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History of Musee d'Orsay

1 - The idea of Orsay

Welcome to the Seine river banks, in the 18th century. Around where the Musée d’Orsay stands today, the district had been a wasteland, with a few scattered houses. But trends are always unexpected! The area suddenly became one of the favorite residential areas of the Parisian aristocracy, housing splendid private mansions like the Hotel de Salm, now the Museum of the Legion of Honor.

painting showing the Building the Hotel de Salm between 1782 and 1787
Building the Hotel de Salm between 1782 and 1787

Why Musee D'Orsay is called Musee d'Orsay ?

The name originated with Charles Boucher d’Orsay, the provost of the merchants of Paris.

Portrait de Charles Boucher d'Orsay Carnavalet Museum of History of Paris
Portrait de Charles Boucher d'Orsay Carnavalet Museum of History of Paris

The area where Musee d'Orsay stands today, had remained at risk for fires, and so in 1708, Charles Boucher d’Orsay decided to construct the embankment, or ‘quai in French, which still bears his name today.

Jongkind Quai d'Orsay MET NYC
Jongkind - Quai d'Orsay - 1854 from MET NYC

It would take many years to complete, and was finished during the Empire period.

Napoleon's sculpture by Barye in Musee D'Orsay
Napoleon's sculpture by Barye in Musee D'Orsay

By 1810, Napoleon 1st decided that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs needed a new building, completed in 1838 during the reign of Louis-Philippe. The first foundations, which would much later become the musée d’Orsay, were laid.

Palace of Orsay
Palace of Orsay

Fire, destruction... and again, life.

On May 1871, the Commune uprising in Paris wreaked havoc in the city, and a fire devastated the Palais d’Orsay (as well as the Hôtel de Ville – Paris’ City hall, along with all the archives of the city of Paris –  the Tuileries Palace and part of the new Louvre built by Hector Lefuel). The ruins of the Palais d’Orsay were left as they were for thirty years! 

Destruction of Orsay Palace
Destruction of Orsay Palace

But out of destruction comes new life... in whatever was left of the structure of the Palais, spores from exotic plants cultivated in nearby greenhouses developed into an extraordinary wild garden, which botanists came to study. 


2 - A 20th-century Train station is born

1900. The turn of one of the most exciting centuries in Paris’s modern history. With the Exposition Universelle coming, the Orleans Railway Company, pointing out how far its terminus in Austerlitz was from the center, bought the plot where the ruins of the Palais d’Orsay stood. Three highly regarded architects were appointed to compete for the project: Emile Bénard, Victor Laloux, and Lucien Magne. Three schemes were presented: one for a station without a hotel, one for a station with a subsidiary hotel, one for a station with a major hotel on the corner of the river embankment and the rue de Bellechasse. Victor Laloux’s project that was selected on April 21st 1898. He had designed a monumental all-stone station, with a 370-bedroom hotel attached to it. 

The completed building was opened in July 1900. But it also had to be linked to the existing station of Austerlitz, in the East of Paris; 3,650 meters of track were delivered, and the work was completed in two years. 

The station started operating in May 1900 and was officially opened on the 14th of July. 

Any sign of the metal structure was concealed behind stone, and the large metal gable was topped by the head of Mercury, the god of travelers. Almost all of the 370 bedrooms were equipped with bathrooms, an unusual level of comfort for the time. The style was a blend of Louis XIV, Louis XV and Louis XVI. 

The three large sculptures featured on the front of the building symbolized the destination cities of Toulouse, Bordeaux, and Nantes.



The many lives of Orsay 

Over forty years – apart from January 1910 when Orsay was under more than 5 meters of water because of the great Paris Flood – the Orsay station, as the Paris terminus for the southwest of France, witnessed the departure of nearly 200 trains a day. But in 1929, the French Railways decided to give it up. In November 1939, main-line traffic was halted once and for all, and only the service running to the Paris suburbs remained: the most modern station of its day became a great empty abandoned shell.


During the war, The building of Musee d'Orsay became a center for dispatching parcels to prisoners of war, a reception center for prisoners and deportees. 


