The Musée d’Orsay is not a typical museum of fine art. Its structure is different than that of any other museum in Paris. This difference can be attributed to the fact that the building’s original purpose was not as a space for art to be exhibited, but rather as a central station for trains. As a train station, this structure was called the Gare d’Orsay. The motivation for constructing the train stations stemmed from a need to transport the visitors in Paris there for the Universelle Exposition of 1900. This structure went through a transformation from a train station into the museum that it is today through a long period of decision making and planning. The initial construction of the d’Orsay is a testament to the importance of the Expositions in Paris, showing that the French government was willing to go to great lengths to provide the visitors to the Exposition transportation.
In order to accommodate the number of visitors who were predicted to attend the Exposition of 1900, the leaders of the French government assessed their options and decided to construct a more central means of transportation by construction the Gare d’Orsay in the center of the city (“History of). Not only was the Gare d’Orsay to be a train station, it was also to function as a hotel (“History of). Three architects—Lucien Magne, Emile Bénard and Victor Laloux—were recruited to propose designs for the station. The prime location of building put pressure on the architects to plan something that matched the standards set by the buildings and monuments in the surrounding the area, including the Louvre and the Tuileries Gardens (“History of). Victor Laloux was the architect deemed most fit for the challenge and was successful in designing a train station that met the expectations of the important place in time for the Exposition of 1900. “When the Gare d’Orsay opened in 1900, the military painter Edouard Detaille praised it with the statement, widely quoted today by Orsay publicists, “The station is superb, and has the air of a palace of art” (Mainardi 33). This statement made by Detaille was not only praise, it was also a prophetic statement. After serving its initial purpose as a train station and a hotel for around forty years, in the mid 20th century the usefulness of the Gare d’Orsay as a train station began to diminish. There was no room to expand the station to accommodate the more modern and larger trains, but small trains continued to run through it. The space functioned as a mailing center during World War II, a movie set, an auction site and a conference space and finally plans to revamp the building began (“History of). The transformation of the Gare d’Orsay is telling of the importance of art to Paris.
The structure was going to be torn down, but it was saved because the President Georges Pompidou stepped in and stopped the construction, and also because the French government feared a new building would not fit in with the embassies, agencies, historical monuments and museums that the d’Orsay fit with. (Schneider 9) The building officially becoming a historical monument in 1973. (Mainardi 33) Anything that is built in Paris, especially in such a central location, is subject to scrutiny and skeptics. The plan to turn the structure into a museum of fine art was met with some opposition, but it seemed as though it was the best of all the options. “The best argument for the use of the Gare d’Orsay was that this would prevent an even uglier building from replacing it.” (Schneider 12) The location of the structure also put pressure on what the museum would contain.
“Even the last limitation had to be qualified; only a museum of high art would be suitable. Although a museum of transportation would have been logical, perhaps, the subject matter was not sufficiently refined for its consecration as a museum in the heart of Paris. The Museum of Technology, for example, is in the suburbs of Paris.” (Schneider 12)
This is an example of the extreme importance of art in Parisian life. When the opportunity for something to fill a large space in the center of the city, practicality and modernity was not the goal. To the French Government and others with a voice in decided what would go in this space, it was art that was of the highest prestige and therefore it was art that should take up this valuable real-estate.
Conveniently, the planning of the Musée d’Orsay came at a time when there was a demand for exhibition space for works left out of the existing spaces in Paris. The Louvre, the Musée Jeu de Paumme and the Pompidou were all experiencing problems accommodating the number of visitors and works they contained, and “many curators perceived a gap, both in time and in artistic styles, between the collections of the Louvre and the Pompidou.” (Schneider 13) The Gare d’Orsay was large enough to accommodate the works that were either initially excluded from or could not fit into other museums. Renovations were made to the station making it more fit to display works of art, and in December of 1986 the museum was inaugurated by President Francois Mitterrand (“History of).
Today, the Musée d’Orsay houses exhibits works of Impressionism, Art Nouveau and more works created between 1848 and 1914 (“History of). Just as it structure differs, an experience visiting the museum is different than experiencing any other museum in Paris. It is not lacking in visiting numbers and in 2016 alone had nearly 3,000,000 visitors (“History of). Because the d’Orsay has such high ceilings and so much space, even when it is crowded with people it is comfortable because it was initially built to be able to accommodate many people. On three main levels an endless number of works are exhibited. The museum also contains cafes, restaurants and shops as well. The way the museum is laid out allows visitors to plan their own path. In a way, the space still functions like a train station with people walking from platform to platform but instead people are in and out of the rooms displaying art by crossing through the statuary hall. An entire day could easily be spent browsing the rooms and the statuary hall.
The d’Orsay is a structure that has historically provided what the city of Paris needs. When there was a need for transportation, the space functioned as a train station and when there was a need for exhibition space, it was transformed into the museum of fine art that it is today.
“History of the Museum: A Museum in a Station.” Musée d’Orsay. 2006. http://www.musee-orsay.fr/en/collections/history-of-the-museum/home.html
Mainardi, Patricia. “Postmodern History at the Musée D'Orsay.” October, vol. 41, 1987, pp. 31–52. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/778328.
Schneider, Andrea Kupfer. The Politics of Culture in France. University Park: The Pennsylvania
State University. 1998, Print.