Facing the Sun: Marmottan Museum, Monet, and the Birth of Impressionism
There are many museums in and near Paris that give you incredible views of Monet’s work. There is the Musée de l’Orangerie, which has his enormous water lilies in a room the artist himself helped design. There is the Musée d’Orsay, with its exhaustive collection of Impressionist paintings.
But the museum with the most Monets is the Musée Marmottan Monet. And while they have a stunning permanent collection year round, right now they are offering a special treat for visitors — an examination of the Sun in artwork. This temporary exhibition centers around that most important of 19th century paintings: Impression, Sunrise by Monet.
Visiting Marmottan is a must for lovers of Monet specifically and Impressionism in general. It is a bit smaller and a little off the beaten path compared to the Orangerie and the Orsay — but that only makes it a more intimate experience with these wonderful paintings.
And if you are traveling here anytime between September 21, 2022 and January 29, 2023, you must come see “Facing the Sun.”
Until then, let’s dive into the history of this exquisite museum and take a brief look at their latest exhibit.
The Fascinating History of the Musée Marmottan Monet
The Marmottan is a museum with a unique, winding history punctuated by many surprises. Though it is now famous for its collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masterpieces, the building itself did not have such ambitions when it was first built.
The structure was originally a hunting lodge for a Duke, a getaway where a noble could relax in comfort. But in the late 19th century it was purchased by the wealthy businessman and avid art collector Jules Marmottan. At his death, the estate fell into the hands of his only son Paul, whose obsession with Napoleon led to an ever increasing collection of art and furniture from the leader’s time (items made in what is known as the Empire style).
Paul expanded the building and remodeled much of the old house to better present the expanding Marmottan art collection. An expert on the Empire style, Paul even designed some of the furniture himself to match the rest of his pieces. The building grew several large salon rooms and handsome gardens by the time all of the projects were complete.
Upon his death in 1932, Paul Marmottan gave everything — from his paintings to his enormous private library to his home — to the Académie des Beaux-Arts. This way, his exceptional gift of art could be maintained and enjoyed by the public in perpetuity.
The museum opened its doors on June 21, 1934. Within a handful of years, newer artwork began to flood into the collection. This ended up putting the museum in a strange position.
The Impressionists in Marmottan Monet Museum
In the 30s, art lover Victorine de Monchy donated many pieces of her and her father’s collection to the museum, and included in this were 11 Impressionist paintings, including Monet’s Impression, Sunrise.
Why was this so odd?
Because during his life, Paul Marmottan had been part of the art world’s resistance to the Impressionists. His love was for the Neoclassical bent of the Empire style, which could not be further from the modernizing force that was the Impressionist movement.
Writing about these trends before the term Impressionism had even been coined, Marmottan wrote, “One does not draw, one sketches; one does not paint, one brushes… This slackening comes above all from extreme ignorance or the indulgence of art lovers, who are happy to look merely for the impression.”
Four years after Marmottan wrote this, the Académie famously excluded the Impressionists from ever exhibiting in the Salon — a death sentence for your career as an artist in 1870. They had already been forced to show their paintings in an event secondary to the Paris Salon, but now they were being denied even that.
So Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, among others created their own group. The members broke off any dealings with the Salon and the Académie that ruled over it. And in their first public exhibit in 1874, Monet showed his Impression, Sunrise.
Today, we know this painting as a touching, quiet scene of haunting beauty. But at the time it was seen as a scandalous attack on everything art was supposed to be. The critic Louis Leroy wrote a humorous article tearing down the painting, playing on the word “impression” with wicked glee. The term stuck, and so the Impressionists got their name.
Marmottan is a leading museum in Impressionism
By the end of the 30s, the Marmottan had become a leading museum of Impressionist works. Ironic to say the least. They had work by every major and some minor artists in the movement, and that turned out to only be the beginning.
Monet’s only surviving son Michel inherited a massive amount of art on his fathers death. These were paintings and drawings by leaders of the French scene for decades, including names like Eugène Delacroix and Renoir. And of course, there were plenty of paintings by Monet.
Michel bequeathed all of this to the Musée Marmottan upon his death in 1966. By the time all of these many works were up for display, the museum itself changed its name to the Musée Marmottan Monet. These two rivals, who fought on different sides of the war in French art, are now permanently linked in this museum.
The Art heist story
Most of the museum’s history since the 70s has focused on the quiet preservation and slow growth of their collection — except for one shocking event in 1985.
It was on October 27 when five armed men entered the museum in broad daylight. With guns pointed, they took nine paintings. One of the stolen works was none other than Impression, Sunrise.
The haul was said to be worth $12 million (the equivalent of well over $33 million today).