Later, the main concourse of the building inspired films directors (Orson Welles filmed The Trial based on Kafka’s novel in 1962). 

From 1973 to 1890, a theater company settle down at the back of its huge nave. And from 1974 to 1980, the famous Company of Registered Auctioneers took up temporary residence there.


Orsay’s final destination: becoming a museum 

In 1979, albeit threatened by a motion to demolish – which had been granted – the station was put on the list of Historic Monuments, and therefore protected. 

The Directorate of the Museums of France then suggested using it to set up a museum intended to display all forms of artistic expression dating from the second half of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th.

For the first time, a missing link between the Louvre and the collections of the Centre Georges Pompidou was established.  


A team of three architects, Pierre Colboc, Renaud Bardon, and Jean-Paul Philippon, won the competition for Orsay’s new design as a museum. They wanted to preserve its vast space, and wished to add on either side of the large central aisle, using the domed halls of the former station. At the top, the attic area was redesigned to form a long gallery. The former hotel reception rooms were integrated into the circuit.


The interior design was entrusted to an Italian architect, Gae Aulenti. Its originality was an arrangement of several colors: green for the metal structures, yellow for the plasterwork coffering. Those were reserved for the original architectural materials used by Laloux. Everything that was pink (the Buxy stone and the painted wall coverings), blue, orange and brown was associated with the contemporary architecture.  

A major challenge: how to build a museum?

Orsay’s railway station had taken two years to build. It took almost ten years to design the museum, then carry out the work. 

Among the many technical problems to be resolved were:  weather-tightness, the elimination of the vibrations caused by the running of the nearby Paris suburb train (RER), air-conditioning implementation throughout the huge building, sound and noise regulation... and of course, as in every museum around the planet, a harmonious lighting. 

If you look on up on the walls, the rose motifs in the nave were remade identically, but now they served another purpose; on top of their decorative appearance, they allow sounds to be absorbed thanks to the resonators placed at each corner, while an outlet grid placed at the center provides one of the flow routes for the air conditioning.


By July 1986, the building was finished... but empty. It took another six months to install the 2,000 or so paintings, 600 sculptures, architectural models, and the rooms of craft objects, drawings and photographs. 


Among some of the most incredible – and delicate – moments, was the transport of the 18-tonnes Dance group by Carpeaux from the Louvre to the Musée d’Orsay. This sculpture had been commissioned from the artist in 1863 by the architect Charles Garnier for his new Opera House. When Paris’ polluted air started altering the sculpture, it went to the Louvre in 1964 and a copy took its place at the Opera. 


Finally, the forecourt was set up last, with the arrival of three massive hollow-cast sculptures, still standing today: the Elephant by Fremiet, the Horse by Rouillard, and the Rhinoceros by Jacquemart. All three had been used to decorate the former Palais du Trocadéro. 


December 1st, 1986. On its inauguration, the musée d’Orsay was submitted to widespread and harsh criticism. Its conception as a museum and the architectural approach, but also the scientific choices had sparked intense controversy. 


flore Gurrey Orsay museum

Orsay Today

Since then, the musée d’Orsay has experienced a major renovation. On the top floor, the Impressionists painters are now exhibited in galleries which were entirely redesigned 25 years ago. 


Thanks to this museum, art lovers can start to understand the link between painting, sculpture, decorative arts, architecture, and photography – the whole of the artistic expressions from a very short but very productive period: 1848-1914. This has no equivalence in any other museum of the world.

Guided tours of Musee d'Orsay

The best way to understand and to take in all the history of this amazing building is to take one of our private tours of Musée D'Orsay. We offer many possibilities.

About the Author

Flore Gurrey
Flore Gurrey

Flore Gurrey believes in tailor-made private tour experiences for the people

who travel to Paris. What she loves to do in Paris is to go explore the most recent exhibits and art shows. She joins grouped tours and private guided tours of Paris museums and its quarter, in French and in English.

Meeting with local guides and helping them connect with visitors is her mission today. As a former editor, she always have a special place in her heart for a bit of reading and writing.

Thank you Flore Gurrey for your contribution to our blog.


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