Attracting over 3,500,000 visitors in 2012, the Musée d’Orsay is rivaled only by the nearby Louvre Museum in terms of popularity. And for good reason: boasting unforgettable paintings, sculptures, drawings and other works by the likes of Claude Monet, Camille Pissaro, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Vincent Van Gogh, and Edgar Dégas, the Orsay is perhaps the world’s most beloved spot for Impressionist and Expressionist art. The permanent collection reaches even further back than the late nineteenth-century, however, holding a rich store of works from the Neoclassical and Romantic schools, too. To understand how the Orsay became such a behemoth in modern art, a short history lesson:
We have a tendency to think of creative architectural conversions as a trait of our late modern world (think factories being turned into lofts in NYC or San Francisco), but the Orsay proves that such radical rethinking of spaces was already happening at the turn of the century. The museum occupies the site of the former train Gare d’Orsay train station, built for the Universal Exposition of 1900. A shining symbol of modernism, the station was designed by some of the premiere architects of the period, who combined elegant metallic structures with a stone facade for a decidedly eclectic look. One remnant of the old station that is particularly beloved by visitors is the highly decorative clock, shown below.
From Station to Modern Arts Mammoth
By 1939, advances in rail technology made the tracks serving the Gare d’Orsay obsolete, leading to its closure. This, luckily, opened up an opportunity to save the ornate building and turn it into an even more important destination: a place to highlight artistic achievements from the period 1848-1914. Of course, this wouldn’t happen until decades later, in the 1970s.
The Louvre museum, situated just over the Seine River on the right bank, was bloated with works from countless centuries past, and lacked a sense of coherence with its too-sprawling collections. The government planned to create a museum that would house works from 1848, creating a chronological line in the sand for “modern” arts. The Musee d’Orsay was thus inaugurated in 1986 by then-President François Mitterrand, opening to the public the following year.
Make sure to take time during your visit to explore the permanent and temporary collections at this gem of a museum, admiring works such as Edgar Degas’ “Ballet”, seen below– this artist, working primarily in pastels that are vulnerable to light damage, has his most important works displayed in dimly lit rooms which only bring out the soft glow and vibrancy of his dancers even more.
1 Rue de la Legion d’Honneur, 75007
Métro: Solferino (Line 12)
RER: Musée d’Orsay (Line C)
Bus: Lines 24, 63, 68, 69, 73, 83, 84, or 94