Police eventually tracked down the theft to Shuinichi Fujikuma — a member of a yakuza organized crime syndicate. Several years before, while serving a heroin trafficking sentence in a French prison, he became affiliated with Youssef Khimoun and Philippe Jamin who were involved with the art world. Together, they planned and executed the robbery.
In 1990, all of the paintings stolen from the Musée Marmottan Monet were recovered in a home on the island of Corsica — the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Visiting the Musée Marmottan Monet
The Marmottan is located off of the charming Bois de Boulogne park. There, it offers visitors so many beautiful paintings and sculptures. Yes, there are many Monets, of course, but there are also works by Berthe Morisot, Gustave Caillebotte, and Pissarro.
There are many other masterpieces by names that may be familiar in Paris but are relatively unknown around the world.
That makes the collection both a great place to see artists you love while also discovering something new!
The overall feel is very similar to the Orangerie. If you just can’t get enough Monet, these two museums make for a great pairing during your tour of Paris.
Over the years, the museum has continuously improved and updated its presentation, and in the bottom floor is an oval room entirely dedicated to Monet. It is kind of like the Water Lilies room in the Orangerie, but with no natural sunlight, unfortunately. That being said, the colors and light coming from the canvases are enough to brighten anyone’s day!
There are many Monet masterpieces. Here you can see one of his Rouen Cathedral paintings (the Orsay has two more) and his painting of the Tuileries gardens — along with hundreds more.
What will strike any visitor is that, though so much of the focus here is on Monet, there are many wonderful works of art by other painters. You can find one of Edouard Manet’s many portraits of Morisot — Berthe Morisot Reclining (1873) — which shows the artist’s ability to find every nuance of a face to capture a mood, a fleeting moment.
Surrounding the art is incredible decor. All of these pieces are stunning achievements in their own right, and they can sometimes steal the show. It reminds us that Marmottan was as much a collector of fine furnishings as of paintings and sculpture.
In a peculiar diversion from their general collection, the museum also has a sizable selection of Medieval art. The colorful works mesmerize visitors from behind a pane of glass. They might not fit in perfectly with everything else on offer, but they are a welcomed addition nevertheless.
Facing the Sun
September 21, 2022 - January 29, 2023
The current exhibit at the Musée Marmottan Monet celebrates the 150th anniversary of that special Monet painting we’ve talked about above.
Monet painted this piece on November 13th, 1872 while looking out the window of his hotel room in Le Havre, a town in Normandie, France. (An interesting side note: astrophysicist Donald Olson came to the Marmottan in 2014 to research the painting, finding that the position of the sun is done with extreme position.)
At the time Monet painted it, there was no reason to believe it would go on to have such an important place in art history. After all, the painter was dashing off paintings all the time, and this one seemed more or less like his other work.
But because of its name and those playful critical barbs by Louis Leroy, it went on to serve as the icon of one of the most important movements in European art. And today, it serves as the crown jewel of the Musée Marmottan Monet.
For that reason, the museum gives it pride of place in this exhibit, which explores the use of the sun in art through the ages. The exhibit is a collaboration with Musée Barberini, which helps round out the offerings to give us a profound new appreciation for the sun in art.
Let’s look at a handful of the works you can find and learn a little more about this exciting show.
The Art of the Sun in Antiquity
The exhibit begins, appropriately enough, in the beginning. We start with the use of the sun in religious art from ancient civilizations.
Works from Egypt and Greece remind us how important the sun has been in our spiritual development as a species — not to mention its importance in providing for life on this planet!
The sun was not only appreciated in these ancient cultures, it was venerated and personified as a god. In Egypt, the sun god Râ stood for ultimate power and rejuvenation. The worship of Râ had its center in Heliopolis, or the City of the Sun. He was also often combined with what might be the most important god in all of ancient Egypt, Horus.
In Greece, the sun god was named Helios (he would later be known as Sol in Rome), and sometimes called Phoebus. While he initially played only a small part in the worship of pagan gods, he eventually rose to prominence when people combined him with Apollo.
In these examples, the sun can be raw power, the epitome of beauty, or the source of happiness. Many things, but always coming from the same source.
The sun has also played a lasting role in politics. Louis XIV of France (1638 - 1715) was known as the Sun King, a title showing his prime importance to the world and its well being. A fitting epithet for this absolutist monarch who once declared, “I am the state!”
Louis even had the image of Apollo riding the chariot of the sun painted on the walls of his apartments at Versailles. His connection to the sun could be quite literal, too. He founded the Paris astronomical observatory in 1667 — which you can still visit today.
Phaeton, from the Four Disgracers - van Haarlem
This circular engraving (called a tondo) was completed in 1588, part of a series depicting mythical characters who fell from the sky, a punishment for trying to enter the world of the gods.
The series was a collaboration between the engraver Hendrick Goltzius and the painter Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem. All four of the pieces in the series are fantastic, with this one perhaps edging out the others as the best.
