"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.
Great hall inside
© Ian C. Mills
All Rights Reserved
The Gare d'Orsay's transformation into a museum was accomplished by the firm ACT-Architecture composed of Renaud Bardon, Pierre Colboc and Jean-Paul Philippon. Their concept was chosen in 1979 by the president himself, out of the six proposals submitted.
The project's requirements stipulated that the design should respect Laloux's architecture while nonetheless reinterpreting it according to its new function. Their plan highlighted the great hall, using it as the main artery for visitors, and transformed the magnificent art nouveau glass awning into the museum's entrance.
The Musée d'Orsay has been organized into three levels: on the ground floor, galleries are distributed on either side of the central nave, which is overlooked by the terraces of the median level, these in turn opening up into additional exhibition galleries. The top floor is installed above the lobby, which covers the length of the Quai, and continues into the highest elevations of the former hotel, overlooking the rue de la Légion d'Honneur (formerly rue de Bellechasse).
The museum's specific exhibition spaces and different facilities are distributed throughout the three levels: the pavilion Amont, the glass walkway of the former station's western pinion, the museum restaurant (installed in the dining hall of the former hotel), the Café des Hauteurs, the bookshop and the auditorium.
The interior lay-out of the museum was conceived by a team of scenographers directed by the Italian architect and industrial designer, Gae (Gaetana) Aulenti. With Italo Rota, Piero Castiglioni (lighting consultant) and Richard Peduzzi (architectural consultant), Ms. Aulenti succeeded in creating a unified presentation within a large diversity of volumes, in particular by using a homogeneous stone covering for the floors and walls. This installation brings the large space of the former station down to size.
Aulenti's controversial interior design is not without its detractors, however. The Guides du Routard and others have denounced its monolithic features such as the two enormous blockhouses in the back as "pharaonism" and even "mussolinian" in style.
The author Norval White (Guide to the Architecture of Paris) proclaimed, "... the great steles that march down the nave ... have brought cries of 'Mesopotamian revival!' and other sarcasms." Andrew Ayers (The Architecture of Paris) wrote, "The overall effect is of a Vegas Valley-of-the-Kings, extremely ill at ease in its belle-époque setting."
To be fair, it should be noted that other controversial building projects in Paris such as the Eiffel Tower, Pompidou Center, and I.M. Pei's glass pyramid at the Louvre had also inspired protest when they were first introduced. The Musée d'Orsay, like the others, has nevertheless proven immensely popular with the public.
The museum's signpost system was conceived by B. Monguzzi and J. Widmer. As for the lighting, both natural and artificial light is used, in order to create the variations in intensity needed for the different works of art presented. Fortunately, the structure benefits greatly from its original glass canopy measuring 25,000 sq. meters (269,098 sq. ft., or 6.2 acres) in size, offering excellent illumination to the exhibit hall below.
The Musée d'Orsay owns roughly 6,000 works of art (not including photographs), of which about 3,000 are on permanent exhibit at the discretion of its curators. The remainder are in storage, occasionally surfacing in temporary exhibits, or they are made available for loans to other museums.
|Olympia, by Edouard Monet
(Jan. 23, 1832 - Apr. 30, 1883)
Of the total pieces, there are 2,600 paintings (1,500 in storage) and 1,250 sculptures (500 in storage).
There are three floors of exhibits. On the ground floor, you will find Ingres' La Source, Millet's L'Angelus, the Barbizon school, Manet's Olympia, and other works of early impressionism.
Impressionism continues on the upper level, with Renoir's Le Moulin de la Galette, Manet's Déjeuner sur l'herbe, Degas' Racing at Longchamps, Monet's Cathedrals, van Gogh's Self-Portrait, and Whistler's Mother; there are also works by Gauguin and the Pont-Aven school, Toulouse-Lautrec, Pissarro, Cézanne, and Seurat.
Symbolism, naturalism, and art nouveau are represented on the middle level; the international art nouveau exhibit includes fabulous furniture and objets d'art as well as Koloman Moser's Paradise, an enticing design for stained glass.
