Pondering on Paris (as I so frequently do) always leads to a yearning for a stroll through the hallowed halls of the Musée d’Orsay – one of my favourite art museums. So why is it so special?
The Musée d’Orsay began life as a railway station – the Gare d’Orsay – and who but the French would convert a disused station and hotel into a world-class art museum?
Completed in 1900, the beautiful Beaux-Arts Gare d’Orsay served as the terminus for trains between Paris and south-west France and incorporated a hotel. By 1939 the platforms were too short for the modern, longer trains and it became a station for suburban trains then a mailing centre, sending packages to prisoners of war during World War II. Still later it was
used as a film set, most notably for Orson Welles’ adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial.
The hotel eventually closed in 1973 and the entire site was threatened with destruction and replacement with a modern hotel complex. However after considerable opposition to the plan, the building was listed as an historic monument, reviving interest in nineteenth-century architecture. In 1977 the French government approved its conversion into an art museum, beginning a nine-year process culminating in the opening of the Musée d’Orsay in 1986.
For me, the Musée d’Orsay is quite simply stunning. On the
left bank of the Seine and a five-minute stroll from the Tuileries gardens the
building pays homage both to its history and to its relatively recent re-incarnation. The station’s architect Victor Laloux built stone facades in the Beaux-Arts style to blend with the architecture of the nearby Louvre and Tuileries Gardens while hiding the metal structure of the station; two giant clocks make an impressive feature, adding to the sense of
Inside, the glass roof of the central hall allows light to flood the area which is the main artery of the space. From here, galleries are installed on either side of the nave, which is overlooked by terraces on the second level, also with exhibition galleries. The top level continues into the highest elevations of the former hotel. Outstanding views of the Parisian rooftops can be seen from the upper galleries and the terrace.
Conceived as a museum to bridge the gap between the works of the Louvre and the modern art museum the Pompidou Centre, the outstanding collection at the Orsay spans the years 1848-1914, with the Impressionists drawing the crowds. The museum also features works by, among others, the Pointillists, Symbolists and the Late Romantics. In keeping with its stated aim to be a
multi-disciplinary museum, the Orsay also houses galleries dedicated to
sculpture, decorative arts, photography, graphic arts and architecture.
The top floor has undergone extensive renovation to improve exhibition areas, better display the artworks and improve the flow of visitors through the most popular areas.
The Musée d’Orsay ticks all my passionate-about-art boxes, both for its collection and the imaginative adaption of an industrial building. If you’re off to Paris and can fit in a visit, do let me know what you think!