Opening of the Musée d’Orsay Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

When the Musée d’Orsay officially opened to the general public, it provided Paris with arguably the world’s greatest museum dedicated to nineteenth century art and culture.

Summary of Event

In the early 1970’s, a pressing question in Paris concerned what should be done with the old Gare d’Orsay, Gare d’Orsay[Gare dorsay] a huge abandoned railway station occupying a prime site along the Seine River, opposite the Tuileries Gardens and the Louvre. Originally constructed by Victor Laloux in 1900, the station building was impressive; it included a luxury hotel and a flamboyant external facade. Its dominant feature was a huge barrel-vaulted roof constructed of iron and glass; the roof was 450 feet in length, 131 feet in width, and 103 feet in height. By 1970, the building was marked for demolition, most likely to be replaced by an ultramodern hotel and conference center. A pronounced public reaction set in, however, against any further destruction of Paris’s architectural legacy, spurred largely by the impending brutal demolition of the once-colorful food-market pavilions in the historic Les Halles quarter. Musée d’Orsay[Musee dorsay] Museums Art;museums Architecture;Musée d’Orsay[Musee dorsay] [kw]Opening of the Musée d’Orsay (Dec. 9, 1986) [kw]Musée d’Orsay, Opening of the (Dec. 9, 1986) Musée d’Orsay[Musee dorsay] Museums Art;museums Architecture;Musée d’Orsay[Musee dorsay] [g]Europe;Dec. 9, 1986: Opening of the Musée d’Orsay[06260] [g]France;Dec. 9, 1986: Opening of the Musée d’Orsay[06260] [c]Architecture;Dec. 9, 1986: Opening of the Musée d’Orsay[06260] [c]Arts;Dec. 9, 1986: Opening of the Musée d’Orsay[06260] [c]Organizations and institutions;Dec. 9, 1986: Opening of the Musée d’Orsay[06260] Aulenti, Gae Cachin, Françoise Laloux, Victor Giscard d’Estaing, Valéry Reberioux, Madeleine

Fortunately, Paris was in need of a new museum for nineteenth century art and culture, partly as a result of an explosion of interest in the painting and painters of that era, especially the Impressionists, who were riding a wave of unprecedented popularity. The old Musée du Jeu de Paume, Musée du Jeu de Paume which previously held the Impressionist collection, was simply too small to handle the enormous crowds the collection was attracting, and concerns about the old museum’s security system were growing. The French president, Georges Pompidou, Pompidou, Georges issued the initial order to halt the demolition of the old Gare d’Orsay, but it was President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who took office in 1974, who was primarily responsible for making the ultimate decision to transform the railway station into a museum.

A composite photo shows the main gallery of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.


The initial plan called for the museum to cover the entire nineteenth century, but the Louvre Louvre refused to part with its magnificent collection of early nineteenth century Romantic paintings. Consequently, it was decided that political rather than artistic dates would guide the museum’s collection: The Musée d’Orsay would display works created from 1848, the year of radical revolutions throughout Europe, to 1914, when World War I broke out.

The challenge of transforming the space was enormous, as the railway station, with its huge bulk and vast open spaces, seemed to be the very antithesis of what would be desirable in a museum. In addition to the restoration of the decaying station, entire new floors and rooms had to be constructed; the project thus became one of the largest renovation schemes in Parisian history. Eventually, after several discouraging early phases, Gae Aulenti, an Italian modernist architect and interior designer, was commissioned to design the interior of the museum. Aulenti had worthy credentials, having already remodeled the Palazzo Grassi in Venice and designed showrooms for major corporations such as Olivetti and Fiat.

Aulenti took firm grasp of the project and produced a bold, breathtaking plan that elicited strong reactions. The final product was characterized by a central aisle or avenue running the length of the entire station, flanked on each side by imposing stone walls of tan burgundian limestone. The avenue was filled with numerous statues, thus creating a theatrical effect. Behind the stone walls on each side of the central aisle were exhibition rooms that held the museum’s collection of paintings and art objects. The second level was largely devoted to sculpture, cinema, photography, and Art Nouveau. The crowning glory of the museum’s collection, consisting of Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings, was wisely located on the top floor, where Aulenti’s design took advantage of the natural overhead lighting. On this floor the museum displayed its spectacular collection of works by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Paul Cézanne, Édouard Manet, Camille Pissarro, and Vincent van Gogh.

In total, the Musée d’Orsay’s interior contained almost 183,000 square feet of permanent exhibition space. This exceeded the space in the enormous Pompidou Center Pompidou Center and was approximately half of that in the old Louvre before its remodeling. All of this space was devoted to only a half century of art.

