History of the Orsay Museum History of the Orsay Museum

History of the Orsay Museum

Situated in the 7th Arrondissement of Paris, the Musée d’Orsay has its own special history including transitioning from train station to depot to museum. Today, it is considered one of the most visited attractions in the capital.

History of the museum

Built on the ashes of the original Palais d'Orsay, the Musée d'Orsay was first a station before becoming a museum (The original Palace was built in 1810 before being set on fire in 1871 during the Paris Commune.) It was the great French architect of the period, Victor Laloux, and two other fellow architects who were given the job of creating the designs for the terminus of the Compagnie du Chemin de fer d'Orleans. The station’s objective was to welcome visitors from home and abroad for the 1900 Universal Exhibition. The difficulty that arose in implementing the allocated design was how to fit the new station onto its designated site. The neighbourhood was an extremely elegant one and the station was to face the Louvre and the Jardin des Tuileries. Therefore integrating such a large scale railway station into such an up market district required a lot of skill. Victor Laloux therefore decided to hide the existing exterior metallic structures of the station by building an elegant stone front. He also chose to modernise the interior design in the form of implementing lifts for heavy luggage, separate lifts for passengers and the innovative idea of platforms below ground. There was also a good reception service on the ground floor. Until 1939, the station acted not only as a place of transit for passengers but also as a location for associations and political parties to hold meeting and banquets.

During the Second World War, the Orsay station became a dispatch centre for the sending of parcels to prisoners. Later, during the Liberation, it then became a reception centre for prisoners. It was only in 1977 that the then President of the Republic Valéry Giscard d'Estaing made the decision to build a museum on the site. Although the official decision to build the Musée d'Orsay was made in 1977, it took nine years for President François Mitterrand to finally open it.

The Orsay collection

A prominent centre for Western art, the museum is home to an impressive collection of paintings, photographs, sculptures, and decorative arts dating between the mid-19th century to the early 20th century. It holds many of the most famous impressionist works, including Edouard Manet's Lunch on the Grass, Gustave Courbet’s The Origin of the World, Vincent Van Gogh's Self-Portrait, and Renoir’s Bal du moulin de la Galette. Degas' The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer and the great works of Auguste Rodin, the father of modern sculpture, are also among the many sculptures available for visitors to view.

In order to enhance its collections, the Musée d'Orsay also hosts numerous temporary exhibitions that rotate throughout the year. During these exhibitions, the visitor can delve into the mind of the painter, sculptor, photographer or graphic designer in question. They also highlight current artistic trends or other periods dealing with the history of art.

A very versatile venue, the museum also has an auditorium with various artistic events including concerts, shows for young people and an array of cinematographic screenings covering all genres.

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