Le Musée d'Orsay
The rue de Lille was once the central lane of the garden belonging to Henri IV's famous queen, Marguerite de Valois. On her death in 1615, the property was sold by lots and private mansions were built on them, while on the banks of la Seine a port known as la Grenouillère, "frog bed," served as a resting place for lumber barges and other cargo. The construction of le Quai d'Orsay began in 1708 near le Pont Royal, and was completed a century later under Napoléon I's Empire. The aristocratic aura of the neighbourhood was already well established at the end of the XVIII ème siecle, when the Hôtel de Salm (today the Musée de la Légion d'honneur) was built, between 1782 and 1788.
During the XIX ème siecle, two buildings stood upon the site of the future Orsay station: the Cavalry barracks and the Palais d'Orsay, built between 1810 and 1838 successively by Jean-Charles Bonnard and Jacques Lacornée. Although the Palais had originally been planned for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it eventually housed the Cour des Comptes (Court of Accounts) and the Conseil d'Etat (State Council). During the violent upheaval known as the Paris Commune in 1871, the entire neighborhood was burned down. For thirty years, the ruins of the Palais d'Orsay served as reminders of the horrors of civil war.
On the eve of the 1900 World Fair, the French government granted the land to the Orleans railroad company, who, disadvantaged by the remote location of the Gare d'Austerlitz, planned to build a more central terminus station on the site of the ruined Palais d'Orsay. In 1897, the company consulted three architects: Lucien Magne, Emile Bénard and Victor Laloux. The project was a challenging one due to its proximity to le Louvre et le Palais de la Légion d'honneur: the new station needed to integrate perfectly into its elegant surroundings. Victor Laloux, who had just completed the Hôtel de Ville in Tours, was chosen as winner of the competition in 1898.
The station and hôtel, built within two years, were inaugurated for the World Fair on le 14 juillet 1900, Bastille Day, France's equivalent of le 4 juillet aux États-Unis. Laloux chose to mask the modern metallic structures with the façade of the hôtel, which, built in the academic style using finely cut stone from the regions of Charente and Poitou, successfully blended in with its noble neighbours. Inside, all the modern techniques were used: ramps and lifts for luggage, elevators for passengers, sixteen underground railtracks, reception services on the ground floor, and electric traction. The open porch and lobby continued into the great hall which was 32 metres high, 40 metres wide and 138 metres long.
From 1900 to 1939, the Gare d'Orsay was the head of the southwestern French railroad network. The hôtel received numerous travellers in addition to welcoming associations and political parties for their banquets and meetings. However, after 1939, the station was to serve only the suburbs, as its platforms had become too short for the modern, longer trains that appeared with the progressive electrification of the railroads.
The Gare d'Orsay then successively served different purposes : it was used as a mailing center for sending packages to prisoners of war during le deuxième Guerre Mondial, then those same prisoners were welcomed there on their returning home after the Liberation. It was then used as a set for several films, such as Kafka's "The Trial" adapted by Orson Welles, and as a haven for the Renaud-Barrault Theatre Company and for auctioneers, while the Hôtel Drouot was being rebuilt.
The hotel closed its doors on le 1 janvier 1973, not without having played a historic role: General de Gaulle held the press conference announcing his return to power in its ballroom, la Salle des Fêtes.
In 1975, la Direction des Musées de France decided to build a new musée in the train station, in which all of the arts from the second half of the XIX ème siecle would be represented. The station, threatened with destruction and replacement by a large modern hôtel complex, benefitted instead from the revival of interest in XIX ème siecle architecture and was listed on the Supplementary Inventory of Historical Monuments on le 8 mars 1973. The official decision to build le Musée d'Orsay was made during the interministerial council of le 20 octobre 1977, on Président Valéry Giscard d'Estaing's initiative. The building was classified a Historical Monument in 1978 and a civil commission was created to oversee the construction and organization of the museum. Le Président de la Republique, François Mitterrand, inaugurated the new musée on le 1 décembre 1986, and it opened to the public on le 9 décembre.
"The station is superb and looks like a Palais des beaux-arts..." wrote the painter Edouard Detaille in 1900. Eighty-six years later, his prophecy was fulfilled.
The transformation of the station into a museum was accomplished by ACT architecture group, made up of messieurs Bardon, Colboc et Philippon. Their project was chosen in 1979 out of six proposals, and would respect Laloux's architecture while nonetheless reinterpreting it according to its new function. The project highlighted the great hall, using it as the main artery of the visit, and transformed the magnificent glass awning into the museum's entrance.
The museum has been organized on three levels: on the ground floor, galleries are distributed on either side of the central nave, which is overlooked by the terraces of the median level, these in turn opening up into additional exhibition galleries. The top floor is installed above the lobby, which covers the length of the Quai, and continues into the highest elevations of the former hôtel, over the rue de la Légion d'Honneur.
The museum's specific exhibition spaces and different facilities are distributed throughout the three levels: the pavilion Amont, the glass walkway of the former station's western pinion, the museum restaurant, le Café des Hauteurs (installed in the dining hall of the former hotel), the bookshop and the auditorium.
The interior design of the museum was conceived by a team of scenographers and architects directed by Gae Aulenti. With Italo Rota, Piero Castiglioni (lighting consultant) and Richard Peduzzi (architectural consultant), Gae Aulenti succeeded in creating a unified presentation within a large diversity of volumes, in particular by using a homogeneous stone covering for the floors and walls. This installation brings the large space of the former station down to size.
Both natural and artificial light is used in order to create the variations in intensity needed for the different works of art presented.
Le musée d'Orsay has been a success. Between 1994 and 2003, the museum enjoyed an average of 2,239,050 visitors per year. In 2004, the number rose to 2,590,316 visitors.
Because the museum specializes in the art of the second half of the XIX ème siecle, it is a "must-see" venue for anyone who appreciates the art of les Impressionistes.
Artists whose works are on display in the Musée d'Orsay include:
Gustave Courbet: L'Origine du monde
Antonio de La Gandara
James McNeill Whistler
Édouard Manet: Olympia, The Luncheon on the Grass
Claude Monet Pierre-Auguste Renoir Auguste Rodin
Vincent Van Gogh: Portrait of Dr. Gachet, Starry Night Over the Rhone
Paintings in the Musee D'Orsay