The Musee d’Orsay began life as the Gare d’Orsay, a railroad station and hotel designed by Victor Laloux on the Left Bank of the Seine, commissioned to coincide with the 1900 Exposition Universelle.
It functioned as the terminus for travel between Paris and Southwest France, with sixteen underground tracks. But by 1939, the station was no longer suitable for the longer, modern trains, the platforms being too short, and was relegated to local use only. During World War II it became a postal center, where packages were shipped off to prisoners of war. The hotel closed in 1973.
There was talk of demolition and Parisians were already incensed over the tearing down of the historic market, Les Halles. In 1977, the decision was made by President Valery Giscard d’Estaing to create the museum and on December 1, 1986, President Francois Mitterand inaugurated the Musee d’Orsay. In 2006, over three million visitors passed through its doors.
The museum boasts the largest collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art in the world, spanning the years between 1848 and 1914. But in the middle of the 19th Century, Impressionism was a hard sell. The art market was still controlled by the scions of the Musee du Luxembourg, founded by Louis XVIII in 1818 in order to exhibit the works of living artists whose paintings depicted either historical events, were landscapes, or portraits conforming to an accepted style. The deal was that ten years after an exhibiting artist’s death, if his work was deemed worthy, the art would go to the Louvre. If it did not fit the Salon’s criteria, it was offered elsewhere. No living Impressionist artists were being invited to display their canvases. It was not until the 1880s that the museum finally began to accept the end of the age of Realism, and embrace the experimental work of a group of painters which included Renoir, Manet, Degas, Cezanne and Monet.
The Impressionists had arrived and were shaking up the art world with their new way of “seeing”. Jump ahead to the year 1977. The Jeu de Paume has outgrown its capacity to house the Paris collection of Impressionist Art and has just been bequeathed a new home, the old railway station on the Left Bank.
The transformation from railroad terminus to museum was a masterful one and does indeed provide an ingenious, elegant setting for viewing such pieces as, Van Gogh’s Starry Night Over The Rhone and Renoir’s Bal au Moulin de la Galette.
The periods of Post-Impressionism and Art Nouveau are also represented, which include objects of art, sculpture and photographs.
When hunger strikes, or just the need to sit and take tea, there are three dining options: the Restaurant Musee d’Orsay, located in a glorious period room once part of the hotel, the Café des Hauteurs, situated behind the giant clock, looking out over the city, and The Mezzanine, a self-service café another level up.
Keep in mind that like the Musee du Louvre, this is a wildly popular museum. Maximize your enjoyment of the space by choosing the right time to visit. I can’t wait to go back.
1 Rue de Bellechasse, 62 Rue de Lille
Hours: Daily except Monday, 9:30am-6pm
Thursday until 9:45pm
Accepts Paris Museum Pass