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Discover the Orsay Museum's history | From a train station to an impeccable art hub

Orsay Museum, known in French as Musée d’Orsay, is an important art museum in Paris. Opened in 1986, Orsay Museum houses some of the most impeccable impressionist masterpieces in the world by artists like Claude Monet and Vincent van Gogh. Originally built as a train station in 1900, Orsay Museum has an eventful history. Read on to know all about the events that made Orsay Museum what it is today.

Orsay Museum timeline

  • 1615: After the death of Marguerite de Valois, the property opposite the Louvre and Tuileries Gardens is sold, and mansions begin to be constructed on the site.
  • 1708: The construction of a quay near the River Seine is sanctioned but delayed until a century later during the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte.
  • 1810-1838: The site serves as cavalry barracks and later becomes the grand Palace, Palais d’Orsay, housing the Court of Accounts and the State Council.
  • 1871: Palais d’Orsay is burnt down during the Paris Commune.
  • 1900: Gare d’Orsay railway station is constructed on the site for the World Fair of 1900, designed by architect Victor Alexandre Frederic Laloux.
  • 1939: Gare d’Orsay halts operation due to technological advancements in trains.
  • World War II: Gare d’Orsay is used as a mailing center during the war.
  • 1962: Orson Welles' movie "The Trial" is shot at Gare d’Orsay.
  • 1973: Gare d’Orsay is closed.
  • 1975: Proposal to convert the railway station into a museum is accepted.
  • 1977: Gare d’Orsay is declared a historical building.
  • 1986: Orsay Museum is officially inaugurated by French President Francois Mitterrand. The museum houses artworks from the 19th and 20th centuries.
  • 1980s: Art collection from three French museums (National Museum of Modern Art, Jeu de Paume, and Louvre) is moved to Orsay Museum, expanding its range to decorative arts, architecture, and photographs.

History of Orsay Museum explained

Site of Orsay Museum - Orsay Museum , Louvre Museum

The site of Orsay Museum centuries ago

Orsay Museum is at the heart of Paris, opposite the iconic Louvre Museum and Tuileries Gardens. Earlier, it was part of a garden owned by the Monarch. In 1615, after the death of Marguerite de Valois, wife of King Henry IV, the property was sold to private parties and the construction of mansions began on this site.

Orsay Museum Land as a Palace

The Orsay Museum land as a palace

In 1708, the port near River Seine was sanctioned to be built into a quay. The plan, however, got delayed until a century later, under the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte. Between 1810 to 1838, the site served as cavalry barracks and later a grand palace. The Palace, Palais d’Orsay, housed the Court of Accounts and the State Council. During the Paris Commune of 1871, a violent mob burnt down Palais d’Orsay and the neighborhood.

Orsay Museum History
Orsay Museum history

Role in World War II & movie sets

When World War II broke out, the defunct Gare d’Orsay railway station was used as a mailing centre. The mailing service was primarily concentrated on prisoners of war. After the war, Gare d’Orsay was briefly used as a movie set. Orson Welles' directorial The Trial, based on the novel by Franz Kafka, was shot in the railway station in 1962. Soon, Gare d'Orsay was occupied by a theatre company, followed by an auctioneer group. In 1973, the railway station was finally closed.

Orsay Museum History

The early stages of the Orsay Museum

When Gare d’Orsay shut down in 1973, the initial idea was to demolish the entire complex and build a new luxury hotel. However, the railway station survived demolition after the public outcry that it should be declared a historical monument. In 1975, the Musee de France organization moved a proposal to convert the railway station into a museum, and it was accepted in 1977. The following year, it was declared a historical building. 

The Orsay as a Museum
Orsay Museum - Orsay Museum's art collection
Orsay Museum history

Architecture of Orsay Museum

  • The exterior of the Musée d'Orsay is a testament to Beaux-Arts architecture, characterized by an elegant façade adorned with intricate sculptures and decorative elements.
  • The grand arches and symmetrical layout contribute to the museum's opulent aesthetic, showcasing the artistic sensibilities of the Beaux-Arts era.
  • Gae Aulenti's renovation expertly integrates Beaux-Arts heritage with modern elements, preserving original features while introducing contemporary design to enhance the museum's overall experience.
  • A striking addition, the vast glass-and-steel roof floods the interior with natural light, creating a bright and airy ambiance that contrasts with the museum's historic exterior.
  • The interior design masterfully balances grandeur with functionality. The central nave, once a bustling train station concourse, now serves as a spacious grand hall for art displays.
  • Original steel trusses, exposed and painted gold, add an industrial chic touch to the museum's interior, highlighting the adaptive reuse of the former railway station.



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All your questions about Orsay Museum’s history answered

Where is the Orsay Museum?

Orsay Museum or Musée d’Orsay is an art museum in Paris, France.

When did the Orsay Museum open?

Orsay Museum was inaugurated in 1986.

Who built the Orsay Museum?

The architect of the Orsay Museum building was French architect Victor Alexandre Frederic Laloux.

Was the Orsay Museum a train station before?

Yes, Orsay Museum is housed in the former railway station of Gare d’Orsay.

Why did the Gare d’Orsay station shut down?

Gare d’Orsay railway station shut down after its tracks became too small for advanced trains.

Which other museums contributed to the Orsay Museum’s initial collection?

Three French museums have contributed to the collection of Orsay Museum. They are the National Museum of Modern Art, at Jeu de Paume Arts Center, and the Louvre in Paris.

What was the Orsay Museum building used for during World War II?

During World War II, the Orsay Museum building was used briefly as a mailing center for the prisoners of war.

Was the Orsay Museum building used as a film set?

Yes, the Orsay Museum was used as a film set for the film The Trial in 1962 by Director Orson Welles. 

Is the clock at the Orsay Museum building part of the old train station?

Yes, the architects have retained the clock from the old Gare d’Orsay railway station in the Orsay Museum.

Can I visit the Orsay Museum?

Yes, the Orsay Museum has one of the best art collections in the world. It's a must-visit destination to understand impressionism in art. You can enjoy the works of masters like Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet, and other French artists.