The Orsay Museum (i.e. Musée d’Orsay in French) is an art museum in the city of Paris, France. Located in the 7e arrondissement – on the left bank of the River Seine – it receives around 3 million visitors per year, despite being only 35 years old!
The museum’s collection presents the diversity of artistic creation in the Western world, between 1848 and 1914. That is, in the period covering the emergence of the Second French Republic (1848-1852) until the beginning of the First World War (1914-1918).
In this complete guide, you’ll be able to find must-see works of art, information regarding opening hours and ticket prices, as well as the best tips and suggestions about the Orsay Museum.
So, do you want to know more about the Orsay Museum: Best Tips For Visiting In 2023? Keep reading!
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- "Danseuses Bleues", by Edgar Degas (Ground Floor, Temporary Exhibition)
- "Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1", by James McNeill Whistler (Second Floor, Room 70)
- "Coquelicots", by Claude Monet (Fifth Floor, Room 29)
- "Bal du Moulin de la Galette", by Auguste Renoir (Fifth Floor, Room 30)
- "Nymphéas Bleus", by Claude Monet (Fifth Floor, Room 34)
- "La nuit étoilée sur le Rhône", by Vincent van Gogh (Fifth Floor, Galerie Bellechasse)
- "Portrait de l'artiste", by Vincent van Gogh (Fifth Floor, Galerie Bellechasse)
Brief History of the Orsay Museum
Previously, the Orsay Museum building was a train station, named Gare du Quai d’Orsay. Inaugurated in 1900 for the Universal Exhibition, the Gare du Quai d’Orsay thus allowed travelers from all over the southwest of France to reach the heart of Paris, on a railway line called Chemin de Fer de Paris à Orléans.
At that time, the monument also housed a ballroom and a luxury hotel. However, with the modernization of trains throughout the 20th century, the train station lost its value and fell into disrepair.
In 1977, the French government decided to recover the building and convert it into a museum, whose official inauguration took place on December 1st, 1986. Nowadays, the museum consists of wide-open floors, in order to show the care with which the building was designed and the harmony of the original architecture.
What to See at the Orsay Museum
The collection of the Orsay Museum mainly displays paintings, sculptures, decorative arts, photographs, and drawings. In addition, these works derive essentially from three other museums:
- Musée do Louvre – works by artists born after 1820, or who emerged with the Second French Republic
- Galérie nationale du Jeu de Paume – impressionist works since 1947
- Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris – most recent works
Among the most important painters in the collection are: Claude Monet, Édouard Manet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Signac, Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard and Eugène Delacroix. As for sculptors, there are works by Auguste Rodin, Camille Claudel, Paul Gauguin, Honoré Daumier, Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux and Aristide Maillol, among others.
“Danseuses Bleues”, by Edgar Degas (Ground Floor, Temporary Exhibition)
At the end of the 1860s, Edgar Degas started to follow the work of ballerinas in classes, training, shows, and even in their breaks. From 1890, the painter began to dedicate himself to creating paintings of groups of ballerinas (“dance ensembles”) or of the figure of a single ballerina, a theme that made him famous, if it weren’t for the 1500 works on the subject!
In this specific painting, “Dancers in blue”, Degas presents a set of four young girls behind the scenes of a rehearsal or a performance. The blue color of ballet tutus gives the title to the work, due to its predominance, while the other artists dressed in yellow in the background, almost disappear in the background of the scene, completely imperceptible.
With this painting from around 1890 and others of the same time depicting ballerinas, the painter changed the importance given to details, for the domain of the image in general: now, instead of more consistent lines, Degas is concerned with tones, textures, and volumes.
“Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1”, by James McNeill Whistler (Second Floor, Room 70)
Although it’s known internationally as “Whistler’s Mother”, the original name of this 1871 painting is, in fact, “Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1 – Portrait of the Artist’s Mother”.
Of North American nationality, James McNeill Whistler divided his career in Europe, more specifically between London and Paris. Inspired by Eugène Delacroix, Whistler represented the artistic vanguard in Paris, alongside Édouard Manet and Charles Baudelaire.
The painting was purchased by the French state in 1891 and today it’s one of the most famous works by an American artist, outside the United States.
