The Impressionist Writer

Written by GQR / Image by Giovanni Boldini, 1897

Golem on Excursion at the Museums of the City of Strasbourg: Huysmans’ “Eye”: Manet, Degas, Moreau

It’s only fitting that a museum dedicated to visual arts would hold an exhibition for the impeccable “eye” of the French writer Joris-Karl Huysmans – author of Against Nature, The Damned, and Parisian Sketches.

The Strasbourg Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art is teaming up with the Musee d’Orsay and l’Orangerie to honour the memory of the man who helped champion the artists who fill their museums.

Huysmans hung around the best of the best. He was acquainted with the Impressionists when everyone was still fawning over Naturalists. Huysmans concerned himself with the modern, with the here and now.

We present to you a slice of 19th century Paris as experienced by Huysmans. In his essay ‘The Folies-Bergère in 1879’[1] (Parisian Sketches), Huysmans illustrates the world around him:

“A great hubbub rises from the gathering crowd. A warm haze, mingled with exhalations of every kind and saturated with the acrid dust that comes from carpets and chairs when you beat them, envelops the hall. The smell of cigars and women becomes more noticeable; gas lamps, reflected from one end of the theatre to the other by mirrors, burn more dimly; it is only with difficulty that you can make out, through the dense ranks of bodies, an acrobat on stage who is methodically devoting himself to some gymnastic exercises on the fixed bar.”

Huysmans “Eye”: Degas, Manet, Moreau doesn’t only include the artists Huysmans praised, but those he criticised with harsh words. He places Edgar Degas at the top of that list, declaring him to be the greatest painter in France. Or take the unimaginative brushstrokes of William Bouguereau, where Huysmans went on the attack and called The Birth of Venus “a badly inflated balloon.”

Paris was changing, as were the people and the art. He wasn’t going to let some outdated bats knock down the rising rock stars of Impressionism.

So enamoured by art, Huysmans dedicates each chapter in his novel Against Nature to a medium, cataloguing the movements, colours, sensations, and appeal of art. Its protagonist, Jean des Esseintes, promptly chooses artifice over nature, rolls through hills of decadence before coming to a crossroads that either leads him to death or religious saving.

Huysmans involvement in art was massive. He criticised art that was tasteless, bland, and outright a disgrace to the beholder. Earlier this year, Dedalus books released Modern Art, translated by Brendan King. First published in 1883, when the Impressionists were still being kicked around by art critics and hacks offering their two-cents, Huysmans swoops in to rescue the Impressionists with his reviews and interpretations of their work.

Paul Gauguin, Edouard Manet, Berthe Morisot would surely have thanked the writer and superfan Huysmans.

So, how exactly do you exhibit Huysmans? This is the challenge the Strasbourg faces. What’s awaiting viewers is not only some of the best artworks from the Impressionist movement, but also prints, illustrations, volumes of manuscripts, and vials of sensational perfumes, among other items that caught Huysmans’s eye.

The Strasbourg’s exhibition is arranged in ten rooms. We start in a boudoir to a Paris street, then roam through the Salon before heading to the mansion Against Nature is set in. This 440-piece collection boasts the biggest names in the art game: Redon, Degas, Manet, Renoir, and Gustave Moreau. Through Huysmans, the museum has found a creative and novel way to showcase 19th century art.

From 2 October 2020 – 17 January 2021

1 place Hans Jean Arp

67000, Strasbourg, France


[1] This is neighbourhood Manet chose to depict in A Bar at the Folies-Bergere.


A selection of Impressionist works appears below.

Les raboteurs de parquet. Gustave Caillebotte. 1875. Oil on canvas. 102 cm × 146.5 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

L’Absinthe. Edgar Degas. 1875–76. Oil on canvas. 92 cm × 68 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris

Installation view: Huysmans. De Degas à Grünewald. Sous le regard de Francesco Vezzoli, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, 2019–2020. © Musée d’Orsay. Photo: Sophie Crépy.