Museum Day: Musée d’Orsay’s Sade Exhibit

A couple of weeks ago (read over a month ago) I decided to pay a visit to Paris’ iconic Musée d’Orsay. I had originally planned to wander around and discover all of my favorites from art history classes past, but was quickly sucked into their temporary exhibit: SADE. Let me tell you, this exhibit was HUGE. So big with so many different works. I spent at least two hours in there. It also is an exhibit you will either absolutely love or absolutely hate, for reasons I will explain shortly. So bear that in mind. Luckily, it’s free, however, so if you hate it you can just zip through and continue to peruse the museum’s permanent collection.


The exhibit portrays the ways in which the infamous Marquis de Sade’s writings and philosophies influenced 19th century artists, thinkers, and writers. Let me tell you, the concept and construction of this exhibit was not only fascinating, but extremely well designed. NB: I was not overly familiar with Sade’s works, and felt like the exhibit gave me a thorough education and provided me with enough background that I didn’t feel lost. And the design was absolutely flawless.


You start by entering a dark room where hanging screens show clips from films that fit with the themes of Sades works, such as “Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde,” ‘The Girl Without a Face,” and Bunuel’s “L’Age d’Or.” After this you are introduced to a timeline of Sade’s life, before entering the main portion of the exhibit: a series of rooms thematically based on different philosophies Sade promoted, such as violence, promiscuity, and voluptuousness. The rooms all feature large wall texts with quotes from Sade, as well as explanations of how these different philosophies were featured in the art of his time, and around the room smaller quotes are inserted between the works.

One of the most impressive aspects of this exhibit was the scale of it—it was truly enormous and filled with a shocking number of pieces. It also contained highly diverse works—paintings, photographs, books, models, sculpture, the whole artistic gamut—meaning there was truly something for everyone involved. Moreover, these weren’t obscure works from smaller artists, but highly renowned popular works from artists like Delacroix, Picasso, and Courbet. And the wall texts? Truly wonderful—fascinating, informative and well translated. What I loved about this exhibit was that it took you on a real tour of Sade’s thoughts, and provided an unusual glimpse at the 19th century art, which I feel is often regarded as conservative in comparison with the radical modernists who followed. (I would argue that every century contains lots of radical art—that’s why we study art history—but I also feel that’s easy to forget since we are exposed to so many contemporary and modern works.)

Perhaps even more impressively, the exhibit managed to focus on the dark underbelly of the art world—the endless preoccupation with sex, violence, and contortion—without condemnation or condonation, showing solely how one artist’s voice and preoccupations created a dialogue between many different artists in different mediums. The only thing it did seem to condone was the absolute right for this art to exist, the possible need for it to exist, and the fact that it likely will always exist whether society approves of it or not. (Interestingly enough, I saw this exhibit on the same day that the Charlie Hebdo offices were attacked…food for thought.)

I suppose that my only gripe with the exhibit was that, as a viewer, there was really only so much violence and sex and contortion that I could handle. It was fascinating, and I was quite religious about reading the wall texts, but by the end of the exhibit I started moving quickly through the rooms, stopping only for pieces that really grabbed me. In a way, the impressive scale almost killed it—leaving me so tired that I couldn’t completely process the later parts.

I should also add that, while I found the entire concept fascinating, many of the works were not to my taste and I hit a point about halfway through where I didn’t want to see much more. But that’s my personal preference. Others may well feel differently.

That said, it was an immensely impressive exhibit and (if you think you can stomach it) definitely worth checking out. I would recommend giving yourself time for it, however. I meant to pop in for a half hour and spent WAY longer in there, even with my speeding along at the end. If you have a few hours to kill, however, pop on in! You won’t see anything else like it—that I can guarantee.

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Have yourself a merry little day trip – Reims

I’ve been delaying this post for about a full week now. The trip to Reims was wonderful – a day long extravaganza payed for by the program. It was so lovely and I have so much to say, that I … Continue reading

Musée Cluny

Last week I spent an afternoon visiting one of my favorite museums of all time – le Musée Cluny, or the National Museum of Medieval Art. Now, Seeing as I’m a prospective Medieval & Renaissance Studies concentrator and I have … Continue reading

All that glitters is actually gold – Versailles

Perhaps you remember how I once wrote about my aversion towards Mont St. Michel based on tourism? Versailles has always been a similar case. Although I have visited Paris twice I have never gone. It was always too far away, and lower on my list of priorities. Why go to an enormous, frivolous chateau when there were so many museums and monuments right in front of me? Well, thanks to a free trip with Sweet Briar, I have finally visited this dazzling monument to Baroque France…and I loved it. Continue reading

Happy Halloween!

I’m breaking precedent and putting up a post on recent events before I’ve finished catching up. More Nice posts are headed your way, but I thought I’d give you all something festive to celebrate the holiday.

It is Halloween, well…not anymore here. We just moved into November in France. But if you’re reading this in the States then it’s probably still Halloween. The French don’t typically do much for Halloween – it’s not nearly as big here as back home. Continue reading

Discovery at the Abbey

A few weeks ago, if you had asked me about Mont St. Michel, I would have pretty much yawned at it. I mean, c’mon, the place is a big castle on the ocean. So what? And yeah, supposedly it’s beautiful, and also one of the most touristy spots in France. I have a real aversion to touristy spots. Maybe someday I’ll realize that tourists visit places for reasons? Or that I am a tourist too? Continue reading

Bayeux Tapestry

Next we went to see the Bayeux tapestry, which was by far one of my favorite things ever. The size of this thing is incredible – entering the room you think, “My goodness…” and then you realize its about double the length you initially thought. Mind you, it’s not a real tapestry – it’s actually just embroidered cloth. But it’s over 70 meters of beautifully embroidered cloth depicting William’s conquest of England! I loved looking closely at the stitched details in it Continue reading


This past weekend I hopped on a bus and headed off to Normandie with about 20 other Sweet Briar kids. As usually I felt lukewarm about leaving Paris the night before.

“But I love Paris and have so much to see! Why am I shipping off to Normadie for the weekend? I feel sick…and I have work to do therefore this is a bad idea. I don’t like just visiting somewhere for two days – too much tourism too little time.” Such were the excuses Continue reading

Art History at Sorbonne-Paris IV

Last week I finally started classes at Paris IV. I’ve been trying to think of clever and fun things to say about them, but I’m drawing a blank. Perhaps it is because I have had to use my brain a lot more this week than normal? Anyway, here’s the basic gist:

1) These classes are very challenging. I don’t feel overly qualified, nor do I know where how my art history knowledge matches up to the other students. Also the language barrier can be a problem. Continue reading