Musée d’Orsay: From Train Station to World-Class Art Museum
The Workshops in France team loves a good transformation story, so how’s this?
When you are asked about Art Museums in Paris, most of us immediately think of the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay, but neither of these was originally built to house art. Far from it! Between them, they have an impressive list of previous purposes, including a fortress, a hospital, a royal palace, a train station, a film set, and after World War II, one was used as a reception center for repatriated prisoners and deportees.
How a Train Station Became a World-Class Museum.
Yes, the Musée d’Orsay used to be a train station!
Combining the convenience of being both a train station and a hotel, it was originally built for the Universal Exhibition of 1900 to enable visitors to get close to the main exhibition areas. The enormous building only took 1.5 years to complete and was inaugurated on July 14th, 1900, Bastille Day. Built on a metal frame with a beautifully ornate Beaux Art limestone façade, the station boasted elevators for both passengers and their luggage. It gained an instant reputation for its level of luxury and comfort that set it apart from the usual train stations of that time.
La Gare d’Orsay was the first train station designed for electric trains, so it didn’t need to have an open ceiling to vent the smoke and steam. Instead, it was spanned by an enormous, vaulted glass ceiling.
Nymphes and Satyr, Bouguereau, 1873
Train technology was advancing, however, and soon the carriages were too long for the platforms to accommodate, so the station’s use declined until the late 1930s when it only served trains to the Paris suburbs. It was eventually abandoned as a train station and transformed into the art museum we know today in 1986.
Too Much Art – How is that even possible?
When the museum was first built, it helped alleviate an enviable problem in Paris – there was so much art but no space to display it! The new museum quickly filled up with collections dating from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century, gathered from the National Museum of Modern Art, the Jeu de Paume (another repurposed space that used to be a very elegant tennis court), and the Louvre.
By the time that the Musée d’Orsay was completed the Louvre was so overcrowded with art masterpieces that it had to put some of them in storage from where they were rarely brought out to be on display.
Photo from NPR. Degas’ Dancer at the Musée D’Orsay on display with French Impressionism.
Impressive Collections and the Impressionists
The Musée d’Orsay houses an impressive collection of mainly French art, including paintings, sculptures, photography, and the decorative arts and is a must-see for anyone visiting Paris. There are also collections of graphic art, mainly made up of drawings from 1820-1870 and a fascinating collection of architectural drawings, plans and scale models.
Instead of seeing train platforms on the ground floor, you’ll now be able to walk through the sculpture gallery and gallery spaces for paintings and the decorative arts.
The Musée d’Orsay now boasts one of the most impressive collections of art in the world, including many of the most well-known Impressionist works by Manet, Renoir, Vincent van Gogh, Courbet and sculpture by Degas and Rodin. The Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works are displayed on the entire length of the fifth floor in an amazing exploration of the era.
Art in the Museum
Art: Statue de Liberté. Self Portrait, Vincent Van Gogh. The Houses of Parliament, Sunset, 1904, Claude Monet (The painting which gave Impressionism its name.) Children in front of Manet’s Déjeuner Sur L’Herbe.
Ongoing Exhibitions at the d’Orsay
Every year the Musée d’Orsay also shows several temporary exhibitions in rotation that focus on one aspect of art, or current trends.
Having such a vast space also allows the Museum to also have an in-house restoration and conservation department, where paintings and frames are cleaned, and protected for future generations to enjoy.
The Museum that started out as a modern marvel of transport and comfort is now a hub of a different kind and is proud of its past, celebrates the present and protects its collections for the future.
The Musée d’Orsay Clocks
Some of the most iconic images of the d’Orsay are of its clocks. At least on social media where the most popular images from inside the museum are not of any particular piece of art, but of the massive clock faces. The museum has three enormous clocks. Two of them are identical with their glass and heavy steel hands and numerals. They are situated high up at either end of the north-facing wall of the museum. They are the clock ‘windows’ overlooking the River Seine and from here there is a terrific view of Paris.
The third clock is inside, facing into the station itself so people would always know when their train was arriving. Built at a time when not everyone owned a pocket watch, the clocks provided an important focal point. This indoor clock is a masterpiece, the most beautiful with its ornate gilded setting, and it still chimes every hour.
After absorbing all the art you should stop off for some refreshment. The Museum boasts a café and two restaurants, and perhaps the most popular one is the Café Campana on the fifth floor. Not only does it have a delightful menu, but you can also see one of these famous clocks up close and gaze out onto Paris through the clock-face.
It’s perfect for a backlit selfie.
View of the beautiful dining room ceiling which was once part of the station’s hotel.
Blogger: Shirley Hambrick
Shirley Hambrick is an award-winning stained-glass artist and painter. She has lived in Scotland, Spain and the USA. Shirley is part of the Workshops in France team and attended over 20 of these trips. She writes about her adventures.
Being Scottish, she was trained at Edinburgh College of Art and Design. Shirley teaches in the West Virginia area and you can some of her beautiful work here.
Your Artist Getaway Awaits
Josh Clare, Saints at Devil’s Gate, The Mormon Trail. An American Painter's Spiritual Journey. A Leap of Faith. Josh Clare took an enormous leap of faith when he became involved in an extensive project with two other artist friends. This particular project spanned a...
Why is it that John Peter Russell is known as Australia’s lost Impressionist? Despite being a gifted painter who landed in Paris at the center of the Impressionist movement today he remains virtually unknown. He was well connected with friends like Monet, Van Gogh, Rodin and more
If you asked an artist “What would be your dream painting trip look like?”, their answer would inevitably include a myriad of details that perfectly describe the landscape and colors of Provence. Every season in Provence is an artist’s dream, but September ranks high as one of our favorite times to travel to the South of France.