Facing the Louvre and the exquisite Tuileries gardens right across the river; the Orsay Museum is housed inside a former railway station… a Parisian masterpiece filled with interesting lore. The intriguing décor, giant clocks and interesting history behind the museum is every bit as dazzling as the world famous collection of Impressionist art stored here.
The Musee d Orsay is as popular as the Louvre and considerably less intimidating to navigate. This sensational showcase of European art done between mid-19th to early 20th century showcases photography, sculpture, artefacts, pencil sketches too and offers some of the finest views of the city from its upper floors.
The erstwhile Gare d’ Orsay railway station was built as a transport hub between the years 1898 to 1900 and it was artistically designed by 3 leading architects of those times; Victor Laloux, Lucien Magne and Emile Benard. Very few people know that the beautiful train station was built upon the ashes of the French monarchy luxurious residence Palais d Orsay (burnt down during the revolution).
Come 1939 and the stylish short platforms of the station had become unsuitable for many long tailed trains and so the station converted itself into a suburban junction and then a mail centre and a film set (Orson Welle’s film ‘The Trial’ was shot here). The elegant stone front of the station, multiple lifts inside and lots of underground space allowed the place to be used as a political meets venue too.
By 1970 the station had little use and the government decided to demolish it. Thankfully the plans of demolition was stopped by Jacques Duhamel (the minister for cultural affairs) and the beautiful building earned a place in the supplementary section of the Historic Monuments list. Then the Museum of France Directorate put forward a proposal to build a beautiful museum that will bridge the gap between Louvre and National Museum of modern art!
More specifically, the creation of a museum that showcased the important western world artwork of the time period 1848 to 1914 was the need of the hour. Georges Pompidou centre accepted the proposal and 3 dashing young architects (Colboc Pierre, Bardon Renaud and Phillippon Jean Paul) were put in charge of creating 20,000 sq. meters of gorgeous new floor-space across 4 floors.
The leading Italian architect Gae Aulenti created the interiors, decoration, fittings and furniture. In 1986 July the Musee D Orsay received its first exhibit and more than 2000 exhibits/ paintings etc. were added in the next 6 months. Finally the 1986 French President Francois Mitterand inaugurated it in December.
Structure, Design and Major Exhibits
Incidentally the Orsay museum is huge with 574 metres length and 75 metres width. Its central hall is 138 m long and 40 m wide….this is the biggest artery of the museum and the huge glass awning is the entrance. As you walk inside you can easily make out that the museum is remodelled from a rail station.
More than 12,000 tonnes of metal and 35,000 sq. m of glass was used to make the museum. The massive amount of glass allows a lot of natural light inside and the museum saves a monumental expense on electricity. The massive glass vaulted ceiling and windows along with its gorgeous clocks (2 outside and 1 inside) are as much an attraction as the artwork inside.
The clock inside is from the original railway station; it’s super ornamental and rivals the artwork around it. The interiors of the Museum have been much appreciated now but at the time of its creation by Gae Aulenti; they were the subject of controversy. Art critics likened the interiors to Egyptian tombs and mausoleums
The collections of the museum came from 3 major places. The Louvre museum gave away pieces of artwork done by artists who were born after 1820. The Musee du Jeu de Paume gave away all its non-Impressionism artwork as post 1947 it only showcased impressionism. The National Museum of Modern art (it moved to Cener Georges Pompidou in 1976) gave away all artwork of artists who were born before 1870
The major artistic movements showcased in the museum are Acadenism, Impressionism, Symbolism, Realism, Art Nouveau and Post Impressionism. Art collectors and curators say that the Musee d’Orsay holds the biggest collection of Impressionist paintings (480) and post-Impressionist artwork (more than 1100).
Usually all tours in the museum begin on the ground floor and art work from mid-19th century is displayed here. While the first few rooms show landscapes and “proper” classical scenes ….you will slowly notice a shift in the content of the paintings in the last few rooms. These have subjects like peasants and prostitutes and everyday “lowly” events; this is the general theme of rebellion chosen by the impressionists. Some of the best work on the ground floor are:
- The Source by Ingres
- Ploughing in Nevers by Rosa Bonheur
- Olympia by Manet
The 5th floor is the most remarkable section, so head off here without further delay…this is the hub of Impressionists. There are 2 stunning overlooks on this floor; one left of the escalator and one ahead of it….stare at Montmartre and Basilica Sacre Coeur to your heart’s content…
The rooms on this floor have a burst of paintings that were done in violent fits of emotions; paintings that make a strong impression on the mind (this is where impressionism name was born). These are paintings done in a rush of sleepless nights instead of dedicated weeks in a studio and most of the best ones here are done by Claude Monet (called the father of Impressionism)….there are more than 23 Monets in this floor.
