The Birth of Impressionism Comes to Life in a Groundbreaking Exhibition in Paris

It might seem like gilding the lily to devote a two-part exhibition to a single historic event, and yet the result, “Paris 1874: Inventing Impressionism,” is a revelation. In it, the Musée d’Orsay presents a show about a show—specifically, the first Impressionist exhibition, which opened 150 years ago today and ushered in what we think of as modern art.

Related Articles

Listen beautiful relax classics on our Youtube channel.

The central exhibition, which marks the anniversary of that defining moment, is accompanied by a virtual reality component, the first time such immersive technology has been used so extensively to enhance the experience of fine art. This parallel show, “Tonight with the Impressionists,” occurs in a space adjacent to the main exhibition.

The physical show (with a ticket price of €32, or about $35) is on view through August 11 and will travel to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., in September (without the virtual reality component). Of the 157 works in the exhibition, 39 come from the Musée d’Orsay, 8 from the National Gallery, and the rest from museums and private collections around the world.

The goal of the VR exhibit, which originated with the Orsay, is to have visitors relive the evening of April 15, 1874, when at 8 p.m. the doors opened to the first Impressionist exhibition. “It was a very human moment,” said Emmanuel Guerriero, head of the immersive technology firm Excurio, referring to the historic evening, “so we foregrounded human emotions.” Excurio and Gedeon Experiences coproduced the VR show.

VR reconstruction of the first Impressionist exhibition. Concept art copyright © Excurio – GEDEON Experiences – Musée d’Orsay

No photographs exist of the historic exhibition, which was hung by the artists themselves. Therefore, “we threw ourselves into an investigation that lasted two years,” said Stéphane Millière, head of Gedeon Media Group.

Rose, a fictional nineteenth-century artists’ model and aspiring artist, leads visitors outfitted with VR headsets on a 40-minute virtual reality experience that relives the opening in Paris. They also travel to Bougival, just west of Paris—a favorite haunt of the struggling young artists whose calling card was painting en plein air—and to the cliffs of Étretat and other key locations where they worked or discussed their shared aesthetic mission.

This careful reconstruction took into account land surveys, aerial photography of the neighborhood and studio, receipts and other documents, the original exhibition catalogue (on view in an exhibition case), letters written by the artists (which nourished the VR script), and reviews by contemporary journalists. It brings to life the venue for the 1874 exhibition: the former Paris studio of photographer Gaspard-Felix Tourmachon (known professionally as Nadar), with its luxurious crimson wall hangings and carpet, its tall windows and interior waterfall, and even its façade, which boasted Nadar’s name picked out in red and gold lights.

Nadar, Façade of Nadar’s studio, 35, Boulevard des Capucines, Paris, c. 1861. Collection Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris.

According to the Orsay exhibition’s co-curator Anne Robbins, Nadar rented the building, at 35 Boulevard des Capucines, to the participating artists for 2,000 francs. These artists had, in late 1873, formed a cooperative society, the Société des artistes peintres, sculpteurs, graveurs, et lithographes, in response to the realities of the Paris Salon, the official venue overseen by the Académie des Beaux-Arts, which had rejected numbers of them in the late 1860s. What they desired was economic and artistic emancipation. Rather than remain beholden to juries and art dealers, these frustrated renegades wanted to find their own audiences and clienteles.

The founding group comprised 22 members, among them now-familiar names such as Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro. Its diverse and eclectic members, whose number had swollen to 31 by the April opening, each paid 60 francs for the four-week run, Robbins told ARTnews, and were meant to enter two works each—though all submitted more, for a total of around 200 pieces. The exhibition, which opened 15 days before the Salon, drew 3,500 paying visitors and garnered approximately 60 reviews.

“It was the first time the public was exposed to so many works called ‘Impressionist,’” said Millière. Indeed, the term arose just 10 days after the opening when journalist Louis Leroy used it to mock the sketchy approach encapsulated by Claude Monet’s Impression, Sunrise (1872)—with its now-famous peach-colored orb hovering above pale gray-blue water. This work is placed in its own room in the Orsay installation, accompanied by pastels of rising and setting suns by both Monet and his teacher Eugène Boudin.

Eugène Boudin, Study of the Sky at Sunset, c. 1862–1870. Collection Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Digital image copyright © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski.

The Orsay exhibition makes a tremendous effort to place the term Impressionism in context. “There’s a myth that this was a movement of scrappy, avant-garde artists,” said the show’s co-curator Sylvie Patry. Instead, “it started with a cooperative project of 31, and they were not all Impressionists. It was more nuanced than that.” Nevertheless, there was the daring of the proposal itself. “Then critics remarked that among [the artists], there was a kernel of audacious ones,” Patry pointed out.

