Last few days to see Colours of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musée D’Orsay

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The Art Gallery of South Australia’s Colours of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musée D’Orsay was a major coup for the Gallery and a wonderful note for the then director Nick Mitzevich to leave on before he moved onto the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. It’s in its last week and must end on Sunday 29 July when the pieces will be returned to the Musée D’Orsay who generously loaned them to the Art Gallery of South Australia.


The exhibition looks at impressionism in a different light (pardon the pun). It separates more than 65 works across 6 rooms and across 6 themes, the majority of those being colour.


Entering the exhibition behind its mirrored wall, you find yourself in a room full of dark paintings but which despite their darkness manage to express so much. Among them, Edouard Manet’s Clair de Lune sur le port de Boulogne (Moonlight over the Port of Boulogne). In it, we see women dressed in black with white headdresses illuminated by the moonlight awaiting the return of fishing boats. The work is painted with dark shades of black, grey and blues with few patches of white or lightness.

Edouard Manet: Clair de lune sur le port de Boulogne

Another personal favourite in that room is Auguste Renoir’s canvas of Madame Durras. In it, we see Madame Durras behind a spotted veil, enrobed in black. It contains a brilliant velvety black alongside violet-tinged greys and browns juxtaposed with the creamy pinks and white used in Madame Durras’ face and collar. Two paintings of ladies in reclined positions feature side by side in this room: Belgian born Alfred Stevens’ Le Bain (The Bath) and James Tissot’s La Reveuse (The Dreamer). Both are playful with shadow and light.


Auguste Renoir: Madame Durras


The second room moves into Peinture Claire (which literally translates to “light painting”) but is a reference to the way in which typical way in which light tones are expressed in these nouvelle peinture (“new painting”).  A scene familiar to anyone who has been to Paris is represented in Dutch born Johan Barthold Jongkind’s La Seine et Notre-Dame de Paris (The Seine and Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris). The May Triptych is a set of three impressionist works donated to the Musée d’Orsay, framed together. In it the works of Alfred Sisley’s Saint-Denis Island, Camille Pissarro’s Entrance to the village of Voisins and Claude Monet’s Pleasure Boats. It presents an interesting way of comparing the three impressionist artists’ styles. Edouard Manet’s La Serveuse de bocks (The bar maid) draws attention as it is a marked contrast to the subject matter of the other paintings.


Edouard Manet: La serveuse de bocks


The third room, and quite possibly my favourite of Colours of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musée D’Orsay, is dedicated to white and the way in which it was seen by the impressionists. Claude Monet’s La Pie (The Magpie) dominates the room. A painting which resembles paintings accepted by the Salon (the Paris Art authority at the time) only in its impressive dimensions (89 x 130cm). It was widely criticised at the time of its release due to its lack of subject matter (a small magpie on such a large otherwise bare snowscape), and Monet’s use of blues, pinks and yellows to show the way the snow is illuminated by the light. It is easy to see why this painting so inspired Paul Perrin as a child and into adulthood, who along with Marine Kisiel, curated this exhibition. Another of my favourites of the snowscapes is Alfred Sisley’s La Neige à Louveciennes (Snow at Louveciennes). We see a small figure in the depth of the painting, dressed in browns, greys and black which stands out starkly against the snow-covered path, walls and trees that surround it. Again, Sisley, like Monet in La Pie, uses blues, particularly visible in the trees on the left of the canvas to more accurately depict the light reflecting off the snow. In contrast, Charles,-Francois Daubigny’s simply named La Neige (Snow) shows a bleak snowscape against a grey, orange toned sky.


Claude Monet: La Pie


The next room of the exhibition moves into greens and blues. In it is Auguste Renoir’s portrait of Claude Monet against the backdrop of green and pink curtain and foliage. It is displayed next to Claude Monet’s Un coin d’appartement (A corner of the apartment). Looking closely at Renoir’s painting alongside, you notice that the same curtains and foliage are present. Renoir has painted Monet as Monet is painting his child in the dark shadows of his apartment. Just as the figure in La Neige à Louveciennes is in the background calling the viewer in, the child in the dark shadows in this painting takes on an almost ghost-like, slightly eerie feel.


Auguste Renoir: Claude Monet


The fifth room of Colours of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musée D’Orsay shows a move from the beginnings of impressionist works to the movement of neo-impressionism – the way in which new impressionists saw colour and light. The paintings in this room look like mosaics from a distance. Rather than long brushstrokes, the neo-impressionists applied small dots and placed colours side by side corresponding with the science of colour. Théo van Rysselberghe’s L’entrée du port de Roscoff (Entrance to the port of Roscoff) features mainly blue and white dots to make up the waters of the port and the building clouds I the background. Small boats in the port are also painted in dots of blue. One the most enticing and playful paintings in this room is Henri-Edmond Cross’ La fuite de nymphes (Flight of the nymphs) is comprised of larger, more square shaped dots with a playful scene of nymphs dancing against the green and blue backdrop. Paul Signac’s Le chateau des papes (Palace of the popes) shows the pink and oranges of the palace against and in the reflections of the green and blue water and sky.


