Paris and Impressionism: surely no city and art movement are more closely linked. Paris was home to many impressionist artists and Paris was often their subject. This post tells you a little about impressionism – its style, its artists – and a lot about all the places in Paris where you can find their work today.
Impressionism: A Radical new Movement
Impressionism began as a protest against the established art of the day. A group of artists who’d had their work rejected by the prestigious Académie des Beaux Arts staged their own exhibition in 1863, the Salon des Refusés. It was not an immediate success, one critic calling their work ‘sad and grotesque.’ In 1874 another naysayer, having seen Monet’s painting of Le Havre, which he titled Impression, Soleil Levant (Impression of Sunrise) criticised the ‘blur and lack of detail’ in these new works. These painters, he complained are ‘mere impressionists.’ The name stuck. Author Stephen Clarke’s memorable comment on this ‘startling picture, with its bright orange blob of sun’ was that it ‘looks as if Marilyn Monroe had tried some lipstick, decided it was too bright and stubbed it out on the canvas.’
Impressionist paintings were unlike anything which came before. The artists left their studios and painted outside in the boulevards and riversides of Paris, in places like Argenteuil which they visited on days out, and at the coast or in the countryside where they spent their holidays. They captured images in bold colours, but without too much detail, almost as if they had painted in a hurry. They focussed on light and weather effects, painting mist and sunlight, clouds and reflections on water.
Musée Marmottan Monet
The Musée Marmottan is good place to start an impressionist tour of Paris, because here you can see the painting which gave the movement its name, Monet’s Impression, Soleil Levant and indeed 100 or so of his other works. They include a good number of his large lily paintings, many of them done in his garden at Giverny, plus some from his series on Rouen cathedral. In 1893, he painted some 30 pictures of the cathedral, experimenting with capturing the different light and weather conditions. And here too are pictures of London’s Westminster (which he painted over 100 times!) and countryside scenes such as A Walk at Argenteuil and a beach scene from Trouville on the Normandy coast.
This museum is also the main place to see the works of Berthe Morisot, the only well-known female impressionist artist. There is a good selection of her paintings, watercolours and drawings here, alongside a portrait of her by her brother-in-law, Edouard Manet, and her collection of drawings by Renoir, Monet and Degas. The delightful paintings in this collection include a portrait of her husband and daughter, a charming garden scene called Le Cerisier (The Cherry Tree) and a picture of her young daughter and a friend playing with a large bowl of water, called Enfants à la Vasque.
The Orangerie is little jewel of a museum in the Jardin des Tuileries, best known for its display of the 8 enormous water lily paintings which Monet donated to the nation just at the end of World War One. They were some of his last paintings, done when he was beset by personal and health problems and he left them to France in his will, intended as a symbol of peace. He requested that they should all be displayed together and he personally oversaw the setting up of the two rooms in the Orangerie to accommodate them. Here too is an impressive selection of works by other 19th century French artists including Cézanne, Renoir and Matisse.
The musée d’Orsay
The Musée d’Orsay is the big one! Over 5000 works cover the period 1848-1914 and the impressionists are the biggest draw of all. There are plenty more paintings by both Monet and Berthe Morisot, such as Monet’s The Poppy Field and his Gare St Lazare and the picture for which Morisot is perhaps best known, Le Berceau, showing a mother watching her sleeping infant. And all the other main impressionist artists are represented, largely in chronological order, making this the best place to get an overview of the movement as well as to see lots of examples.
Early Impressionists at the Musée d’Orsay
Edouard Manet, seen as a bridge between realism and impressionism, has two of his most controversial paintings here: Olympia, the portrait of a courtesan which shocked 1860s Paris and Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, a portrayal of two young women picnicking naked with two fully dressed male companions. Renoir works include Le Bal au Moulin de la Galette, the joyful portrayal of a lively outdoor café-concert in Montmartre and there a number of lovely works by Camille Pissarro: landscapes, village streets, Parisian scenes and White Frost, a simple depiction of a female figure nearing the end of a snowy street in poor winter light. There are lots of Degas paintings too, a number of the ballet scenes he painted backstage at the Paris Opera and the much darker In a Café showing two gloomy characters in a shabby café corner. Subtitled Absinthe, it shows a side of Belle Epoque Paris not often depicted.
Post Impressionists at the Musée d’Orsay
The exhibition continues with the later artists known as the post-impressionists. Works by Cézanne include still lifes like Apples and Oranges and some of his Sainte Victoire paintings. Like Monet and Rouen Cathedral, Cézanne completed 80 paintings of one subject, the Sainte Victoire mountain in his native Provence, capturing it in many different light conditions. Gauguin is in this section too, using the same bright colours, but in a very different context: not Paris, but Polynesia, where he spent the last decade of his life. Towards the end of the section are other artists whose work used some techniques from impressionism, such as Georges Seurat and Vincent Van Gogh, whose Room in Arles and Starry Night both hang here.
3 More Places to Find Monet in Paris
There are some impressionist paintings in the permanent exhibition at the Petit Palais to which entry is free, most notably Monet’s Sunset on the Seine at Lavacourt. And there are two Monet houses you can easily visit by taking a train from the Gare St Lazare. The better-known of the two is Monet’s house and garden at Giverny, less than an hour’s train journey from central Paris. And, fairly newly opened to the public, is Monet’s house at Argenteuil, a mere ten minute train journey.
Listen to the podcast
Links and reading
Useful websites for tourists
Three Literary anthologies and a history book for travellers
City Lit Paris edited by Heather Reyes
Paris: a Literary Companion by Ian Littlewood
A Place in the World called Paris by Miles Hyman and Steven Barclay
A Traveller’s History of Paris by Robert Cole