No sooner had the Musée d’Orsay opened in December, 1986, than it began to provoke extensive controversy. In general, critics focused on two major areas: the interior architectural design and the manner in which the art was displayed. Aulenti’s central avenue was condemned for being too imperial and majestic, leading some observers to say that it conjured up visions of ancient Egypt or Babylonia. Some caustic critics dubbed Aulenti’s severe modernism “neo-Mussolini,” finding it to be reminiscent of the architectural style favored by former fascist dictators. Others made the reverse criticism, asserting that the central aisle was too successful in that it dominated the very art it was supposed to feature, a classic case of architecture overwhelming art. Aulenti also was censured for her dull stone walls, which allegedly formed a poor background for many of the paintings, and for her technique of drilling holes in the walls at seven-inch intervals. Although this allowed for flexibility in hanging pictures, it gave the unfortunate impression that some rooms had been sprayed with machine-gun fire.

Nevertheless, Aulenti had her admirers. They praised the museum’s heavy stone avenue for imposing a sense of order and discipline on the building’s unwieldy spaces; they also appreciated the cleverness of the layout, which channeled crowds through the museum in a logical order. Admirers asserted that the design provided museum visitors with architectural delight as well as artistic pleasure. It also was noted that little fault could be found with the manner in which Aulenti and the contractors had handled the acoustics, lighting, and air circulation of the building, easily meeting the high standards expected of modern museums.

The second major area of criticism focused on the philosophy underlying the display of the museum’s art. In general, critics complained that the Musée d’Orsay contained too much mediocre art. They censured the curators in general and Françoise Cachin, the museum’s director, in particular for adopting a neutral stance and allowing “bad” art to be displayed side by side with “good” art. Critics were particularly incensed over the inclusion of “academic” or “official” art. This was art that had been approved by the despotic regime of Napoleon III or was commissioned by the aristocracy and businesspeople of the period, art that frequently was displayed in government buildings, public squares, and the salons of the rich and powerful. By and large, art historians have contemptuously dismissed the “academic” art of the nineteenth century as pompous, unimaginative, and decidedly lacking in creativity. Critics were incensed that such art was allowed to be displayed in the Musée d’Orsay along with the works of great Romantic painters such as Eugène Delacroix or some of the talented realists such as Gustave Courbet and Henri Fantin-Latour.

Because the policy of the museum’s curators was so inclusive and democratic, the museum failed to educate visitors as to why some artists might rightfully be regarded as superior to other artists. A related criticism was that the Musée d’Orsay failed to inform visitors about the history of the nineteenth century, an oversight that was somewhat puzzling given that Madeleine Reberioux, a prominent social historian, had been appointed vice president of the museum. Reberioux apparently chose not to exert her authority in this area.

Those who defended the existing arrangement of the museum’s collection claimed that great art was separated from mediocre art subtly through various techniques, and that visitors who followed the exhibits in a chronological fashion could easily see why avant-garde art triumphed and how it is obviously superior to the art that preceded it. This was one of the reasons the Impressionists and post-Impressionists were given their own floor, separate from earlier schools of art. The full glory and genius of their work is self-evident and exposes the inferiority of the “academic” school. As for the criticism that visitors to the museum learned relatively little about nineteenth century history, it was argued that, as an art museum, the Musée d’Orsay was never meant to be dedicated to re-creating an era and showing “how people lived back then.”


With the renovation of the Gare d’Orsay, Paris gained what is arguably the greatest museum in the world for nineteenth century art and culture. The Musée d’Orsay allowed Paris to rationalize its artistic treasures and group them logically. Visitors and scholars go to the Louvre for great art from antiquity to the mid-nineteenth century, the Musée d’Orsay for art from the remainder of the nineteenth century, and the Pompidou Center for art from the twentieth century. Unlike some Paris museums, the Musée d’Orsay is multidimensional, including not only painting and sculpture but also furniture, porcelain, architecture, photography, and the early cinema.

Renovation of the Gare d’Orsay also preserved the architectural integrity of the surrounding area in the very heart of Paris, saving the quarter from the obliteration that Les Halles and the Beaubourg quarters suffered in order to make way for ultramodern projects such as the Forum and the Pompidou Center. Plans submitted by architects and urban planners for the significant public space that would have been created if the Gare d’Orsay had been torn down included grotesque gargantuan structures of concrete, glass, and steel, some of them of skyscraper proportions, which would have overwhelmed the area and permanently disfigured the Parisian skyline. Although the original Gare d’Orsay had limitations, it offered a worthy counterpoint to the Louvre on the opposite bank of the Seine, and its monumental and ornate character was in keeping with the city’s architectural heritage. One of the more attractive features of the renovation was that it made part of the roof terrace accessible, thereby affording visitors an impressive view of this lovely area of Paris.