Besides exhibiting astounding works, the Musée d'Orsay is a great place in which to spend an entire afternoon. Its restaurant and café are quite pleasant, and the bookstore and gift shop have an excellent selection.
1,000-franc bond issued
by the P-O railroad (1935)
The Hall under the Nave
Number of visitors
Some Technical Data
It can be somewhat confusing to a first-time tourist, but the portion of the quai which runs along the Seine River in front of the Musée d'Orsay is now called the Quai Anatole France. The section called Quai d'Orsay does not begin until one passes the Pont de la Concorde roughly a block-and-a-half west of the museum.
There is no public access to the Museum through the doors along the quai. The main entrance is on the right side of the building (as seen from the river), on rue de la Légion d'Honneur across from the Musée de la Légion d'Honneur.
Although the underground train platforms are no longer publicly accessible from within the museum, the tunnel which once served the P.-O. trains is now used by the RER-C (express métro line, run by SNCF), which connects the Musée d'Orsay station to the Gare d'Austerlitz and beyond (eastward); it also runs west and south along the Seine, culminating at Versailles.
About a dozen of the old tracks under the museum were adapted during the 1980s into a maintenance area and garage for the RER-C trains.
You can find the RER-C station entrance on the Quai Anatole France at the intersection with rue de la Légion d'Honneur. The entrance to the Solférino stop of the local métro system (line 12) is about two-and-a-half blocks southwest of the museum; there is no connecting underground passage between that station and the RER-C Musée d'Orsay station.
The Musée d'Orsay is the 7th most popular attraction in Paris, welcoming over 3 million visitors a year. During the prime tourist seasons (late March through October), it is not unusual for the admission line to wrap around the building and snake through the facing square. Average wait times can reach 90 minutes on busy days, for those who have not purchased a ticket or museum pass in advance.
Breeze past the long lines of tourists,
see more with unlimited visits!
By contrast, the Museums and Monuments Card provides priority access, bypassing all the lines. It offers unlimited visits to more than 60 locations in and near Paris including the Musée d'Orsay and the Louvre, which is just across the Seine.
Cards are available with validity periods of 2, 4, or 6 days. Each card, encased in a plastic holder, is accompanied by a list of the participating attractions along with address, phone number, hours of operation, and closest métro station(s). The card has no expiration date, thus one can purchase it well in advance of traveling to Paris, and activate it on any day desired.
For your convenience, Discover France offers these passes online for delivery to your home or office address, before you travel to Paris.
Editing, translation, and portions written by Ian C. Mills © 2000- – All Rights Reserved.
Sources: Musée d'Orsay web site. French version of Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Monuments in Paris web site. The Architecture of Paris, by Andrew Ayers (chapter 7.1, "Musée d'Orsay"), ed. Axel Menges (2004). The Guide to the Architecture of Paris, by Norval White, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York (1992; out-of-print).
Recommended reading: Vie et histoire des arrondissements de Paris, ed. Hervas, 1985-1988. Le piéton de Paris, by Léon-Paul Fargue, ed. Gallimard (1997). Rive Gauche, une expérience unique, by Cl. Evrard, ed. Albin (1991). Guides du Routard, ed. Hachette (1998). Les 20 arrondissments de Paris, by Martine Constans, Renaissance du Livre (1998). Orsay museum in Parijs, by H. Witteveen, ed. Spectrum.
Images: Musée d'Orsay, viewed from across the Seine, August 2007, © Nicolas Sanchez (photographer), from Wikimedia Commons, reproduced here under the GNU Free Documentation License. View of the Palais d'Orsay and Légion d'Honneur, by Philippe Benoist (1813 - 1905), from Galerie Saxonia, Munich. Ruins of the Cour des Comptes, after Paris Commune fire, from The Siege and Commune of Paris (collection) at Northwestern University Library. Clock portal on front of Musée d'Orsay, © Ian Britton (photographer), from FreeFoto.com. Great hall inside Musée d'Orsay, April 2005, © Ian C. Mills (photographer), Discover France. Olympia, by Edouard Monet, Musée d'Orsay, from Joconde Art Database. All Rights Reserved.