Inspired by your “Fortune Smiles” blog post, I took myself on a tour of the collection of the Musee d’Orsay. I thought it would be impossible to choose, but it was easier than I imagined. There were ten clear winners–well, with an 11th thrown in for sentimental reasons. There were also a few I’d love to see as runner-ups, all oddities for one reason or another. Vuillard’s Au lit–a completely monochromatic, pattern-free study, more like a Morandi than a Vuillard. Tissot’s Faust and Marguerite, a quite wonderful pastiche that somehow combines the monumental quality of a procession from Piero della Francesca with the formality of a history painting—all in a theatrical format. And then there is Renoir’s portrait of my favorite composer, Wagner, odd because it has a softness and tentativeness so uncharacteristic of Wagner and so unlike any portraits or photographs of him that I have seen. As a curiosity, I’d be interested to see August Strindberg’s painting, Vague VII, predictably moody, dark and filled with anxiety. And I have to admit to a fondness for Gustave Moreau’s Galatea. It’s a bit overwrought but it has that quality of myth turned psychological study that I like.
This exercise is a bit of a Rorschach test. As I review my choices, the dominant themes seem to be the enclosed space and pattern. Clearly, I am drawn to interiors—the dark inhabited space—at home, in the theater, even the outdoors—or a portrait that draws you in to someone’s soul; they all have an element of drama and psychology—something has happened and we’re not sure what.
Pierre Bonnard, Dejeuner sous la Lampe (Lunch by Lamplight)
Love the dark and light, it is tender and funny and I love the way he framed the image, it is so intimate, you’re right there, in the space…
Paul Cezanne, Portrait of Madame Cezanne
I know this is heretical, but I have never been drawn to Cezanne’s landscape and still life paintings. But I love his portraits. This one is a different type of interior, we enter into her stillness, her sense of peace, tranquility. The simplicity, the ethereal color palette, every brush stroke of this painting is in the service of creating a deep moving portrait, he must have loved her.
Camille Corot, Une Matinee, danse des nymphes (The Dance of the Nymphs)
Very drawn to the inhabited landscape. This painting is mythological in its inspiration but doesn’t get stuck there. The humans and the landscape are one, distinctions blurred—it manages to co-exist on two levels—it is almost like a stage set and yet has a very primeval landscape-as-memory quality.
Gustave Courbet, Le ruisseau noir (The Black Stream)
Another interior landscape. It is dark and intimate, no panoramic views, nothing larger than life that causes you to simply step back and admire. This is a path you could walk in solitude or quiet companionship. Gorgeous rendering of foliage, so evocative with such a light touch.
Edgar Degas, La Famille Bellelli
This painting is wonderfully subtle and sinister, so much tension and discomfort. A family portrait, yet everyone is so separate. The father, somewhat indifferent, turning his back to us; the mother so cool, her right hand on her daughter’s shoulder conveys no more affection than her left hand placed on the table. That daughter is already the image of her mother—the other girl looks ready to run off with the dog. I love the way he divided up the room, angles and partial glimpses of doorways–makes you feel that much more hemmed in. And then, there’s the wallpaper…
Henri Fantin-Latour, La liseuse (Woman Reading)
What a beautiful painting. I love Fantin-Latour’s portraits. Here is an interior within an interior. She is so absorbed in her book, it is so peaceful, meditative. The whole image is so beautifully framed, the pile of books, the painting on the wall, the hint of detail in the wallpaper–and then that gorgeous curve of the sofa, its deep red, the only really warm color, enveloping her. Not only the reader, but every object in this painting seems to have an interior life.
Eva Gonzales, Une loge aux Italiens (A Box at the Theatre des Italiens)
Here we are, another enclosed space, another mystery. I am not familiar with Gonzales’ work but I see from this painting that she learned her lesson well from Manet—present the relationship, don’t explain, leave the storytelling to the viewer. Beautifully painted curtain and flowers, wonderful light and dark. I love the way her arm is resting on the edge of the box, just the right amount of pressure, and the luminously painted skin, glove and jewelry just glow against the rich, dark velvet.
Gustav Klimt, Rosiers sur les arbres (Rosebushes under the Trees)
I’ve only recently become an admirer of Klimt’s landscapes. I love the shimmering, decorative quality and the subtle way the greens play against the pinks and mauves of the roses. It comes so close to abstraction but still keeps you firmly grounded in landscape. Especially like the patterns on the tree trunks and the little patch of sky in the upper right corner.
Edouard Manet, Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the Grass)
Edouard Manet, L’asperge (Asparagus)
Ideally, I would include every Manet in the world in this list, so I could not limit myself to a single one—so it’s a tie for my ninth pick.
I had to choose Dejeuner because the first time I came face to face with it, at the Jeu de Paume, I was absolutely thunderstruck by its beauty and power. I thought that a childhood and young adulthood spent gazing at masterpieces at the Frick, the Met and other great museums of New York had inoculated me from being knocked off my feet by seeing in person a painting I had so admired in reproduction. I can’t add anything to the volumes written about this painting, except to say that the crazy theatricality, the abstract light and dark, the sense of it being out of time and place, all combine to make it a painting you can never tire of looking at, there is always another mystery to unravel.
L’asperge is to me one of the most beautiful paintings ever made. In a way it has the quality of his late flower paintings, the still lifes painted as he was dying. Not their elegiac quality exactly, but the sense of clarity and light in every stroke of those flowers, is here in this asparagus. The luminous, infinite tones of white, the way it is hanging off the edge of the marble towards the dark wood of the table—it is one of those small paintings that manages to combine an amazing intimacy with a sense of monumentality, like a Turner seascape.
Edouard Vuillard, Le salon aux trois lampes, Rue Saint-Florentin (Interior with Three Lamps)
This painting has it all—pattern everywhere you look, a wonderfully theatrical sense of space, lights and darks, an ambiguous mood. The figures are in repose but the room is animated with energy, light and pattern. There are all these wonderful angles, recesses, a wonderful cool palette, set off by the glow of those three lamps. If they send this one, I am going to have to steal it.