From Station to the Renovated Musée d'Orsay

“The station is superb and resembles a Palace of Fine Arts" – Edouard Detaille, 1900

Bords de la Seine, Exposition Universelle de 1900, Paris, Banks of the Seine, 1900 Universal Exhibition, Paris Aristotype, 1900, From the collection of: Musée d’Orsay, Paris
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In 1900 Paris hosted its fifth Universal Exhibition.  

Gare d'Orsay, coupe transversale (1898) by Gare d'Orsay, cross sectionMusée d’Orsay, Paris


The architect Victor Laloux was commissioned to design a new railway station, complete with a luxury hotel, on the left bank of the Seine. 

Located near the centre of Paris, this terminus serving the south-west of France would bring visitors close to the main Exhibition sites. 

Derniers débris de la cour des Comptes (1898) by The remains of the Cour des ComptesMusée d’Orsay, Paris

The Paris-Orléans Railway Company had acquired the site of the former Cour des Comptes, left in ruins after being burnt down during the Paris Commune in 1871.

Teams of workers worked continuously, 300 by day and 80 at night, to complete the extension of the lines from the Gare d'Austerlitz and finish the building.

Construction de la façade de la gare d'Orsay sur le quai, Building the facade of the Gare d'Orsay on the Seine embankment, 9 octobre 1899, From the collection of: Musée d’Orsay, Paris
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Because of the station’s proximity to the Louvre and the Tuileries, the metal structure of the station was completely concealed by an exterior envelope of limestone in order to preserve the architectural harmony.

Carte postale : vue de la nouvelle gare et du Palais de la Légion d'Honneur, Postcard: view of the new station and the Palais de la Légion d'Honneur, Vers 1900, From the collection of: Musée d’Orsay, Paris
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The building work, begun in the spring of 1898, was quickly completed. The Orsay station and its hotel were inaugurated on 14 July 1900.

Vue générale de la gare d'Orsay en activité (Vers 1905) by General view of the Gare d'Orsay in operationMusée d’Orsay, Paris

For the painter Edouard Detaille, the station was "superb and resembles a Palace of Fine Arts". Victor Laloux wanted to create “more comfortable and more luxurious spaces” than were found in traditional stations. 

Because the trains serving the station were electrified, and therefore did not emit steam and smoke, the architect was able to enclose the whole space with a glass roof. This provided a hall to welcome passengers, and allowed the architect more freedom in the decoration.

Intérieur de la gare d'Orsay (Vers 1900) by Interior of the Gare d'OrsayMusée d’Orsay, Paris

This was the first station designed for electrically powered trains. The locomotives were nicknamed “salt cellars” because of their shape. 

In addition, the Orsay station had the benefit of all the latest technical innovations: ramps and lifts 

for luggage, elevators for passengers, etc....

Trains de banlieue en gare d'Orsay (Vers 1970) by Suburban trains at the Gare d'OrsayMusée d’Orsay, Paris

But in spite of its modernity, the Orsay station was soon rendered obsolete by developments in the railways. Its platforms were too short for the new, longer electric trains. 

After 1939, it served only the suburbs. 

Conférence du général de Gaulle dans la salle des fêtes de l'hôtel d'Orsay, General de Gaulle holding a press conference in the ballroom of the Hôtel d'Orsay, 1958, From the collection of: Musée d’Orsay, Paris
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Nevertheless the station was subsequently used for a wide variety of purposes and events: a reception centre for repatriated prisoners and deportees in 1945, the location chosen by General de Gaulle in 1958 to announce his return to politics, a film set for Orson Wells and Bernardo Bertolucci in the 1960s, etc.

Intérieur de la gare d'Orsay désaffectée, Interior of the disused Gare d'Orsay, Entre 1974 et 1980, From the collection of: Musée d’Orsay, Paris
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But what could be done with this empty shell? There were plans to replace the station with offices for the Caisse des Dépôts or an Air France administrative centre … there was no shortage of ideas for ridding the landscape of this undesirable building. 

Projet Guillaume Gillet et René Coulon pour la construction d'un hôtel à l'emplacement de la gare (1961) by Design by Guillaume Gillet and René Coulon for the construction of a hotel on the site of the stationMusée d’Orsay, Paris

In the end, because of the prestigious nature of the site, the plan to build an international hotel won the day. The triumphant modernism of the Glorious Thirty (the years 1946 -1975) seemed to have gained recognition: the watchword at that time was build rather than renovate.

But just after permission to demolish had been granted, there was a dramatic turn of events: in 1971, the Ministry of Public Works, Transport and Housing refused planning permission, stating that the design was unsuitable for the location "because of its size and its height"

Le président de la république Valery Giscard d'Estaing devant la maquette de l'un des projet pour le futur musée d'Orsay (Vers 1978) by The President of the Republic, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, in front of a model of one of the designs for the future Musée d'OrsayMusée d’Orsay, Paris

Between May 1968 and the first oil crisis, architectural sensitivities and policies had moved on. The debate provoked by the destruction of Les Halles, and the lukewarm response to the new Montparnasse station made any similar project problematic. The station and its hotel, closed in 1973, remained.

