A quick art lesson at Orsay Museum : A leap into the impressionist masterpieces of the world


Hello fellow readers ! ☕️🌿

I’m pursuing the narration of my cultural Parisian adventures. After my article about my visit to the Quai Branly museum, today I’m taking you to the Orsay museum, and specifically my favorite impressionist and post-impressionist artwork there.


A bit of history.
The Musée d’Orsay is one of the largest art museums in Europe and is housed in the former Gare d’Orsay, a Beaux-Arts railway station built between 1898 and 1900. This explains its grandiose architecture which was exalted by the Italian architect, Gae Aulenti, chosen to design the interior of the museum.

By 1939 the station’s short platforms had become unsuitable for the longer trains so it was used only for suburban services and part of it became a mailing centre during World War II. Fun fact, it was also used as a set in many movies such as the famous Kafka’s The Trial adapted by Orson Welles.

Opened in 1986, Orsay holds mainly French art dating from 1848 to 1914 and houses the largest collection of impressionist and post-Impressionist masterpieces in the world.


Paysage algérien, le ravage de la femme sauvage. Pierre Auguste Renoir. 1881


Impressionism is an artistic movement from the late 19th century which originated in Paris with a group of independent artists whose exhibitions made them famous during the 1870s-1880s.

Impressionist works can be recognized by the small and thin brush strokes than constitute them, their open composition, the emphasis of the artist on an accurate depiction of light in its changing qualities, their inclusion of movement as a crucial element of human perception and experience, and finally, unusual visual angles.

The Impressionists faced harsh opposition from the conventional art community, just like every new anti-Establishment counter movement, for violating the rules of academic painting. The name “impressionism” is due to critic and humorist Louis Leroy who wrote a scathing review in the newspaper Le Charivari in which, making wordplay with the title of Claude Monet’s Impression, Sunrise (Impression, soleil levant).

He wrote : “Impression—I was certain of it. I was just telling myself that, since I was impressed, there had to be some impression in it … and what freedom, what ease of workmanship! Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape.”

The origins of the movement

It was in the early 1860s that four young painters—Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, and Frédéric Bazille—met during their studies and found a common interest in painting landscapes and contemporary life rather than what was being done at that time.

Because they did not paint works that were deemed academically correct, their paintings were rejected by the Salon jury. The Emperor Napoleon III, who saw their works, decided to create a “Salon of the Refused” to gather those works and let the public be the judge of the quality of the work.

However, while many came just to mock the paintings, the Salon of the Refused started to become more and more popular, even more than the regular one ! It was therefore cancelled, and when the artists’ petitions requesting a new one were ignored, they founded the Cooperative and Anonymous Association of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers to exhibit their artworks independently.


Londres, le Parlement. Trouée de soleil dans le brouillard. Claude Monet. 1904.


The appearance of technology certainly played a major role in the development of impressionism. Painters were able to use the new premixed paints in tin tubes thanks to the commercial introduction of vivid synthetic pigment which made their work easier, especially for painting outside whereas in the past painters had to make their own paints individually.

Fun fact, still lives, portraits and even landscapes used to be done in a studio before. The painters would go outside to make a rough sketch of the scene and then go back to their studio to pain. Impressionists on the other hand started to paint directly outside in order to properly feel the scene and capture the changing yet ephemeral nature of light.

Photography which was also developing at that time actually inspired artists to pursue other means of creative expression rather than compete with it. They managed in that sense to exalt an emulated form of reality by enhancing the subjectivity of their work that they deemed repress, eliminated even by a camera.

Another major influence on impressionism was Japanese ukiyo-e art prints which inspired the kind of snapshots angles and unconventional perspectives used by impressionists.


Portrait de l’artiste. Van Gogh. 1889.


It was the art critic Roger Fry who first used the term in 1906. This predominantly French art movement developed roughly between 1886 and 1905, with the last Impressionist exhibition to the birth of Fauvism and appeared as a reaction against Impressionists’ concern for the naturalistic depiction of light and color.

To put it simply, post-Impressionists extended Impressionism by using vivid colours, often thick application of paint, and real-life subject matter, however they also emphasized geometric forms, distorted form for even stronger expressive effect, and used unnatural or arbitrary colour.

Although they often exhibited together, Post-Impressionist artists did not constitute a cohesive movement: many followed their own vision of what painting should be like through different styles, such as pointillism for Seurat for instance.


Arearea, dit aussi Joyeusetés I. Paul Gauguin. 1892.

I will share more artwork as well as my personal experience and my favorite art pieces in another article about Orsay – this museum is so large that it definitely deserves it ! I really wanted to focus this one on impressionism.

In the meantime, you can check out Orsay’s website here, and do not hesitate to tell me which work of art is your favorite.


La chambre de Van Gogh à Arles. Van Gogh. 1889.



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