Poppies by Claude Monet shows a fantastic play of light and shadow on water. Also check out his “La Gare Saint Lazare”.
Bal du Moulin de la Galette/ Dance at le Moulin by Pierre Auguste Renoir ….this is considered to be one of the finest impressionist paintings ever.
The fifth floor also has the famous Orsay Clock towers…the clocks are so huge that they function as windows….they face the Tuileries and the Seine river. You can actually exit and walk around the top deck on the 5th floor to enjoy nice views of Paris and her best offerings including the Tuileries, Ferris wheel, Sacre Couer and Louvre.
Incidentally photographing the view through the clock windows is one of the few photos you can take here as taking pictures of the artwork inside is prohibited. You can however photograph the statues on the sides of the museum…there are huge ones on the north side that can be captured nicely through the windows.
If you only have a couple of hours reserved for the Musee d’Orsay then it’s difficult to cover more than 3 floors in it. The next best floor wise destination is the second floor which is almost exclusively dedicated to the brilliant Vincent Van Gogh.
Do check out Starry Night over the Rhone by Vincent Van Gogh….this was painted at the bank of the Rhone river at night time. Also don’t miss the Church at Auvers by Van Gogh.
Some other famous paintings scattered across all the floors of the Orsay museum are:
- The Card Players by Paul Cezzane is an intriguing Post-impressionist painting that’s considered to be one of the best in this category.
- Whistlers Mother by James Mc Neill is an oil painting that was used as a movie plot element in a Rowan Atkinson film.
- Luncheon on the Grass by Edouard Manet is a stunningly large oil on canvas and one of the finest paintings in the museum.
- The Painters Studio by Gustave Courbet is a large oil canvas that’s said to be the summary of the artist’s life.
- The Gleaners by Millet shows peasant women scourging for leftover grains and this was once ridiculed for its sympathetic portrayal of the poor.
- Apples and Oranges by Cezzane is a marvellous example of the magic created on canvas even by mundane fruits.
Photography, Sculpture And Other Collections
The fact that the Orsay museum holds one of the largest photography collections in the world is often overlooked. Around 45,000 photos are displayed here and some of them are as old as 1839. Browse through the eclectic collection of sculpture, furniture and period artwork including architectural drawings and sketches.
There are more than 1200 pieces of sculpture in the museum but the cream of the lot were created by Auguste Rodin (called the father of modern sculpture). Most of this collection was sourced from Musee d Luxembourg. Look out for Rodin’s “Thinker” and “Gates of Hell”.
Look out for the square right next to the museum. There are 6 allegorical bronze sculptures there produced for Exposition Universelle created by leading sculptors. The pieces are South America (Aime Millet), Asia (Falguiere), Oceania (Oceania), Europe (Alexandre), North America (Ernest Eugene Hiolle) and Africa (Eugene Delaplanche). Notice that all the figures representing continents are accompanied by relevant symbols of those continents. These statues were created for the Trocadero Palace in 1878 for the Universal Exhibition. By 1963 the statues were abandoned and found in a public dump in 1963….thankfully the Orsay museum acquired the 6 statues.
The Musee bookstore is open from Tuesday to Sunday from 9.30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Browse through the large collection of books, postcards, gifts, stationary items. Shop for Van Gogh print inscribed scarves and replicas of artwork found inside the museum. The bookshop is at the entrance of the museum.
Most of Musee d’Orsay is wheelchair friendly and special accommodations are made for people with reduced mobility on prior intimation. There are separate parking slots near the museum (rue Solferino, rue de Villersexel, rue de L’Universite etc.) for disabled visitors.
Incidentally avoid Tuesdays for visiting the Musee d’Orsay…this is when Louvre right across the river is closed so naturally all museum lovers congregate here.
Open Hours, Tours & Tickets
The Musee d’Orsay is open from 9.00 a.m. to 6.00 p.m. apart from Thursday when the museum is open till 9.45 p.m. It is closed on Mondays, January 1st and December 25th.
The full ticket price for Musee d’Orsay is 14 Euros. If you buy online you can pre-book tickets but if you buy from the museum ticket office only same day tickets are available. If there is an exhibition going on …tickets will be valid for a specific day and hour. For bookings for 10 or more people you need to call +33 (0) 1 45 49 47 03 or email [email protected] for a reduced rate.
There is normally a long snake like line that will take you at least an hour to conquer. Book online if you want quick entry.
