Friday, September 23, 2016

Somewhat feminist musings at the Musee d'Orsay

The Musee d'Orsay has been one of my favorite museums since I first saw it in 1991, on my first trip to Paris.

What's not to like about a museum that has entire sections/rooms devoted to Van Gogh, Monet, Manet and Degas? Housed in the former Gare d'Orsay train station, a Beaux-Arts structure completed in 1900, the building, with its massive, gold-embellished clocks and elegant arched glass ceiling, calls to mind the setting for The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

Every trip I've taken to Paris since has included a delightful trip to the Musee. But visiting the Musee alongside a teenage girl this summer was a different experience. Sure, she liked its evocation of Hugo, the Impressionist rooms, the Degas sculptures. But after walking through multiple rooms, she asked, "Where are the women artists?"

Each room had been filled with paintings and sculptures of luscious women, prim women, naked women. But we had seen one lonely artwork by a woman--Mary Cassett, among the Impressionists.

After that, the rest of our afternoon tour became a bitter hunt for female artists. We rushed from artwork to artwork, examining the placards for any hint of a female name, but we never found another woman's art there.*

If you google "female artists at the Musee d'Orsay," the hits on the first page include the museum's own pages for The Modern Woman. Drawings by Degas, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec and Other Masterpieces from the Musée d'Orsay and Splendour and Misery. Pictures of Prostitution, 1850-1910. In other words, women interpreted by men.

What were women doing while all these men had been sculpting, painting, creating? Tending to children? Devoting themselves to maintaining their own beauty? Posing for male artists? Or, perhaps, making art that would never be housed in the Musee d'Orsay.

* I discovered after I returned home that the museum does house a few other female artists, including Berthe Morisot and Cecilia Beaux--but the number of artworks by women is pretty paltry compared to the hundreds by men. (I am counting 12 total among these three women). And to find them, I had to use Wikipedia and go through a list of major artists at the Musee. Otherwise, the Musee's website led me to paintings and art about women rather than by women.

All photographs by Beth Blevins. Copyright 2016.

The Seine seen from one of the clocks at the Musee d'Orsay.

No comments: