Welcome to Classroom Europe!

Rick Steves Classroom Europe™ is a free resource allowing teachers to share the best of European art, history, and culture with their students and fellow educators.

A Message from Rick  |  Frequently Asked Questions

close
Playlist Under Construction: None. Add a video to get started!
Playlist Under Construction: None. Add a video to get started!
Add to Playlist

The Orsay Museum and Impressionism in Paris (4:49)

Paris, France
Contains mature topics

Tour the Orsay Museum in Paris for its ground-breaking masterpieces. Conservative art (emphasizing idealized beauty) gave way to Realists (such as Courbet and Manet) and Impressionists (Monet and Renoir), who painted fleeting, shimmering “impressions.”

Complete Video Script

The Orsay Gallery, famous for its much-loved collection of Impressionist masterpieces, fills an old train station. The building itself is magnificent. Train tracks used to go right down the middle.

The art of the Orsay takes you from 1848 to 1914. This is the time when the Old World meets the modern world. It’s conservative and revolutionary, side by side.

Before the Impressionists, 19th-century artists painted idealized beauty. This was conservative art, popular throughout the 1800s because it was, simply, beautiful.

Cabanel’s Birth of Venus is the quintessence of beauty. The love queen reclines seductively — just born from the foam of a wave. At the time, sex was considered dirty, and could be exalted only in a more pure and divine form.

But while mainstream artists cranked out these ideal beauties, a revolutionary new breed of artists was painting a harsher reality.

Cross the tracks and you find the Realists. In The Painter’s Studio, Gustave Courbet takes us behind the scene at the painting of a goddess. The model — not a goddess, but a real woman — takes a break from posing to watch Courbet at work. Ordinary people mill about. The little boy seems to admire the artist — already notorious for his nonconformity.

No one would show Courbet’s work, so he put on his own art show. He built a little shack in the center of town and hung his paintings — basically thumbing his nose at the shocked public and his conservative critics.

Edouard Manet rubbed realism in the public’s face. And they hated it. Manet’s nude doesn’t gloss over anything. The pose is classic, but the sharp outlines and harsh colors are new and shocking. Her hand is a clamp. Her stare…defiant. Ignoring the flowers her servant brings from her last customer, this prostitute looks out as if to say, “Next… ”

It’s about 1880 and Manet and his rat pack of conservatively dressed radicals gathered in Paris, pushing the creative envelope. It’s time for the revolution of Impressionism to begin.

Impressionism initiated the greatest change in art since the Renaissance. Now, artists were freed to delve into the world of colors, light, and fleeting impressions. They featured easygoing open-air scenes, candid spontaneity, and always…the play of light.

Impressionists made their canvases shimmer by an innovative technique. Rather than mixing colors together on a palate, they applied the colors in dabs, side-by-side on the canvas, and let these mix as they traveled to your eye. Up close it doesn’t work. But move back…and voilà!

Claude Monet is called the father of Impressionism. For him, the physical subject was now only the rack upon which to hang the light, shadows, and colors.

Auguste Renoir caught Parisians living and loving in the afternoon sun. Dappled light was his specialty. In this painting you can almost feel the sun’s warmth and smell the powder on the women’s faces. Even the shadows are caught up in the mood — everything’s dancing. Renoir paints a waltzing blur to capture not the physical details, but the intangible charm of a restaurant on Paris’ Montmartre.

Montmartre — a Parisian hill crowned by the dramatic neo-Byzantine Sacré-Cœur church — was famous for the ambience captured by the Impressionists.

A block away, the Place du Tertre is jumbled with artists — and tourists. If you really try, you can almost imagine Renoir, Van Gogh, and Picasso who came here a century ago — poor, carefree, and seeking inspiration.

Back then, life here on Montmartre was a working-class commotion of cafés, bistros, and dance halls. Painters came here for the low rent and ruddy joie de vivre. To get away from all the tourists, simply walk the back streets, where a bit of Montmartre’s village charm survives.

Ah, the steps of Sacré-Cœur. This is a place where locals and travelers alike congregate to marvel at Paris, or each other. From here the “City of Light” fans out at your feet.

Your Parisian experience is a blend of great museums, fine food, and characteristic neighborhoods.