The Musée d’Orsay is located on the left bank of the Seine, housed in the former Gare d’Orsay, a railway station built between 1898 and 1900.
“The station is superb and looks like a Palais des beaux-arts…” wrote the painter Edouard Detaille in 1900. Eighty-six years later, his prophecy was fulfilled.
The Orsay Museum was once a train station
The railway station was built for the Universal Exhibition of 1900. Effectively the building is itself the first “work of art” in the Musée d’Orsay. It was designed by architect Victor Laloux and building work took two years. The station’s exterior is clad in white limestone to match the buildings of this prestigious neighbourhood and nearby Louvre palace.
It had been a busy station from it’s opening until 1939 when the short platforms no longer suited the longer trains that were being made. It was also used for filming (notably Orson Welles’ production of The Trial) and as a meeting place. General de Gaulle held a press conference announcing his return to power here.
The station was considered for destruction to make way for a modern hotel complex. Fortunately that decision was halted when the station achieved Historical Monument status. The French Government decided instead to transform the station into a museum.
The architects chosen for the job were ACT group including Jean-Paul Philippon who was also responsible for the conversion of an art deco swimming pool in Roubaix into a stunning art gallery known as La Piscine. The design for the museum incorporated the best of the station’s features – the great hall, the glass awning and the station clock. It opened in 1986.
What to see at the Musee d’Orsay
The museum has one of the most stunning collections of art, ranging from the late 19th century to the early 20th century. The museum started forming its collection in 1986 from works of art from three different museums – the Louvre, Musee du Jeu de Paume, and the former National Museum of Modern Art.
The collection showcases a range of disciplines including painting, sculpture, decorative arts. There’s also a fabulous furniture collectio, plus photography, graphic arts, and architecture. The permanent collection includes works by diverse artists including Monet, Renoir, Cezanne, Degas, Gaugin, Sisley, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec.
It’s quite a big museum and to see it all would take pretty much a whole day. There are two restaurants in the museum so you could actually spend hours there without leaving. It’s a well-known and much loved museum so it can get crowded. Go at lunch time and late night Thursday when it’s a bit quieter.
You can take a guided tour of the museum to discover major artworks, impressionism and major artistic movements (available in English). The museum also holds Tuesday lunch time concerts from October to June. And there are evening concerts too (details on website).
The museum puts on world class temporary exhibitions throughout the year.
Visit the Musee d’Orsay
Closed on Mondays. Late night opening Thursdays
Website for Musée d’Orsay