Henri-Edmond Cross: La fuite de nymphes (Flight of the nymphs)


The final room of the exhibition shows, in sort, the original impressionists’ reaction to and development in the neo-impressionist and post-neo-impressionist world.  Auguste Renoir’s Gabrielle à la rose shows the change in Renoir’s style with a reduced colour palette and a reduction in his mixing of colours. It shows a half-dressed, open bloused woman holding a flower on a table in front of her and one behind her ear. The painting is heavy in reds and pinks and not many other colours are used. Monet’s La cathédrale de Rouen, Le Portail et la tour de Saint-Romain, plein soleil (Roeun Cathedral : the portal and Saint-Romain tower, full sunlight), one of the final works you see before leaving the exhibition shows the cathedral overflowing the canvas and painted in mainly pinky cream tones against a tiny bit of blue sky. It was part of a series of 20 cathedrals exhibited in 1891 and 1892 and dedicated to his wife, Alice. The lines of the cathedral’s structure are defined yet at the same time blurred.


Claude Monet: La cathédrale de Rouen, Le Portail et la tour de Saint-Romain, plein soleil (Roeun Cathedral : the portal and Saint-Romain tower, full sunlight)


Colours of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musée D’Orsay has many of the impressionist pieces we all recognise and love as well as some lesser-known but equally magnificent works. Perhaps one of the most recognised and photographed works in the exhibition is Claude Monet’s Le basin aux nymphéas, harmonie rose (Water lily pond, pink harmony).

Claude Monet: Le basin aux nymphéas, harmonie rose (Water lily pond, pink harmony)


The exhibition is being staged in the Elder Wing of the Art Gallery of South Australia, on the entrance level of the gallery as opposed to its basement space usually reserved for exhibitions. The Elder Wing is one of Australia’s few 19th century gallery spaces and is in some ways reminiscent of the light filled interior of the Musée D’Orsay where the paintings are usually housed. The Art Gallery of South Australia even used this as part of the drawcard in putting forward its proposal for an impressionist exhibition to the Musée D’Orsay.


The exhibition marks a new way of looking at impressionist paintings and does so in an ambitious and, in my view, successful way. Even if you have been lucky enough to see these paintings in their home in Paris before, this exhibition guarantees a new perspective.

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Tickets: Children $10, students $12, members and concessions $20, adults $25.


You only have a few days left to see the works with the Colours of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay exhibition closing on Sunday 29 July at 5pm. Get in quickly!

INTERVIEW: Paul Perrin about Colours of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musée D’Orsay

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I recently had a chat with Paul Perrin, Curator of the Museé D’Orsay while he was in Australia for the opening of the Art Gallery of South Australia’s major exhibition, Colours of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musée D’Orsay. Dates and ticket information at the end of the article.


Why are the impressionists so important?

I think that the impressionists were really decisive and important for modern art because they were the first to really decide to move away from conventions of art and painting, to explore with a new voice, to go further in their exploration of colour, light, time, and movement. So I think that really it was the impressionists who felt like exploring something that had never been done before. And then I think that in so doing, in researching, that their principal goal was the light – how to represent light, how to represent changes in light. I think that in doing that, little by little, they opened art up to something more abstract which is independent to the painting vis à vis traditional conventions of representing light.


Where does the name impressionist come from?

It was from a painting by Monet, “Impression: sunrise” (which isn’t in Adelaide for the exhibition because it is not from the Musée D’Orsay but from the Musée Marmottan). And this painting is a sketch. So it’s a view of Havre, of the port of Havre with the sun rising. So this painting was exhibited at the first group exhibition…when they got together to exhibit as a group, this painting was shown. In the press, a critic mocked Monet saying “but really impression: sunrise, these painters are impressionists, these are impressions“. So it was pejorative and negative at the beginning. But then little by little, the artists themselves used the word so it became a part of everyday language.

Monet’s “Impression, soleil levant” – image from the Musée Marmottan’s website


Just as the term impressionist was used as something negative, the impressionists’ paintings were not accepted by the Salon and were not appreciated and were even judged as vulgar. At least the impressionists ended up being accepted while still alive compared to Van Gogh whose works were only appreciated after his death.

Yes, the impressionists are a little different because at the beginning they were regularly rejected by the official academic system, critiques and purchasers, the visitors of the time, but progressively, they found friends, critics, collectors who would support them, who would buy their paintings, dealers who would really invest in them – so there were a few people who believed in them and little by little, they created their market for impressionism.


Do we know the names of those who believed in them?

Yes. ..They are not very well-known today but there were a few art lovers. One was an art lover called Choquet, an eccentric character, who didn’t have much money but who liked their paintings and who started to buy their impressionist paintings. The dealer, Durant-Ruel, he really bought paintings, supported them, organised exhibitions and supported the market that goes with it. Therefore, from the 1890s, they became really popular; they had the support of art lovers all around the world, especially in the United States. At the end of their lives, Renoir and Monet lived very comfortably and were quite rich and earned a lot of money from their paintings.

Monet’s “Champs de tulipes en Hollande” is just one of 10 Monet paintings included in the exhibition

So we have 65 of these paintings in Adelaide for the Colours of Impressionism exhibition and it has been a four year long project?