Certainly, a timeline early in the exhibition highlights the fact that a number of the participating artists—Paul Cézanne, Alfred Sisley, Monet, Berthe Morisot, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir—were born within two years of one another, between 1839 and 1841 (with Pissarro and Edgar Degas born in 1830 and 1834, respectively). But what is common to this modest handful of artists was not a particular school or movement but rather a desire to depict modern life; reject hierarchies of class; capture impressions of fleeting instants; and introduce a new way of painting that involved loose, brisk, bold brushwork and a lively play of colors.

Berthe Morisot, Reading, 1873. Collection Cleveland Museum of Art. Digital image courtesy Cleveland Museum of Art.

This style would pave the way for other important 20th-century artists and movements. But the very fact of the exhibition, which went beyond the 1863 Salon des Refusés in defining itself outside any Salon system, deserves special attention: “This way of [artists] organizing themselves was in itself radical and revolutionary,” said Patry. “It was astonishingly new and independent.”

The Orsay’s physical exhibition (like its virtual one) hews closely to the historical realities of 1874. It is striking how many of the pieces included have been sourced from private collections to achieve Robbins and Patry’s goal: Almost all the works in “Paris 1874” derive from the first Impressionist exhibition, the 91st Salon of that year, or later Impressionist shows.

Listen beautiful relax classics on our Youtube channel.

In the first room, titled “Ruins and Reconstruction,” the curators have provided context for the artworks in the show. Lithographs, including two by Édouard Manet (who declined to participate in the first Impressionist exhibition) depict the tumult of the Siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the bloody rise and demise of the short-lived Paris Commune of 1871.

Edouard Manet, Civil War, 1871. Collection Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris.

At the same time, as seen in works such as Louis-Émile Durandelle’s photographs of the construction of the Opéra Garnier, the industrial revolution and recent urban renewal instigated by Baron Haussmann had created new buildings, railroad stations, and parks. The population had doubled, and new lifestyle trends were ascendant. In short, as one of the exhibition’s wall texts notes, by 1874 Paris was in the midst of a revival, teeming with new businesses, luxury shops and entertainment venues.

The exhibition proper begins in the second room, where photographs of Nadar’s studio provide a lead-in to some of the same works that opened the original 1874 show. Drawn from various locations, they convey the shock of modern life. In Renoir’s La Parisienne (1874), from the National Museum in Cardiff, Wales, the French actress Henriette Henriot exudes confidence and sophistication. Next to her, Renoir’s La Danseuse (1874), with her diaphanous bluish-white tulle skirt and pink slippers, is on loan from the National Gallery in Washington. Monet’s street scene Boulevard des Capucines (1873–74), loaned by the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, depicts a crush of people through which carriages careen. Renoir’s La loge (1874), now in the collection of the Courtauld Institute in London, depicts affluent theatergoers: he with opera glasses raised, she boldly surveying the crowd.

Auguste Renoir, The Theatre Box, 1874. Collection Courtauld, London. Digital image copyright © Courtauld/Bridgeman Images.

Further along, a gallery showcases the conservative tastes of the well-heeled Paris Salon, from which the state made its purchases and which would shortly open nearby at the Palais de l’Industrie et des Beaux-Arts. Here, history paintings and monumental biblical and mythological scenes abut genre scenes, landscapes, and “Orientalist” works, many on loan from private collections or institutions such as the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Each was displayed at the 91st Salon of 1874.

Salon and Impressionist exhibition artists share the walls in subsequent rooms, as—despite the outward competition between the two shows—overlaps were frequent. Later sections of the exhibition are devoted to paintings from the seven Impressionist exhibitions after 1874, when they expanded to include Pointillist painters Georges Seurat and Paul Signac and the budding Symbolist painter Odilon Redon.

While “Paris 1874” includes works by many lesser-known artists, the exhibition concludes with a parade of what are now considered Impressionist masterpieces. The final gallery is filled with such famous works as Monet’s Gare Saint-Lazare (1877) with its puffing steam engine, and ends with Renoir’s Dance at the Moulin de la Galette (1877), all dappled sunlight and shadow.

Claude Monet, Saint-Lazare Station, 1877. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Digital image copyright © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski.

“Financially, it was not a success,” Robbins said of the 1874 show. “It was a failure.” Only a handful of paintings sold: canvases by Sisley, Monet, Renoir, and Cézanne. By the end of the year, the society was bankrupt. But this financial flop was an achievement with immense implications, forever changing the direction of art history.

“We didn’t want to do an homage to Impressionism, but rather show a precise moment in time, the birth of a movement,” said Patry. Like the paintings it features, the exhibition focuses on a transitory instant, but it was a consequential one.


No votes yet.
Please wait...