From ugly priests to absinthe addicts, these paintings all caused a stir in mid 19th century France
The Musée d'Orsay on the left bank of the River Seine in Paris is home to some of the greatest pieces of Realist, Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art ever produced. And while it might seem peculiar to modern, desensitized viewers, some of these works were deemed to be hugely provocative or problematic when they were first unveiled. Here are the stories behind five of the more scandalous paintings.
Olympia (1863) by Edouard ManetMusée d’Orsay, Paris
Olympia – Édouard Manet
Is this the most notorious painting in 19th century art? Manet's Olympia was received with horror when it was unveiled at the Paris Salon in 1865; it was seen as an attack on the classical nude (a perfect example of which is Alexandre Cabanel’s Birth of Venus, also on display at Musée d’Orsay). The way in which the subject is depicted not as an abstract ideal but as a "real", jaundiced woman shocked contemporary viewers. Most scandalous of all was how Olympia exhibits no hint of shame about her nakedness but reclines with comfort, defiantly meeting the viewer’s eye, mocking assumptions that as a courtesan she serves no purpose other than to be an object of male desire.
Luncheon on the Grass (1863) by Edouard ManetMusée d’Orsay, Paris
Le Déjeuner Sur L’Herbe – Édouard Manet
Le Déjeuner Sur L’herbe was rejected by the jury at the Paris Salon in 1863 for obscenity; nudes, it seems, were only deemed tasteful so long as they were figures from classical mythology, and did not resemble contemporary women. More outrageous still for a conservative audience was the fact that the naked woman in the foreground is accompanied by two fully dressed men, further emphasizing that she intends to flaunt her sexuality. Manet’s technique also provoked severe reactions from the Salon jury who criticized the way in which he purposefully resisted blending light and contrast, as well as figures with their surroundings.
The large-scale painting occupies a whole wall on the fifth floor of the Musée d'Orsay; James Abbott McNeill Whistler's famous portrait of his mother hangs on a wall to the left. Check it out on Museum View below.
The Floor Planers (1875) by Gustave CaillebotteMusée d’Orsay, Paris
The Floor Planers – Gustave Caillebotte
There’s nothing that seems immediately controversial about Gustave Caillebotte’s The Floor Planers, a realist account of urban workers sanding the floor of a lavish Parisian apartment. But the uproar amongst the clearly snobbish Jury of the 1875 Salon was sparked by the artist’s decision to appropriate the heroic muscularity of classical painting in this piece depicting “vulgar” subjects whose dusty, thankless work was deemed unworthy of art. Still, leading Impressionists such as Degas didn’t listen, and invited the much younger Caillebotte to contribute to their 1876 exhibition at the Salon.
The Floor Planners certainly stand out among all the paintings of bourgeoise leisure near which it is exhibited, not least Pierre Auguste Renoir's much-loved Paris scene, Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette
A Burial at Ornans (1849 - 1850) by Gustave CourbetMusée d’Orsay, Paris
Burial at Ornans – Gustave Courbet
There was a similarly scathing critical response to Gustave Courbet's first major work, the massive A Burial at Ornans , which depicts a village turning out for a funeral. When it was presented at the Salon, the haughty critics said that normal people do not deserve to be painted on such a grand scale, and not only that, but that the people were too ugly and the scene too dreary to be immortalized in a work of art...
...The reaction to the wrinkled faces and bulbous noses was partly so strong because the supposed ugliness of the clergy members in the foreground was seen as a direct assault on the integrity of Christianity.
In a Café (1873) by Edgar DegasMusée d’Orsay, Paris
In A Café – Edgar Degas
The sense of despair is unmistakable in this painting of two miserable, shabbily-dressed absinthe drinkers who seem too drunk to keep their eyes focused, let alone communicate with one another. The subjects weren’t real drunkards however, but two of Degas’ friends, the actress Ellen Andrée and fellow artist Marcellin Desboutin. The problem was that the painting was so convincing that people started believing that these well-know figures were actual alcoholics. The work did so much damage to their reputations that eventually Degas had to come out publicly and explain that they were simply modeling for him.
Degas' painting is well-complemented by another bar scene by Manet which hangs near it. Take a look at this and many more Impressionist masterpieces on Museum View below: