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  • Writer's pictureFrancesca Ramsay, MA

A Brief History of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris

What is the Musée d’Orsay?

The Musée d’Orsay is an art gallery in Paris showcasing some of the most famous painters and sculptors of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Musée d’Orsay

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Musée d’Orsay History

For fans of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, the Musée d’Orsay is a compulsory destination. This national collection is an endless array of masterworks in painting and sculpture from some of Europe’s greatest modern artists, including Monet, Degas, Renoir, Manet, Cézanne, Gaugin and Van Gogh.

Today the works of these artists sit squarely at the centre of the canon of classical art. Yet it’s vital to remember that when the Impressionists first emerged, they were dismissed by the Salon, the official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris, as radical and talentless upstarts. In fact, if it wasn’t for an artist called Gustave Caillebotte, Impressionism might have been lost as a movement altogether. The son of a wealthy businessman, Caillebotte could exploit his private income to devote himself completely to his art. He became an avid collector, supporting many of his artist friends by purchasing their work. His painting The Floor Planers, which hangs in the Musée d’Orsay, is a startlingly realistic depiction of male workers scraping a floor. It was dismissed as vulgar by the establishment and rejected by the 1875 Salon as a subject unworthy of artistic portrayal.

Fortunately for art lovers today, Caillebotte’s fellow artists recognised his talent. He decided to ally himself with the Impressionists. A year later he presented his painting again, and exhibited it at their second exhibition in 1876.

This isn’t the only painting you’ll discover on the museum’s walls which once provoked controversy. Manet’s Olympia, released to the public in 1865, caused great scandal in Parisian society. The work was modelled on Titian’s 16th-century Venus of Urbino. Manet though, had painted no goddess, but rather a Parisian prostitute. She stares out of the painting, unashamed of her nudity, challenging the spectator and the relatively conservative values of her time.

Upon his death in 1894, Caillebotte bequeathed his immense collection of around 60 works of Impressionist art to the French government. His collection included paintings by Degas, Cézanne, Manet and Monet, and was donated with the proviso that the entire group be hung together for the public to appreciate. After lengthy negotiations, the State accepted just 40 of Caillebotte’s collection (those they considered to be less objectionable), which were put on display at the Musée du Luxembourg.

Designed by Victor Laloux in the Beaux-Arts style and completed in 1900, this building was originally constructed as a railway station and hotel, the Gare and Hôtel d’Orsay. To maintain architectural harmony with its surroundings, the building’s exterior was made from traditional limestone. Beneath the façade, the station itself was a modern wonder of metal arches, swooping ramps and structural ingenuity. One of its most striking features, the glass roof in the main section (in Paris always look up), was only possible due to the recent invention of electric trains, which produced neither steam nor smoke.

Yet the station didn’t last long. By 1939, the compact nature of the platforms meant that the Gare d’Orsay couldn’t accommodate the new, longer trains used for mainline services, and in the following decades the building was used for a great range of purposes: during the Second World War, part of the building became a mailing centre; in the 1950s and ‘60s it was used as a backdrop for a number of films, including Orson Welles’s version of Franz Kafka’s The Trial. The station opened as a museum in 1986, housing works of art created between 1848 (the year the last French monarch was overthrown), and 1914.

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