Located on the Left Bank of the River Seine, in the 7th Arrondissement or administrative district of Paris, the Musée D’Orsay is a museum housing mainly French art dating between 1848 and 1914, which included an impressive collection of paintings, sculpture, furniture, decorative items, even photography. However, the history of the building that houses the museum is a long story of transformation. Originally, it was a building called Palais d'Orsay, built on the site between 1810 and 1838 that housed the Cour des Comptes or the Court of Accounts and the Conseil d'Etat or State Council of France. Unfortunately, the building was burnt down during the violent upheaval known as the Paris Commune in 1871, and for thirty years, the ruins of the Palais d'Orsay served as reminders of the horrors of civil war.
Finally, the great French architect of the period, Victor Laloux, and two other fellow architects were commissioned to design a railway terminus for a French Railway Company called the Chemin de fer Paris à Orléans to welcome visitors from home and abroad for the 1900 Universal Exhibition. It was a difficult job to design a station terminus on the proposed site as the neighbourhood was an extremely elegant one, and the station was to face the famous Louvre and the Jardin des Tuileries, popularly known as the Tuileries Gardens. To meet the challenge, Victor Laloux decided to hide the existing exterior metallic structure of the station by constructing an elegant stone front and modernized the interior by implementing lifts for heavy luggage, separate lifts for passengers, and underground platforms.
Built between 1898 and 1900 in Beaux-Arts architectural style, the building housed the Gare d’Orsay rail station that served not only as a place for passengers but also as a place for associations and political parties to hold meetings and banquets until 1939, when the short platforms of the station became unsuitable for the longer trains for the mainline services. During World War II, apart from being used for suburban services, part of it became a mailing centre.
After around three decades, although permission was granted in 1970 to demolish the structure, the then Minister for Cultural Affairs ruled against the decision and proposed to transform it into a new hotel. Eventually, the building of the station was enlisted in the supplementary Inventory of Historical Monuments in March 1973, and it was suggested by the Directorate of the Museum of France to transform it into a museum that would bridge the gap between the famous Louvre and the Musée National d’Art Moderne or the National Museum of Modern Art at the Georges Pompidou Centre.
The proposal was accepted by President Pompidou, and a study was commissioned in 1974. After that, a team of three young architects, comprising of Pierre Colboc, Renaud Bardon, and Jean-Paul Philippon, were awarded the contract in 1978 to create 220,000 sq feet (20,000 sq m) of new floor space, extended on four floors.
During the reconstruction, a central nave was formed on the main level of the building by the surrounding stone structures that were previously the train platforms.
In 1981, when the Italian architect Gaetana Aulenti was entrusted with the responsibility to design the interior of the proposed museum, including its decoration, furniture, and fittings, he elaborately designed the sequence of the galleries and inhabited the three main levels that are under the museum's iconic iron-and-glass made barrel vault atrium. Although the museum was ready to receive its exhibits by July 1986, it took another 6 months to install the 2000 or so paintings, 600 sculptures and other works, and the museum was officially opened in December 1986 by the then President Francois Mitterrand.
The Musée d’Orsay, built on the ashes of the Musée D’Orsay, grew gradually into one of the most-visited museums in Paris. Today, it is spread over three levels, which include the exhibition spaces, galleries, and other facilities, along with the pavilion Amont, the glass walkway, the museum restaurant, the Café des Hauteurs, bookshop, and the auditorium. The design of the museum highlights the 452 feet (around 138 m) long great hall located on the ground floor, used as the main artery of the museum with galleries arranged on both sides of the central nave. While the terraces on the middle level house further exhibition galleries, the top floor also contains additional exhibition spaces. Many of its paintings and sculptures came from the inventories of the three prime institutions of Paris, namely the Louvre, the National Museum of Modern Art, and the Jeu de Paume Museum, home to the country’s Impressionist collection and an arts centre for modern and postmodern photography. By the time it opened in 1986, it had amassed a brilliant collection that featured many illustrious paintings like Burial at Ornans (1849-1850) and The Artist’s Studio (1855) by Gustave Courbet, Olympia (1863), by Edouard Manet, twelve paintings of William-Adolphe Bouguereau, including his magnificent The Birth of Venus (1879). Today, the invaluable and huge collection of paintings in the galleries of the Musée d’Orsay also includes, among others, 24 paintings of Paul Gauguin, including Tahitian Women on the Beach (1891), 34 paintings of Edouard Manet, including The Luncheon on the Grass (1862-1863), 24 paintings of Vincent Van Gogh, including Starry Night (1888) and Self Portrait (1889).
To make room for the ever-increasing collection, mainly received through donations, the Musée d’Orsay is scheduled to undergo a radical transformation during the 2020s.