The story of Phaeton, as you might imagine, is a tragic one. Ovid’s great work Metamorphoses tells us how the sun god Helios mated with a water nymph, resulting in the child Phaeton. But as a man, Phaeton did not know who his father was. To correct this, Helios promised that he was, swearing an oath to grant any wish his son might have — a way of proving his paternity.
The son, being full of youth and hubris, asked to drive the chariot that Helios used to carry the sun across the sky every day. Helios begged his son to change his mind, as none of the gods except him were strong enough to command the mighty horses of fire that pulled the chariot.
But Phaeton insisted. Bound by his oath, Helios granted his son’s wish.
As soon as Phaeton sat in the chariot, he lost control, causing chaos and destruction. Zeus was forced to strike the vehicle with a lightning bolt, sending Phaeton falling to earth.
For more falls from grace in the exhibit, you can also find a trilogy of paintings by Carlo Saraceni (completed between 1606 and 1607). These tell the tale of Icarus and his famous, misfortunate flight.
Allegory of the Day - Sandrart
Joachim von Sandrart (as well known for his biographies of artists as his own artwork) produced this wonderful painting in 1643. As with many of his best pieces, this one is an allegory, filled with symbols to decode.
Of special importance to us here is the depiction of the sun with a human face. The personification of the sun has a long history, and was an especially popular motif from the Renaissance through the Baroque era.
This can also be seen in many occult, alchemical, and astrological artworks from the time. The exhibit has an example of this use, too — a sheet from a vellum manuscript for a 16th century alchemical work. It shows an illustration of the sun, human face and all, rising over the land.
Easter Morning - Friedrich
Caspar David Friedrich is perhaps the most popular and alluring of the German Romantic painters, and this strangely gothic depiction of morning, painted in 1835, gives us an entirely different view of the subject matter.
So often, sunrises are painted in optimistic terms.
*Remember, this painting was decades before Monet’s famous sunrise, which is a bit dreary, too.
This would be especially true for a painting showing us the morning of Easter — the most important holiday in the Christian calendar.
But instead of a bright and happy image, Friedrich gives us a meditation on the fear of death and faith in eternal life. He does this mainly through details of the landscape, which is only just beginning to escape the cold claws of winter. And the intransigent darkness still hugs the land, a memento mori. Yet the sun changes everything, reminding us that every winter passes into spring, that every night yields to the dawn.
Le Port au soleil couchant - Signac
This painting by pointillist master Paul Signac gives us a spectacular counterpoint to Monet’s sunrise. Both of these paintings show us the morning sun as it glints off the surface of the water, boats gliding across in the early hour. But each artist displays their own singular view of the scene.
Signac, of course, gives it to us in pastels. The yellows, pinks, blues, purples, and oranges are light and dreamy — it almost makes your teeth hurt, it’s so candy-like.
This was completed in 1892, some 20 years after Monet’s painting, and there is no doubt that Signac, a close friend and coconspirator of Monet, knew what he was doing. This is a response and homage to his friend’s earlier triumph.
The Sun - Munch
Edvard Munch brings us into the 20th century with this shocking Expressionist piece painted between 1910 and 1913. What started with the Impressionist’s pull away from realism has gone into overdrive here, with Munch giving us unbridled subjectivity. This isn’t how a sunrise looks — this is how a sunrise feels.
The dazzling rainbows of color in the beams of sunlight overwhelm the viewer, forcing us to look away at the landscape below to protect our eyes. So much like an actual sunrise!
The inclusion of artists like Munch (as well as many contemporary artists) also picks up on an important part of Monet’s story. The leading Impressionist helped liberate painting from the rules and restrictions placed on it by the government sanctioned Académie and its oppressive Salon system. Without the long term success of placid canvases like Impression, Sunrise, you could never have a painter like Munch.
Final Thoughts at Facing the Sun
There were so many more wonderful works of art to be seen than we can describe here, but these should give you some hint to the many treasures at “Facing the Sun.”
Once you step outside at the end of your visit, you can’t help but feel appreciative of that bright yellow star hanging in the sky above you. Since the dawn of humanity, it has given us food, warmth, and light.
We once worshiped it as a god that circled the earth. Then we put the sun in the center of the galaxy. Today, we use sunlight to generate energy. And the whole time, we’ve made art celebrating it!
The Marmottan in the Sunlight
The Marmottan is a museum that every lover of Monet should visit at least once in their life. And the “Facing the Sun” exhibit is a wonderful tribute to one of his most important pieces.
If you are taking a trip to Paris, find all the best museums by hiring the best Art tour guide service of Paris. I will not only help you pick out the best places to go, but we will also accompany you there, telling you the interesting stories behind all of your favorite paintings. So what are you waiting for?
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