Orsay Museum, Paris

From railway station to national museum, read the full history of the Musée d’Orsay!

Musee d'Orsay, Paris

Located in the 7th district of Paris, on the left bank of the Seine, the Musée d’Orsay, a true masterpiece of industrial architecture , is one of the most visited places in France after the Louvre Museum, the Palace of Versailles, the Eiffel Tower and Disneyland Paris.

But before becoming the famous national museum that we know today, the Gare d’Orsay was a train station which served not only the general public but also welcomed the foreign delegations arriving for the 1900 Paris Exposition. It was built on the ruins of the former Palais d’Orsay which was destroyed during the Paris Commune in 1871.

From railway station to museum

In 1898, a competition was run to find an architect to draw up the plans for the new terminus of the Chemin de Fer de Paris à Orléans (Paris-Orleans Railway). The competition was won by Victor Laloux, winner of the Grand Prix of Rome and a Professor at the School of Fine Arts, at about the same time that he was finishing the Town Hall of Tours.

The new station was to be near the Louvreand the Tuileries Garden and had to have a design befitting its highly elegant location.

Victor Laloux, in collaboration with two more French architects, Lucien Magne and Émile Bénard, decided to build a beautiful hotel inside the station, using its elegant façade made from finely cut stone to hide as much as possible the metal structure outside the station, and in so doing ensuring an aesthetic that would be harmonious with the neighbouring buildings and monuments.

The interior was modernized and a reception service was installed on the ground floor. Ramps as well as lifts for transporting both people and goods were installed in order to help travellers navigate the station. Underground railway tracks were also built.

The new station, baptised the “Gare d’Orsay”, was inaugurated on July 14th, 1900 just in time for the Paris Exposition. If you examine its Northern side overlooking the Seine today, you can still see the names of the cities it once served carved into the stone façade. Its construction took two years.

In addition to a luxurious 400-room hotel, the station included a restaurant and a large hall on the west side of the building facing the Palais de la Légion d’honneur (Palace of the Legion of Honour).

From its inauguration, up until 1939, the station remained the head of the French South-West rail network. It was not just a place of transit for passengers, however, but also a place where associations and political parties came together to have meetings and banquets in the hotel’s Salle des Fêtes (function room).

Railway Gare d'Orsay

After 1939, the Gare d’Orsay was reduced to serving only the suburbs, as its platforms were now too short for the new generation of longer and more technologically advanced trains that were being built. It would fall to Austerlitz Station to take over responsibility for the longer distance routes.

Later, this same station would not only be the one from which parcels would be sent to prisoners of war during World War 2, bit it would also be the same station they arrived back to after their release and return to France.

Finally, 1958 would be the last year that the Gare d’Orsay would be used for railway traffic.

The station would go on to be used in movies, such as “The Trial” by Orson Welles (based on Kafka’s book of the same name), be used as a refuge for the Renaud-Barrault theatre group and was also used by auctioneers during the reconstruction of the Drouot Hotel.

In 1970, permission to demolish the station and replace it with a large modern hotel complex was granted but Jacques Duhamel, the Minister for Cultural Affairs at the time, strongly opposed its destruction.

The hotel would finally close its doors on January 1, 1973, but not without having played a historical role first. It was in the station’s Salle des Fêtes that General de Gaulle held a press conference announcing his return to power.

In 1975, the Direction des Musées de France (organisation responsible for administering the country’s museums) had already started considering the station as the future home for a new museum dedicated to works of art from the second half of the nineteenth century.

The birth of the Musée d’Orsay

Orsay Museum

The official decision to build the Musée d’Orsay was taken by President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing during the 1977 Interministerial Council.  The building was classified as a historical monument in 1978 and a civil commission was created to oversee the construction and organization of the new museum. With government funds, the building was restored and refurbished by ACT Architecture. In 1981, the Italian architect Gaetana Aulenti was chosen to design all of the museum’s interiors, decorations, furniture and facilities.

Work began in 1983, and in July 1986, the museum was ready to organise its first exhibitions. It took 6 months to install the first 2000 paintings, 600 sculptures and others works of art. The Museum officially opened its doors in December 1986 during the presidency of François Mitterrand.

What exactly can be seen at the Musée d’Orsay?

The Museum mainly exhibits French works of art from the period 1848 to 1914, including paintings, sculptures, furniture and photographs.

These works of art were sourced from three main institutions:

– The Louvre Museum, for works by artists born after 1820 or appearing during the Second Republic;

– The Jeu de Paume Museum which had specialised in Impressionism since 1947.

– and last but not least, the National Museum of Modern Art which after moving to its new home at the Centre Georges Pompidou in 1976, only kept works by artists born after 1870.

The various artistic movements represented by the museum’s collections include Academic Art, Realism, Impressionism, Post-impressionism, Symbolism, and Art Nouveau.

Among the many artists exhibited, we find Bonnard, Carpeaux, Cezanne, Courbet, Daumier, Degas, Gall, Gauguin, Guimard, Lalique, Maillol, Manet, Millet, Monet, Pissarro, Redon, Renoir, Rodin, Seurat, Sisley, Van Gogh, Vuillard as well as many more.

The collection has grown considerably over time thanks to acquisitions and donations.

Many famous paintings are found at the Musée d’Orsay, including:

  • “The starry night over the Rhône” (1888) by Vincent van Gogh
“The starry night over the Rhône” (1888) by Vincent van Gogh

 “The church at Auvers” (1890) also by Vincent van Gogh

 “The church at Auvers” (1890) also by Vincent van Gogh
  • “Le Bal du moulin de la Galette” (commonly called the Danse au moulin de la Galette ) by the French artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1876) is one of Impressionism’s most famous masterpieces.
"le bal du moulin de la Galette", Renoir
  • “Le déjeuner sur l’herbe” (The Luncheon on the Grass), originally called “Le bain” (The Bath)”, by Edouard Manet (1862/1863)
(The Luncheon on the Grass),
  • “The Painter’s Studio” by Gustave Courbet (1855)
"The Painter's Studio” by Gustave Courbet (1855)
  • “The Card Players” by Paul Cézanne (1890)
“The Card Players” by Paul Cézanne (1890)

Some good reasons to visit the Musée d’Orsay

  • First and foremost, the Musée d’Orsay contains the largest collection of impressionist art (480 paintings) and post-impressionist art (1,100 paintings) in the world.

There are 2 reasons why the Musée d’Orsay only exhibits works from 1848 to 1914:

         To begin with, it was a very short but extremely productive period which marked a real turning point in the history of art. It was a period that generated a large number of works in painting, sculpture, the decorative arts and photography which, in turn, gave birth to many artistic movements, including Impressionism, Academic Art, Pointillism, Symbolism, Fauvism, and Primitivism.

         The second reason was quite simply that the two main Parisian museums at the time, the Louvre and the Musée National d’Art Moderne covered a large period of the history of art in Western Europe, from the Middle Ages up to 1848 in the case of the Louvre, and from 1905 to modern day in the case of the Centre Pompidou. Neither of these museums had any room for the works from this ‘forgotten’ period. 

And so, theMusée d’Orsay was a way to bridge the gap between these two museums.

  • The Musée d’Orsay also has some great views of Paris. On the second floor behind the big clock, there’s an excellent view of the Seine flowing gently by.
Musee d'Orsay Clock
  •  On the top floor, from the balcony, there’s a splendid view not only of the Seine, but also the Louvre and the Opera Garnier on the opposite side of the river and of course many of the city’s iconic bridges. On a clear day, you can even see the Hill of Montmartrecrowned by the Basilica of the Sacred Heart.
view from the Musee d'Orsay