The idea to transform the station into a museum was floated in the early 1970s. The building was urgently put on the Supplementary Inventory of Historic Monuments in 1973 and finally listed in 1978, the same year that a competition was organised to design the new museum. 

Chapiteau de la compagnie théâtrale Renaud-Barrault installé sous la verrière de la gare d'Orsay entre 1974 et 1980 (1979) by Marquee of the Renaud-Barrault theatre company installed under the glass roof of the Gare d'Orsay between 1974 and 1980Musée d’Orsay, Paris

Now saved, in the 1970s the station took on the first of its cultural roles. It temporarily housed the Drouot-Rive Gauche auction house…

…as well as the Renaud/Barrault theatre company, complete with marquee.

Projet A.C.T. Architecture (Renaud Bardon, Pierre Colboc, Jean-Paul Philippon). Coupe perspective générale (Octobre 1979) by Design by A.C.T. Architecture (Renaud Bardon, Pierre Colboc, Jean-Paul Philippon). General section perspectiveMusée d’Orsay, Paris

At the end of the competition, a team of three young architects from A.C.T. Architecture (Pierre Colboc, Renaud Bardon and Jean-Paul Philippon) were entrusted with the task of transforming the former station into a museum.

Aménagement intérieur du musée d'Orsay, coupe transversale (1982) by Interior layout of the Musée d'Orsay, cross sectionMusée d’Orsay, Paris

A second consultation launched in 1980 appointed the famous Italian architect and interior designer Gae Aulenti to convert the interior. It was she who designed the two towers at the end of the central aisle, a strong feature, able to impose its presence in the immense volume of the nave.

La nef du musée d'Orsay en chantier (Vers 1984) by Building works in the Nave of the Musée d'OrsayMusée d’Orsay, Paris

This was a groundbreaking project: the first time an industrial building had been restored to accommodate a major museum. The decor was restored to its former glory, and adapted to meet new requirements: for example the ceiling rosettes in the arched bays were restored to their original state but housed air-conditioning vents and devices to reduce sound reverberation. 

The works lasted several years before the Musée d'Orsay was inaugurated on the 1 December 1986 by the President of the Republic, François Mitterrand. Its director at that time was Françoise Cachin.

La galerie impressionniste avant l'inauguration du musée d'Orsay, The Impressionist Gallery before the inauguration of the Musée d’Orsay, 1986, From the collection of: Musée d’Orsay, Paris
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The museum exhibits were arranged on three principal levels, according to broad themes and artistic techniques. Thus, the Impressionist paintings were displayed together in a gallery that stretched the entire length of the 5th floor on the Seine side. 

One of the museum’s innovations was to bring together all the artworks from a very short, but extremely productive period (1848-1914). Painting, sculpture, architecture, decorative arts and photography were displayed side by side. This presentation drew the visitor’s attention to previously discredited artists and to Academic artists. 

La galerie impressionniste du musée d'Orsay en cours de rénovation, Renovating the Impressionist Gallery of the Musée d'Orsay, 2011, From the collection of: Musée d’Orsay, Paris
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Between 2009 and 2011, on the initiative of Guy Cogeval, director of the public establishment since 2008, the Musée d'Orsay launched the museographic renovation of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist galleries, and of the four floors devoted to the decorative arts in the "Amont Pavillon".

Musée d'Orsay, première salle de la galerie impressionniste (2013) by Musée d'Orsay, first room of the Impressionist GalleryMusée d’Orsay, Paris

Colour appeared on the walls, and new lighting was installed.

These improvements brought out all the subtle shades in the paintings.

Musée d'Orsay, accrochage salle Van gogh, Musée d'Orsay, display in the Van Gogh room, 2012, From the collection of: Musée d’Orsay, Paris
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The visitor circuits were also reviewed at this time, and the entire Post-Impressionist section, from Van Gogh and Gauguin to the Nabis, was brought together in the refurbished galleries on the median level.

Musée d'Orsay, accrochage dans les salles "Luxembourg", Musée d'Orsay, display in the "Luxembourg" rooms, 2013, From the collection of: Musée d’Orsay, Paris
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In 2013, the rooms on either side of the central aisle were renovated, and named the "Luxembourg" rooms. This refers to the former Musée du Luxembourg, from where the Musée d'Orsay collections originated.

Every year, several million visitors enter the Musée d'Orsay. They are greeted by the magnificent decor of this former station that came so close to being destroyed; a prelude to an exhilarating journey through one of the richest periods in the history of art.

Credits: Story

Directeur de la publication—Guy Cogeval,  président de l'établissement public des musées d'Orsay et de l'Orangerie

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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