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History of Musée d'Orsay in 60 Seconds

Picture of Paul McQueen
Updated: 9 May 2018
When French painter Édouard Detaille laid eyes on the Gare d’Orsay in 1900, he exclaimed, ‘The station is superb and looks like a Palais des Beaux-Arts.’ Eighty-six years later, the Left-Bank landmark fulfilled its apparent destiny because as one of Paris’ big three, the Musée d’Orsay houses Impressionist and post-Impressionist art from 1848 to 1914.

To welcome the world to its fifth Exposition Universelle, or World’s Fair, Paris needed a new centrally-located station. In 1898, Victor Laloux was chosen by the Orleans Railroad Company as the architect given his success with the Hôtel de Ville in Tours.

Work began in 1898 and the inauguration took place on Bastille Day, or July 14, 1900. Laloux successfully merged the building with its illustrious neighbors by masking the modern-metallic structures with a Beaux-Arts façade of finely-cut stone from Charente and Poitou. Inside, the barrel-vaulted arrivals hall was one of 19th-century Paris’ finest rooms.

Until 1939, the Gare d’Orsay was the main terminus for all southwestern services, but lengthening trains then relegated it to the suburban network. During the Second World War, it was used for communicating with prisoners of war who later returned home through the station.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the station featured in numerous films—notably Orson Welles’ adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial (1962). After going out of service on January 1, 1973, it continued its shift towards the cultural world by housing the Renaud-Barrault Theatre Company in 1974 and the Hôtel Drouot Auction House from 1976 to 1980.

When the possibility of demolition arose, the Minister of Cultural Affairs, Jacques Duhamel, intervened and had it provisionally listed as a historic monument in 1973 (full status was awarded five years later). The idea of converting it into a museum was floated in 1975—this being the typical-Parisian response to architecture in peril—and the final decision was made on October 20, 1977.

Nearly a decade later, the Musée d’Orsay—designed by ACT Architecture—was inaugurated by President François Mitterrand on December 1, 1986. Since then, it has provided a link between the Louvre and the Centre Pompidou all while housing unmissable masterpieces by the likes of Monet, Cézanne, and Gauguin.

The highlights of the museum’s 30-odd-year history include the happenings of Luxembourg’s Deborah de Robertis. In May 2014 and January 2016, she posed semi-nude in front of two of the museum’s masterpieces, Gustave Courbet’s Origin of the World (1866) and Édouard Manet’s Olympia (1865).

Looking forward, the Musée d’Orsay will likely welcome its 100,000,000th visitor in the final months of 2017.