Yes we have been working on this project for four years.


How did you choose the 65 paintings that we see here?

The idea really was to choose the best paintings which could tell the story of impressionism in colour. We looked for the most beautiful and most interesting paintings in our collections that could illustrate the story of colour. So that’s really how we organised our journey. The idea was to have masterpieces, very well-known works as well as lesser known works from our collection. So to have a mix of both and also, among those to then have both very well-known artists – we have for example 10 paintings by Claude Monet, but to also have artists that people may not know as well so to have variety.

Claude Monet’s “Le bassin aux nympheas, harmonie rose” is one very recognisable painting included in the exhibition


How did you decide upon the idea of doing an exhibition on the theme of colour?

In discussions with my colleague, the other exhibition curator, Marine Kisiel, we asked ourselves how could we tell the story of impressionism differently but in a way which is simple, and which allows us to have a very beautiful screen because that’s the aim – that these paintings are radiant and beautiful. What interested Marine Kisiel and I was also the way in which these paintings were done. We are a part of a generation of art historians and curators – our predecessors worked a lot on the question of iconography (social history, culture, gender, all those sorts of things) and in the end we weren’t really looking at the materials. The basics, how they did it, why they use this or that colour, how they put this colour next to that one, why… So we decided to come back to something basic, which is colour and we are going to see if we can tell a different story.


Often when we see an exhibition, it’s either by artist or by subject, so it’s really different to go from one room to another with the colours that change.

There are rooms in which we have really successfully managed to form coherent colour ensembles, black, white, green and blue and then the others are more mixed because finally we come to the end of the period and it goes in every direction. So then we cannot say that everything is one colour. In fact, it goes in all directions. Therefore, in the end it’s almost more a rainbow of colour than the paintings at the beginning. It’s true that we have looked a little and no one has ever done an impressionist exhibition organised by colour before.

Neo-impressionist paintings included in the exhibition show the depart from the original impressionists’ techniques and style


And after Adelaide, the exhibition will go back to Paris? Has there been interest for the exhibition to travel elsewhere?

The exhibition has already had a leg in Singapore before coming here to Adelaide and then back to Paris.


Are the paintings we have here being replaced with others in the Musée D’Orsay during this exhibition?

Yes, we picked through our reserves to replace the paintings. So people in Paris will also get to see other paintings – it’s the opportunity to show other paintings. There are always things to see at Musée D’Orsay.


Which is your favourite painting in the exhibition?

My favourite painting is a complicated question to answer.  It’s hard to choose. The Magpie, the Monet painting, is the one that I had in my bedroom when I was little because when I visited the Musée D’Orsay when I was little, I asked my parents to buy me the poster. So it’s a painting that I saw in my bedroom for a long time and which gave me the desire to study art history and to work in a museum.  But today, it’s not necessarily the one I’d choose today. I really like Renoir now. But I think (The Magpie) is the one with which I have a special relationship.

Claude Monet’s “La Pie” (The Magpie) is a painting close to exhibition curator, Paul Perrin’s heart.


With these paintings having such incredible values, I don’t even dare ask about insuring them!

Insurance costs a lot. In fact I think that government support was needed to insure the exhibition. They came over by plane – all art transport is by plane or by truck, but here that’s a little tricky! So it all came by plane from Paris. I can’t really talk too much about the details as it’s a bit of a secret.


For example we see in films that each painting is in its own wooden create –

Yes they are purpose made wooden creates which are isothermal with aluminium and different materials on the inside to ensure the object is really well protected from shock and climatic changes.


Is it the first time these paintings have been to Australia?

Some were already loaned for exhibitions in the past. But for the majority, it’s the first time they’ve been here.

Image: Saul Steed

When and why did you decide to become a curator?

In French we use two words – conservateur – when we are responsible for a collection in a museum and then, when you put together an exhibition, a commissaire d’exposition. Curator in English encompasses both. I was interested in art history but also in being in contact with the general public, not just being in my books doing research at my desk but also in having discussions when we do guided tours, and especially to offer a physical experience which is that of a visit to the museum, visiting an exhibition – it interests me a lot not just scholarly art history but to also be an educational place, an emotional place – I wanted to really work in a museum.


And in fact it all started with The Magpie!



Without being indiscrete, are you quite young for such a position in such a well-known museum?

Yes. I’m 31. Yes, I was really lucky to get this job at the Musée D’Orsay so quickly. In France, we have a competitive examination to become a curator. So I passed the examination and became curator and at the end of the examination, there was a job available at the Musée D’Orsay. It happened at a moment when the Director of the Musée D’Orsay wanted to rejuvenate and have a young eye on its collections so I was lucky. That was 4 years ago.


Is it your first time in Australia?

Yes I’ve been here for 2 weeks and I leave tomorrow morning [which was the morning after the exhibition’s opening night].


You can visit Colours of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musée D’Orsay at the Art Gallery of South Australia until 29 July. You can purchase undated tickets here or at the gallery. I will also publish a review of the exhibition in the coming weeks but I can already give you a preview of what it will say: it’s definitely worth a visit!