Having Paris

A former train station houses the Musee d'Orsay
  • A former train station houses the Musee d'Orsay

By John Masters

Meridian Writers’ Group

PARIS—The Musée d’Orsay might not have the weight of Madrid’s Prado or St. Petersburg’s Hermitage or the Louvre, just across the Seine, but it is one of the most enjoyable museums you’ll ever walk through.

In fact, its very lightness is one of the most appealing things about it. Built in an old railway station, it uses the vaulted glass roof that once covered the tracks and platforms to fill the space with sun and give it an airiness many other museums lack.

A soaring roof, natural light, air that always seems fresh and the constant, gently echoing burble of human activity give the Musée d’Orsay both drama and an intimacy, as if you’re part of a large but private conversation.

Oh, and the art. There’s plenty of that, too.

The museum is the main repository for French Impressionist works: Manet, Degas, Monet, Renoir, Cézanne, Seurat, Gauguin. The Impressionist Gallery covers the entire history of the movement, from its beginnings, with Fantgin-Latour’s Homage to Delacroix (1864) to its end, with Cézanne’s Woman With a Coffee Pot (1894).

In between, its walls display some of the world’s best-known Impressionist works, and seeing the originals, rather than copies, stimulates a fresh appreciation of their beauty. Renoir’s The Dance at the Moulin de la Galette (1876) nearly jumps off the canvas at you — or invites you to leap into the whirl of revellers.

Likewise, when you stand in front of Monet’s Woman With a Parasol (1886), a painting that can seem very bland in reproductions, you can almost feel the breeze pushing the grass and the woman’s white dress, and smell the spring air.

What’s equally delightful is discovering Impressionist painters you may never have known existed, but whose work is of as high a calibre as those you’ve known forever. Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894), for example.

Impressionism is the museum’s heart, but its broader mandate is the arts from 1850 to 1914. And not just painting: sculpture, furniture and photography have their place here, too.

There are works by Rodin and lesser-known sculptors, such as Joseph Bernard (1866-1951), whose marble frieze La Danse (1891-1915) is like an early Art Deco riff on classical Greek themes.

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