Le Musée d’Orsay
The Musée d’Orsay is a national museum that was inaugurated in 1986. It is located in the 7th arrondissement of Paris, along the left bank of the Seine, in the former Orsay station built by Victor Laloux from 1898 to 1900, and converted into a museum following a decision of the President of the Republic Valéry Giscard d’Estaing.
This museum focuses on Western Art from 1848 to 1914, sheltering paintings, sculptures, decorative arts, graphic arts, photography, architecture… the list goes on. It is one of Europe’s largest museums. It has the world’s largest impressionist and post-impressionist collection with 1100 paintings out of a total of 3450.
You will in the Orsay Museum be able to find many western art masterpieces such as Edouard Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, Gustave Courbet’s Un Enterrement à Ornans, Degas’s La Petite Danseuse de quatorze ans or even Gustave Caillebotte’s Les Rabotteurs de Parquet.
But, the musée d’Orsay does not only have a great permanent collection. Temporary exhibitions usually focus on a certain artist, a certain movement, an art reseller or even an art history question or theme. At the moment, the temporary exhibition is a retrospective study of Cézanne’s portraits.
Even if the station had a central role in Parisian transport infrastructures between 1900 and 1939, its activity started to fade in the 1940’s and 1960’s. During the Second World War, it was used as a center for package shipments to French war prisoners, and then as a shelter for Liberation prisoners. It was used as the setting for many movies such as the Orson Welles’ adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial.
Its western esplanade was renovated in 1985, and many statues such as the Statues des 6 continents group, initially set up on the Trocadéro for the 1878 Universal Exhibition. The Musée d’Orsay opened its doors to the public the 9th of December 1986.
Interesting historical anecdote: during the night of the 6th of October 2007, during the famous Nuit Blanche (“sleepless night”, series of celebrations organized in the capital throughout a specific night), few individuals penetrated the museum and damaged the extremely famous Le Pont d’Argenteuil, painted in 1874 by Claude Monet. The painting has now been restored.
The Musée d’Orsay Collections
The origins of the Orsay paintings collection can be found in the Luxembourg Museum, created in 1818 by Louis the 18th to shelter artworks from living artists. The system of this museum was that, 10 years after the artist’s death, famous paintings would be transferred to the Louvres and others would be given to French institutions and administrations. However, this museum only showed official taste paintings and was closed to new researches such as the works of Courbet or Millet, that hold an important role in the Orsay Museum; that is not afraid to show late 19th century avant-garde.
You might also be interested in: Skip the Line : Small-Group Orsay Museum Tour
The Orsay Museum focuses on western art of the second half of the 19th century, and strives to show the interconnections that were established in the 1850’s between sculpture, architecture, painting and decorative arts. However, when the Musée d’Orsay was created in the 1970’s, the French museums had too little material, most of the decorations ordered by the French State and administrations had remained in administrative buildings and many were destroyed in the war of 1870 and the Paris Commune of 1871. The decorative arts collection was first assembled from works conserved in the former Luxembourg museum before being regrouped with other works owned by the French State.
The 19th century was a period of exceptional production of sculptures. The political and economic elite used it to decorate institutions and households to display a social status or to display the ideals and values of the time for eternity. The demand for sculpture was very high, and as sculpture is a very costly art form, it depends almost entirely on demand. From 1945 onwards, the art world shifts away from sculptures that are judged “too official” and many artworks disappear in hidden reserves for decades. Only a few legendary figures such as Rodin escape this tragic fate. In the 1970’s the idea to transform the Orsay Station into a museum brought a new opportunity to showcase the sculptures of the second half of the 19th century.
In the 1970’s, when the project of transforming the Orsay station into a museum is initiated, no Beaux-Arts museum in France has any section dedicated to photography. However, very quickly, it was decided that this invention of the 19th era would have an important role in the museum. In 1978, a large photography fund for the Musée d’Orsay is created. This collection had to be assembled from scratch as, unlike painting and sculpture, no museum had gathered any photography collection.
Even if these are the main collections of the Musée d’Orsay, do not forget to take a look at the graphic arts and the architecture collections, which are, just like other collections, filled with wonders. The Musée d’Orsay is the quintessential Parisian experience as it focuses on the second part of the 19th century, a period that shaped the Paris that we know today.