You can buy combined tickets for Musee Orsay-Musee Rodin and Musee Orsay Musee Orangerie for 21 Euros and 18 Euros respectively. Tickets are free everywhere every first Sunday from November to March so expect massive crowds. Tickets are also free for disabled visitors (disability certificate is required) and members of EU who are between 18 to 25 years of age. You can also get free entry if you hold a Paris museum pass or a Carte Blanche card or are a member of the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
You can take an hour long guided tour of the museum offered by museum guides for 6 euros more. The tour bookings are done (subject to availability) from the museum ticket office from 9.30 a.m. onwards. Tours usually begin from the Individual Visitors Information Desk at specified time. Audio guides are available for 5 euros…visitors listen to a recorded description of the exhibits and sections while they do a self-guided exploration of the museum.
You can buy entry ticket or book a guided tour of Orsay Museum online (along with skip the line option) through this Viator booking site.
Don’t throw away your ticket after you have used it as you can use it to enjoy discounted ticket prices on entry to Gustave Moreau National Museum, Palais Garnier and Jean Jacques museum. Discounts are valid for 1 week after the Musee Orsay visit only.
A number of concerts and beautiful musical dance shows are conducted. If you buy a ticket to the show you will also get free entry to the exhibitions and permanent collection of the museum for that day. These usually cost 15 euros or more. You need to keep an eye on the events section in the Musee d’Orsay official website.
Sometimes special exhibitions are conducted in Musee d Orsay and gaining access to them will require a few extra euros.
There are cloakrooms available and they are free to use but it’s not advisable to store large suitcases or valuables there. Visitors have to pass through a compulsory security check in order to enter and that’s unavoidable.
Location & How To Reach
The nearest metro station to the museum is Solferino that’s reachable by metro line 12. The Musee d’Orsay station is right near the museum and is also reachable by (RER C).
Bus numbers 24, 63, 68, 69, 73, 83, 84 and 94 stop at convenient stops around the Orsay museum. If you are arriving via car then park your vehicle in the parking at du carrousel du Louvre and at Bac Montalembert.
Once you are done visiting the museum you can enjoy a walk along the lovely Seine; the stretch from the Royal Bridge (next to Orsay museum) to Alma Bridge (next to Eiffel) is a grand entertainment space. Kid’s playgrounds, floating gardens, flower beds and a profusion of cafes will greet you. Take advantage of the self-service beanbags, tepees and sunbeds to relax or enjoy the 2.3 km stretch to walk. For enjoying this stretch you need to commence the walk from the left after turning your back to Orsay museum.
Another option is to walk briskly to the right of the museum till you arrive at Quai Voltaire that’s the home of Parisian antique dealers. There are galleries teaming with antiques, sculptures and objects of artistic value. If you keep on walking then you will reach Quai Malaquai that’s filled with bouquinistes (dark green boxy bookstores) which sell vintage books at throwaway prices. As any true blue Parisian will tell you the 3 km bookstore stretch is a beloved tradition of the city.
Since most tourists buy a combined ticket to the Orsay and Orangerie (both are managed by Ministry of Communication and Culture) visiting the Orangerie is a logical step. Take a walk down the bank from the museum and cross the bridge “passerelle Leopold Sedar Senghor” on the left and you will arrive at the Tuileries gardens that contains the Orangerie museum.
The gorgeous Orsay museum has 3 nice places to wine and dine so you don’t really have to scout around elsewhere for restaurants.
While you are checking out the giant Orsay clocks you will come across one that’s part of the Campana Café on the 5th floor of the museum. This is an elegant, vintage and pricey café that sells awesome salads, hot chocolates and pies and savouries amongst other stuff. Go there for the seasonal artistic menu and the ambience (if price isn’t an issue). Call +33 1 45 49 47 03 for booking a table here
The first floor of the museum has the former restaurant of Hotel d’Orsay which is every bit as magnificent as ever (think jewel toned chairs and chandeliers) and in fact the gilded ceiling here is listed as a historic monument. The chef Yann Landureau offers traditional French food …drop in anytime between 11.45 a.m. to 5.30 p.m. and 7.00 pm to 9.30 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday. The food is delicious and expensive but the setting makes it worth it.
You will find another café called “café del’ours” at the far end of the Nave at the foot of the Seine and this one serves coffee and chilled beverages along with a selection of sandwiches, pastries and ice creams. This place is open from 9.30 a.m. to 7.45 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday.
Musée d’Orsay, 62, rue de Lille
Phone: +33 (0)1 40 49 48 14, Official Website