Musée d’Orsay one of France’s top museums
Musée d’Orsay is one of my favourite museums in all of France.
A sense of awe swept over me even as I approached. The building itself, a converted railway station, is massive, stylish and stunning. The collection it holds is even more so.
The art, mostly French pieces dating between 1848 and 1915, includes sculptures, furniture, photography and, of course, paintings. Many of the paintings help to make up the world’s largest collection of impressionist and post-impressionist masterpieces.
We’re talking the greats of the world with works by Monet (86 paintings), Manet (34 paintings), Degas (43 paintings), Renoir (81 paintings), Cézanne (56 paintings), Gauguin (24 paintings), Van Gogh (24 paintings), Toulouse-Lautrec (18 paintings) and many more.
I was talking to my friend, Tony, about Musée d’Orsay a few days ago. He had a little grumble and said it had taken him 30 years to get over the creation of the museum.
Prior to the opening of Musée d’Orsay in 1986, many of the paintings were displayed in the Galerie National du Jeu de Paume, which Tony preferred. That building, which we didn’t have a chance to visit, is now a national gallery for contemporary art. In Napoleon’s day, it housed the courts for a special royal tennis game called jeu de paume.
But back to Musée d’Orsay.
I’ll start with the building itself because it’s the first thing that overwhelms you. It started life as a railway station, Gare d’Orsay, which is obvious from the moment you enter. The station opened in time for the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris, and served as the the terminus for the railways of south-western France until 1939.
By then, it was decided that its platforms were too short to accommodate the longer trains of the day. So it became a suburban station and centre for mail. It was also used as a movie set, temporary auction house and a haven for a theatre company.
It was supposed to be demolished in the 1970s, but the then minster for culture opposed plans for a hotel to be built in its site. Luckily for us, by 1978 it was listed as a Historic Monument.
At last it was decided to convert it to a gallery that would bridge the gap between the Louvre’s older art and the National Museum for Modern Art in the George Pompidou Centre (which I also love and will write about soon).
A team of three architects won the contract to design the new museum’s floor space and an Italian architect was chosen to design the internal arrangement, decoration, furniture and fittings. Once the building was ready, it took six months to install the thousands of works and the museum opened in December 1986.
In my opinion, the design is a brilliant success. There’s plenty of light and space, and I never got the crowded feeling that pervades the Louvre.
Musée d’Orsay holds some of the biggest names in art masterpieces in the world. I’m not going to share a whole bunch of them (names or photos) here because you can go online and look up most of them. And what you find online will most likely have more information and a better resolution.
But here’s a short but stunning run-down.
Van Gogh’s Self Portrait and Starry Night over the Rhone
Gauguin’s Tahitian Women on the Beach
Cézanne’s The Card Players
Renoir’s Bal au moulin de la Galette, Montmartre
Monet’s Blue Water Lilies
Seurat’s The Circus
Whistler’s Whistler’s Mother
The furniture and sculptures are incredible too, but I have to confess that I didn’t recognise all the names, in fact, not many of the names. One I was surprised to see was Sarah Bernhardt. I had completely forgotten that, in addition to be a famed actress, she studied sculpting and produced some lovely works.
I was also pleased to see a bronze Pénélope by Émile-Antoine Bourdelle. I know her well because she also ‘lives’ in the Australian National Gallery’s sculpture garden in Canberra.
The photographs have missed out too. Oh, I saw them, but I didn’t photograph them. Photos under glass with museum lights all around mean reflection, reflection, reflection.
Interestingly, Libby told me on the telephone today that the museum’s current exhibitions include one on the prostitutes of France/Paris and another, which showcases photographs done by females.
A few last words
All I can say is that if you ever get to Paris, put the Musée d’Orsay at the top of your must-see list. And give yourself plenty of time—maybe a whole day (there’s a café so you won’t starve).
I’m not the only one who thinks the place is worth it. Libby, the daughter who lives in Paris and who has a degree in art history and curatorship, has bought an annual membership for only one museum—this one. And a brief check of TripAdvisor shows that it is the number 1 attraction in Paris. I have to agree.