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Paris Part III: The Musée d’Orsay rehang and, finally, some macaroons

Our last day in Paris, our last breakfast in Le Pain Quotidien on the Rue des Archives, but not the end for our art tour of Paris. For today, we decided to try our luck on a week day where we had failed on Sunday… the Musée d’Orsay. So, like Sunday, there were queues to get tickets. You can buy tickets for the museum online, but they don’t give you the option of printing at home (like the Grand Palais tickets) and instead you have to go in search of a FNAC store to collect your pre-bought tickets, which in my opinion somewhat negates the queue jumping benefits of buying online. So in the event, we waited 40 minutes in a spiralling but steadily moving queue to get in, and those minutes went by fairly quickly, as the anticipation of getting inside and feasting on perhaps Paris’ greatest art collection grew closer. And once inside, we were not disappointed.

The d’Orsay has recently undergone a two year renovation and rehang of its collection. I’ve been to the d’Orsay probably around 4 times before, so I am pretty well qualified to judge the benefits of the rearrangement. The main change is upstairs on the fifth floor whose main gallery used to play host to impressionism, post impressionism and a lot else besides. Now, the post-impressionists and some of the very early impressionists works have been moved to the second and ground floors respectively, leaving a whole swathe of galleries upstairs devoted to the core period of impressionist genius, starting with Manet’s masterful Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe, and culminating in Degas pastels. On the second floor, separate wings of the huge old-station concourse host works by the likes of Van Gough, Seurat, and Gauguin, while on the ground floor, Manet’s Olympia and Monet’s early pre-1870 works hang amongst the likes of Gustave Moreau, Delacroix and Ingres. This latter juxtaposition is striking in demonstrating just how quickly artistic styles began to change with the birth of impressionism beyond the previous stagnation of epic nationalist, biblical and mythological commissions.

Paris - Musée d'Orsay - Manet's Le déjeuner su...

Image by wallyg via Flickr

The other main change of the rehang is a new decorative scheme of darkly painted walls. What used to be white tones, have been replaced by dark blues and purples, with very focused spotlighting lighting the work, the likes of which is angled from so far up that the viewer does not risk casting a shadow upon the work, no matter how close they get to the canvas. The effect is pretty startling, especially in the post-impressionism galleries, where the vivid colours of Van Gogh and Gauguin do literally glow on the wall. The effect is less vivid upstairs on the fifth floor where the galleries are also flooded with plenty of daylight from roof lights, but what was so evident in those galleries was that with a broadening of the numbers of impressionist works which the gallery is now able to hang in this enlarged space, the crowds disperse much more evenly, making the galleries feel airier with a wonderful flow from one to another. Where previously the gallery had to cram in masterpiece after masterpiece into a single gallery space, with the result that tourists in their masses would be gathered in large pockets all over the gallery space, now the spread of masterpieces is wider, and the greater number of landscapes and still-lives in between help to thin out the large gatherings. It makes for a much more pleasant experience.

My only complaint was that the museum has now neglected my favourite of the d’Orsay artists, Henri Rousseau, only making room for two of his works, one (a portrait) hung alone on the fifth floor, the other in a “theme room” on the ground floor. These theme rooms are also rather confusing. Rousseau’s La Charmeuse de serpents (1907) was, for example, to be found hung in a gallery devoted to “nocturn” pictures, which therefore included other works from the full chronological range of the museum’s broad collection. These themed galleries seems to stick out a bit amidst all the chronological structure of the remaining gallery space. They also lead to confusion. Confusing too is the chronological start of impressionism on the ground floor, which then continues on the fifth floor before leaping back down to the second again. But then I suppose their efforts aren’t bad, considering they’re working within the constraints of an old railway station!

But asides from the art, one of the true stars of the renovation, in my opinion, is the new fifth floor restaurant, Cafe Campana, which is unashamedly decorated with a lavish colour scheme of shiny, uninterrupted gold. Dozens of gold lanterns, like heavenly trumpets, shower the restaurant with glittering light, crazy orange squiggles act as section dividers between gold tables and chairs, while set as a breathtaking back drop to it all, the huge clock-come-window of the d’Orsay imbues the scene with architectural grandeur and unabated 19th century glamour. The food is good too… and quite reasonable for a museum eatery.

Cafe Campana at the Musée d'Orsay (Photograph © Nicholas de Lacy-Brown)

It won’t be a surprise to you that we were in the d’Orsay for around 4 hours before finally leaving, utterly awed by the place, back out into a darkening Paris. With a train to catch and a journey on the rush hour metro to look forward to, we had time enough only to satisfy one last aim… macaroons. And  upon a delicious set of 6 we did indeed indulge, before setting of to the Gare du Nord, stinky camembert in tow, to bid adieu to Paris… until next time.

Macaroons at last! (Photograph © Nicholas de Lacy-Brown)

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2005-2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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