The Musee d’Orsay opened in 1986, in the former Gare d’Orsay in Paris – a Beaux Arts stone-and-steel railway terminal. The museum mostly houses French painting, sculpture, furniture, and photographs from 1848 to 1914. It has the best collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings in the world. However, since I like the colors of such paintings but not the subjects, I haven’t included a single one on this list!
Jean Béraud, The Wait (L’Attente, rue de Chateaubriand, à Paris), undated
Béraud, a realist painter, often seems to be merely recording what he saw on the streets of Paris; but this work suggests a story that intrigues me. Is she waiting for that man on the far right? Is she leaning forward from an attempt to see him, or from eagerness, or from tension? If he’s the one she’s waiting for, why isn’t he moving?
Albert Edelfelt, Louis Pasteur, 1885
When this portrait was painted, Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) was one of the most famous scientists of his time, a hero to his fellow French. He is shown in his laboratory, surrounded by the apparatus he used for experiments in microbiology, bacteriology, and chemistry. The jar in his hand contains the spinal cord of a rabbit infected with rabies, which he used to develop a vaccine against rabies. I like the fact that the window at right sheds a glow on the scene, but it’s positioned at such a sharp angle that we can’t see anything distracting outside it.
When he was about twenty, Edelfelt (1854-1905) came from his native Finland to study in France. This portrait won him acclaim at the Salon of 1886, and it has become the most famous portrait of Pasteur. Pasteur hung the portrait in his dining room.
Giovanni Boldini, Count Robert de Montesquieu, 1897
Such elegance! Marie Joseph Robert Anatole, Comte de Montesquiou-Fézensac (1855-1921) was a Symbolist poet, art collector, dandy, and aesthete [“one having or affecting sensitivity to the beautiful, especially in art” – N.B. often paired with the adjective “pretentious”]. He was one of those highly influential, occasionally brutal arbiters of taste that no artist wanted to be on the wrong side of. James McNeill Whistler painted a full-length portrait of him in 1891-1892 (“Arrangement in Black and Gold“) that now hangs in the Frick Collection. See a photo of M. le comte with his cat here.
Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, The Prince Imperial and His Dog, Nero, 1865-1866
At the Metropolitan Museum’s Carpeaux exhibition a few years ago, several versions of this utterly charming portrait of a boy and his pet were on display. I love the way the dog affectionately curls itself around the boy’s legs. The boy is nine-year-old Prince Eugène-Louis-Jean-Joseph Napoléon (1856–1879), only son of Emperor Napoleon III. The Empire fell in 1870 and the former prince was killed by Zulus in 1879, but this portrait continued to sell in Sevres porcelain reproductions, as “Boy with a Dog.” (The Metropolitan Museum has one of those.)
Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, The Dance, 1865-69
When Charles Garnier was designing the new Paris opera house in 1863, he commissioned four sculptural groups for its ground-level facade: diagram here. In Carpeaux’s sculpture (image in situ here), a group of women circle gaily around a leaping male figure who symbolizes Dance. Some Parisians were so shocked by the realism of the female figures that they demanded that the work be removed.
The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 that ended the Empire (see Boy and His Dog above) also ended the controversy over The Dance. It remained on the Opera’s facade until a copy replaced it in 1964, and the original was put on display in the Louvre, and then the d’Orsay.
- If I were doing Six Favorites rather than Five Favorites, Manet’s Fifer, (63 x 38 inches) would have made the cut. I like the boy and the style, but as a figure in art history, I don’t like Manet. See Seismic Shifts in Subject and Style.