Discover the Orsay Museum's History | From a Train Station to an Impeccable Art Hub

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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.

The Site of Orsay Museum Centuries Ago

Orsay Museum History

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.

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.

A Former Train Station

Orsay Museum History

When Paris hosted the World Fair of 1900, a new railway station named Gare d’Orsay was constructed where the Palais d’Orsay once stood. The Orleans railway company that owned the property sought the help of three architects with the creation of a design. They finally chose the design of French architect Victor Alexandre Frederic Laloux from Tours, who also worked on the Basilica of St. Martin. Gare d’Orsay railway station was constructed in neoclassical style and was completed in record time. The building was very modern at that time, a stone facade was designed to hide metal and glass frames, and blend the building with the Paris skyline. It had modern amenities like lifts, escalators, luggage ramps, and sixteen underground railway tracks. Upon inauguration, Gare d’Orsay had become the world's first electrified urban terminal railway station. In 1939, the railway station halted operation after technological advancement made trains bigger and faster, unable to operate at the Gare d'Orsay.

Role in World War II & Movie Sets

Orsay Museum history

When World War II broke out, the defunct Gare d’Orsay railway station was used as a mailing center. 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 got occupied by a theatre company, followed by an auctioneer group. In 1973, the railway station was finally closed.

The Early Stages of the Orsay Museum

Orsay Museum History

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. 

Out of six proposals, the architect firm called the ACT group won the bid to redesign the station into a museum. The plan centered around the great hall of the railway station and didn't alter the original design of the building. They have also retained the huge clock from the railway station. The three-floor Orsay Museum was inaugurated by French President Francois Mitterrand in December 1986.


Orsay Museum history

The art collection in Orsay Museum came primarily from three French museums. Authorities moved some of the art pieces in the National Museum of Modern Art to Pompidou Centre in the 1980s and kept them as inventories. The Impressionist artworks at Jeu de Paume arts center were overcrowded and looking for a new home. Meanwhile, Louvre, France's prestigious museum that houses Mona Lisa, lacked exhibition space to include new paintings. Louvre restricted artworks on display to annual art exhibitions known as Salon.

The inventory from these three museums went to the Orsay Museum. The museum focused on collecting art pieces from the 19th and 20th centuries, and later expanded its range to decorative arts, architecture, and photographs.

The Grand Opening of Orsay Museum in 1986

Orsay Museum history

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Frequently Asked Questions About the Orsay Museum’s History

Q. Where is the Orsay Museum?

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

Q. When did the Orsay Museum open?

A. Orsay Museum was inaugurated in 1986.

Q. Who built the Orsay Museum?

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

Q. Was the Orsay Museum a train station before?

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

Q. Why did the Gare d’Orsay station shut down?

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

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

A. 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.

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

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

Q. Was the Orsay Museum building used as a film set?

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

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

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

Q. Can I visit the Orsay Museum?

A. 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.

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