It is housed in a grand railway station – Gare d’Orsay – constructed by three architects: Lucien Magne, Émile Bénard and Victor Laloux for the 1900 World Fair.
The hall measures 140 meters (459 feet) long, 40 meters (131 feet) wide and 32 meters (105 feet) high. The whole building is 175 meters (574 feet) long and 75 meters (246 wide). A total of 12,000 tons of metal was used in its construction, which is more than the amount used to build the Eiffel Tower.
It was considered a masterpiece of industrial architecture.
But soon the platforms had become too short for the now much longer trains and as early as 1939, the gare d’Orsay was out of use as a train station. Over time it was used as a parking lot, as a shooting stand, as a theatre location and even as a reception center for prisoners of war.
In 1970, permission was granted to demolish the station but Jacques Duhamel, Minister for Cultural Affairs, ruled against plans to build a new hotel in its stead.
The station was put on the supplementary list of Historic Monuments and finally listed in 1978.
In 1977 the French Government decided to convert the station to a museum. The suggestion to turn the station into a museum came from the Directorate of the Museums of France. The idea was to build a museum that would bridge the gap between the Louvre and the National Museum of Modern Art at the Georges Pompidou Centre.
In 1981, the Italian architect, Gae Aulenti was chosen to design the interior including the internal
arrangement, decoration, furniture and fittings of the museum.
Finally in July 1986, the museum was ready to receive its exhibits. It took 6 months to install the 2000 or so paintings, 600 sculptures and other works. The museum officially opened in December 1986 by then-president, François Mitterrand.
The museum holds mainly French art dating from 1848 to 1914, including paintings, sculptures, furniture, and photography.
It was formed with the national collections coming mainly from three establishments: from the Louvre museum, for the works of artists born after 1820 or coming to the fore during the Second Republic; from the Musée du Jeu de Paume, which since 1947 had been devoted to Impressionism; and lastly from the National Museum of Modern Art, which, when it moved in 1976 to the Centre Georges Pompidou, only kept works of artists born after 1870.
The various artistic movements represented include Academism, Realism, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Symbolism, Art nouveau…
Among the featured artists are Bonnard, Carpeaux, Cézanne, Courbet, Daumier, Degas, Gallé, Gauguin, Guimard, Lalique, Maillol, Manet, Millet, Monet, Pissarro, Redon, Renoir, Rodin, Seurat, Sisley, van Gogh, Vuillard…
Over time the collection has expanded significantly mainly due to acquisitions and gifts.
It houses the largest collection of impressionist (over 480 paintings) and post-Impressionist masterpieces in the world at nearly 1,100 paintings.
Many famous paintings are located in the Musée d’Orsay, including:
Starry Night Over the Rhône (September 1888) is one of Vincent van Gogh‘s paintings of Arles at nighttime. It was painted at a spot on the bank of the Rhône River that was only a one or two-minute walk from the Yellow House on the Place Lamartine which Van Gogh was renting at the time.
Bal du moulin de la Galette (commonly known as Dance at Le moulin de la Galette) is an 1876 painting by French artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir. It is one of Impressionism’s most celebrated masterpieces.
The Luncheon on the Grass ( Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe) – originally titled Le Bain (The Bath) – is a large oil on canvas painting by Édouard Manet created in 1862 and 1863.
The Painter’s Studio (L’Atelier du peintre): A real allegory summing up seven years of my artistic and moral life is an 1855 oil on canvas painting by Gustave Courbet.
One of the several paintings depicting card players that Paul Cézanne produced in the early 1890s, The
Card players is one of the Post-Impressionist Era’s most enduring works.
The Church at Auvers is an oil painting created by Vincent van Gogh in June 1890. The actual church is in Place de l’Eglise, Auvers-sur-Oise, France, 27 kilometres (17 miles) north-west of Paris.
Whistler’s Mother, is a painting in oils on canvas created by the American-born painter James McNeill Whistler in 1871. The 1997 Rowan Atkinson film Bean features the painting as a plot element.
The Age of Bronze Ratapoil, head of Beethoven, Mediterranean, Peasant Rolling up his Sleeves, Nature
Unveiling Herself to Science, Cassandra, and Maturity are some of the notable sculptures at the museum.