The renovation and museum opening were also significant in a subtler way, in that they reflected the growing importance of women in French society. The architect, director, and vice president of the museum were all women. The fact that few observers in the French media commented on this phenomenon suggests that these women were chosen for their unquestioned talent and ability and for no other reason. Although their decisions and actions prompted much controversy, the ensuing debates were remarkably free of sexism. In general, criticisms were seldom personalized or placed in a gender context; rather, they simply reflected the arguments that were going on in the contemporary worlds of art, culture, and architecture.

The Musée d’Orsay, as much as any museum opened at that time, encapsulated both the architectural style and the display techniques of the modern museum. Museums and art became democratized in the latter part of the twentieth century, and museums had to be designed to accommodate huge crowds. Initial projections estimated that the Musée d’Orsay would handle three million visitors per year. The building can accommodate about five thousand people at any one time without painful overcrowding.

In a democratic age, the definition of art has had to be expanded to include popular culture as well as “high art.” As a consequence of this redefinition, it is not unusual for academic and cultural elites to bemoan what they see as deterioration in the quality of exhibits. Because the public often pays for new museums through taxes—the Musée d’Orsay’s renovation cost $250 million in public funds—visitors have grown to expect more in the way of amenities, such as cafés, bookstores, and easy access for the elderly and persons with disabilities. In addition, modern museums impose new challenges on those who run them. Architects and curators now realize that they must educate the public as well as passively display art; thus the Musée d’Orsay offers classes, lectures, and concerts in addition to maintaining an audiovisual center, conducting special programs and exhibitions, and catering to the unique needs of children and young people.

A particular challenge for both architects and curators is how best to go about using the latest technologies to improve the management of museums. The Musée d’Orsay, like other modern museums, makes use of technological knowledge and devices to increase security, to maintain accurate records, to restore deteriorating paintings and statues, to determine the proper height and placement of exhibits for maximum enjoyment, and to protect artworks from the ravages of heat, humidity, and excessive natural light. Musée d’Orsay[Musee dorsay] Museums Art;museums Architecture;Musée d’Orsay[Musee dorsay]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bonfante-Warren, Alexandra. The Musée d’Orsay. New York: Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, 2000. Comprehensive volume begins with a brief history of the museum. Presents numerous color photographs of items in the museum’s collection.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davis, Douglas. The Museum Transformed: Design and Culture in the Post-Pompidou Age. New York: Abbeville Press, 1990. Davis, the former architectural critic for Newsweek, offers some valuable insights into the major differences between the traditional museum and the museums of the late twentieth century. Includes a brief section on the Orsay.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“Gae Aulenti.” Architecture and Urbanism 201 (June, 1987): 11-72. Focuses on Aulenti and includes a rare discussion of her other major architectural projects. Presents an interesting “conversation” that Aulenti has with an imaginary visitor while walking through the Orsay. Includes photographs, diagrams, and blueprints.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mathieu, Caroline. Guide to the Musée d’Orsay. Translated by Anthony Roberts. Paris: Ministere de la Culture et de la Communication, 1987. Official guidebook produced by the French government is an indispensable resource, offering expert commentary on the artistic treasures held by the museum. Contains hundreds of photographs, most in color.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“Musée d’Orsay.” Architecture Interieure Cree 215 (December, 1986): 1-112. Outstanding article presents the history of the building. Although a French publication, extensive portions of the article are in English, and all readers can benefit from the generous and impressive collection of sketches, photographs, and axonometric plates. Includes unusual photos of the old railway station and the new museum during their construction periods.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Musée d’Orsay. The Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Translated by Jane Benton. New York: Harry Abrams, 1986. Lavishly illustrated volume compiled by a team of specialists from the museum’s staff. Includes more than 250 color reproductions of the building’s artistic treasures.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nochlin, Linda, et al. “The Musée d’Orsay: A Symposium.” Art in America 76 (January, 1988): 84-107. Collection of brief articles by established artists and academics offers a variety of opinions on the architectural merits of the Musée d’Orsay building and the quality of art displayed. Includes photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“Orsay.” Connaissance des Arts (1987): 1-74. This special issue of a prestigious French magazine, translated into English, is one of the best single works available offering an introduction to the museum. Includes an outstanding collection of color photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schneider, Andrea Kupfer. Creating the Musée d’Orsay: The Politics of Culture in France. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998. Examines the history of the Orsay within the context of the cultural forces that were at play in France during the years preceding the museum’s opening.

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