Musée d’Orsay: From a Train Station to a Museum

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Musée d’Orsay: From a Train Station to a Museum
Exactly 150 years ago, a group of artists, struggling and hardly known, organized into what was briefly called the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Printmakers, Etc. What they had in common was their new radical style and their exclusion from the annual Paris Salon. These 30 rebellious artists launched their own public exhibition on April 15, 1874, at 35 Boulevard des Capucines, in the studio of photographer Nadar. This is the moment Impressionism was born.  Only a few of the original group of independents are remembered, but the canon of Impressionists – Monet, Renoir, Degas, Morisot, Pissarro, Sisley and Cezanne – left an indelible mark. Their exhibition would be viewed by 3,500 curious attendees, some appreciative, others, less so. Today their canvases entertain a yearly audience of 3 million.   To celebrate, the Musée d’Orsay, the world’s largest collection of Impressionist masterpieces, is launching a major exhibition, “Paris 1874: The Impressionist Moment,” which opens on March 26, 2024. The exhibition will be focusing on those very works displayed in April of 1874 juxtaposed with works shown at the Paris Salon of that year.    Gare d’Orsay tracks. Photo: Unknown author/ Wikimedia Commons The works of Impressionists could not be shown to such effect had not the Gare d’Orsay – a train station – been turned into the world famous art museum it is today. Before 1986, the works of the Impressionists literally hung all over the Paris map.  Some works were stored at the Louvre; many were at the Musée Luxembourg; and the Musée du Jeu de Paume was crammed with their works.  When the Musée d’Orsay opened in December 1986, 47 years had passed since the building welcomed trains. Historically, the French government had problems finding a raison d’etre for this Left Bank site. In 1840, the Palais d’Orsay was built on the Seine to house courts and administrative offices. It was torched during the Paris commune of 1871.   The burned ruins of the Palais d’Orsay. Photo: Unknown author/ Wikimedia Commons Though other ransacked government buildings were immediately reconstructed, it wasn’t until 1897 that the Orleans Railway Company received government approval to build a train station on the long-vacant d’Orsay site. Their aim was to extend rail lines into central Paris. Architect Victor Laloux designed a monumental rail terminus with a façade that harmonized with other Left Bank edifices; palaces and hotels particuliers designed in the Neo-Classical or Beaux-Art style. Originally named the Gare d’Orleans, it was the first station in Paris to receive electrified trains, and was inaugurated on Bastille Day, July 14, 1900, just in time for the Exposition Universelle.   A tasteful façade of large limestone blocks concealed the building’s industrial purpose. The building included the 370-room Hotel Palais d’Orsay on the building’s western and southern sides. The complex was a great success but Laloux and his team left no wiggle room for future advances.  Portrait of Victor Laloux by Adolphe Déchenaud. Public domain

Lead photo credit : La Gare d'Orleans et Quai d'Orsay. Postcard. Unknown author. Public domain

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A freelance writer and amateur historian, Hazel knew she wanted to focus on the lives of French artists and femme fatales after an epiphany at the Musée d'Orsay. A life-long learner, she is a recent graduate of Art History from the University of Toronto. Now she is searching for a real-life art history mystery to solve.


  •  Hazel Smith
    2024-04-03 04:33:37
    Hazel Smith
    Thanks Jana and Beth. I'm so happy your enjoy these articles. I enjoy writing them too!


  • Jana Troester
    2024-03-25 10:36:42
    Jana Troester
    I can't begin to tell you how much I enjoy the articles Bonjour Paris produces, and the videos, every one of which I've enjoyed - some over and over. It's a treat every time I open your e-mails. Thank you.


    • Bonjour Paris Editors
      2024-04-03 14:19:29
      Bonjour Paris Editors
      hi Jana! If you have any friends/ family who'd enjoy Bonjour Paris, we're running a special discount on membership right now: Thanks again for your kind comment and support.


    • Bonjour Paris Editors
      2024-03-27 13:52:10
      Bonjour Paris Editors
      What a lovely note! Thank you so much for your kind comment. We're thrilled that you enjoy Bonjour Paris.


  • Beth Gersh-Nesic
    2024-03-22 02:53:09
    Beth Gersh-Nesic
    Gorgeous, Hazel! Thank you so much for this brilliant article. Greatly appreciated! Beth