as a pornographic object, and it was later secretly resold to a dealer in erotic chinoiseries and Japanese works – very fashionable items at the time.

Its last owner, the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, hid this painting in a corner of his country house behind a sliding panel designed by André Masson.
The first public exhibition of the painting, in New York in 1988, made it world famous. It sparked worldwide outrage in 2011 when Facebook, the quintessential transnational firm, censored it under its user policy. What if The Origin of the World was the starting point for a global history of moral censorship in modern times?

For further information:
- Laurence des Cars et Dominique de Font-Réaulx (sous la direction de), Gustave Courbet, RMN, 2007.
- Claude Schopp, L'Origine du monde, Vie du modèle, Phébus, 2018.

India and No Indians

Samuel BourneTemples du Sud des Indes© Musée d'Orsay, dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Alexis Brandt
There are quite a few people behind the lens. On average, around 40 porters were needed to transport the massive equipment (darkroom, glass plates, chemicals, tripod, etc.) of British photographer Samuel Bourne.
In search of exotic landscapes, he landed in Calcutta in 1863 at the age of 29 with a new process invented ten years earlier: dry collodion. He captured landscapes that have disappeared today, including in the Himalayas, where in 1866 he broke the record for high-altitude shooting by photographing the Manirung pass (5,670 meters).

Strikingly, autochthones are almost absent. This photograph of the temples of Madurai, usually bustling with people, represents a completely deserted city. This is not just due to the technical constraints of the time.
The photographer explained that this was because the Indians had not managed to adopt a "natural attitude", without "the arms stiff like pokers, the chin tucked up as if they were standing to have their throat slit"... In the British India of the Victorian era, this photograph shows a quiet country, the dream of a colony without "natives".

For further information:
-Ray Desmond, « Photography in Victorian India », Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, december 1985, vol. 134, pp. 48-61.
-Akshaya Tankha and Rahaab Allana, “Photographs of the Aftermath, 1857”, India International Centre Quarterly, summer 2007, Vol. 34, No. 1, pp. 8-24.

Paris, center of the World?

Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux The Four Parts of the World© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
Every great power tends to position itself at the center of the world. In 1667, members of the French Academy of Sciences traced an imaginary line connecting the North Pole to the South Pole, which allowed for the development of "scientific" cartography and the measurement of the shape of the Earth. The Paris meridian, as a world reference, would be increasingly challenged by the British Greenwich meridian.
To celebrate the bicentenary of the Paris meridian and its universal vocation, a monumental fountain was commissioned to be set in the same place - in front of the Observatory. Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, Napoleon III’s official sculptor, imagined a design visible from any viewer's perspective: “Galileo set me on the path by saying 'the earth moves!' That is how I represented the four cardinal points rotating as if to follow the rotation of the globe.”

The artist depicted The Four Parts of the World - Europe, Asia, America, Africa but not Oceania, which was still largely unexplored - as women dancing a round that turns the celestial sphere.
At the 1872 Salon at the Louvre, the work was the subject of fierce criticism: "four undressed, lanky women scramble around with a bewildered and furious air under a large globe which they do not uphold."

In fact, the problem lay elsewhere. The same year, Queen Victoria inaugurated the gigantic Albert Memorial which celebrated the United Kingdom as the leading world power enthroned in the middle of the four continents. "Perfidious Albion" imposed its London meridian almost everywhere: it was dubbed the "universal meridian" in 1884, showing its mastery over global time-space.

For further information:
- Collectif, Carpeaux (1827-1875), un sculpteur pour l'Empire, Gallimard, Les Éditions du Musée d’Orsay, Paris, 2014.
- Christian Grataloup, L’invention des continents, Paris, Larousse, 2009.


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