“Coquelicots”, by Claude Monet (Fifth Floor, Room 29)
After returning from England in 1871, Claude Monet moved to Argenteuil, in the Île-de-France region, where he remained until 1878.
There, he found luminous landscapes that allowed him to explore the possibilities of outdoor painting. This 1873 painting successfully evokes the vibrant atmosphere of a hike through the countryside, on a summer day.
“Poppies” became one of Monet‘s most famous canvases. Interestingly, the young woman in the umbrella and the child in the foreground are Camille – the painter’s wife – and their son Jean.
“Bal du Moulin de la Galette”, by Auguste Renoir (Fifth Floor, Room 30)
This 1876 painting depicts a lively and cheerful atmosphere at the Moulin de la Galette, a very popular establishment at the time and located in Montmartre, Paris. Above all, Auguste Renoir was concerned with showing how the crowd moved in natural and artificial light.
However, it was also the target of criticism in its time, because he opted for a certain dissolution of the forms. With an imposing format, an innovative style, and a theme based on contemporary Parisian life, the painting is not only one of Renoir‘s best artistic creations but also a reference in the early days of the Impressionist movement.
“Nymphéas Bleus”, by Claude Monet (Fifth Floor, Room 34)
In Botany, Nymphéas is the name given to white water lilies. Claude Monet started to cultivate these flowering plants in the aquatic garden that he had installed in 1893, on his estate in Giverny, Normandy.
In the last decades of his life, his garden and lake became his main sources of inspiration. And in this specific painting, created between 1916-1919, Monet focuses his vision on a small area of the pond.
Nevertheless, he creates a painting where no point stands out more than the others, using the square shape and the unfinished ends of the canvas to reinforce this neutrality and, it seems, a certain abstraction.
“La nuit étoilée sur le Rhône”, by Vincent van Gogh (Fifth Floor, Galerie Bellechasse)
Vincent van Gogh intended to represent a “starry night” when he arrived in Arles, in the south of France, at the beginning of 1888. After several correspondences with his brothers and friends where he confided this desire, he finally managed to put into practice his project in September of the same year.
The work depicts a night landscape on the banks of the Rhone. Van Gogh uses mostly three colors: blue, as the dominant color; the intense orange, which represents the city’s gas lamps and their reflection in the water; and yellow, in an attempt to recreate the brightness of the stars like precious stones.
“The Starry Night over the Rhône” ended up inspiring another version of the same theme – “The Starry Night” – which is on display at the MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) in New York, and which is considered by many to be his true masterpiece.
“Portrait de l’artiste”, by Vincent van Gogh (Fifth Floor, Galerie Bellechasse)
Throughout his life, Vincent van Gogh created more than forty self-portraits, both paintings, and drawings. In this 1889 painting, the artist concentrated all his attention on his face, especially on his rigid and thin features and on his somewhat uncompromising and anxious look, strangely surrounded by green – almost as if he were “on alert”.
The dominant hue of this painting – a mixture of green absinthe and light turquoise – is perfectly contrasted with the bright orange of his hair and beard. In addition, its disconcerting immobility as a model contrasts with the movement created by the wavy curves of the hair, as well as the characteristic arabesques as a “backdrop”.
Practical Guide to the Orsay Museum
Visiting the Orsay Museum is almost mandatory for all art lovers, especially impressionist painting. Because I love this artistic current, I ended up conciliating my visit to the Orsay Museum with a visit to the Orangerie Museum (in French, Musée de l’Orangerie), an impressionist and post-impressionist art gallery, in the Tuileries Garden.
Both museums are relatively small and are complemented by themes and outstanding authors. In addition, the proximity between them is an asset: the only thing that separates them is the River Seine. To get to the Orsay Museum, the simplest and most convenient alternative is the subway, through the “Solférino – Orsay Museum” station (line 12). If you prefer to use the commuter train, there is a stop on the RER C called “Musée d’Orsay”.
When I was at the Orsay Museum, I discovered the richness of the Parisian cultural life during the Belle Époque, while taking advantage of being young and having free admission. For that reason, I want to leave you with three recommendations based on my personal experience, which will help you make the most of this magnificent monument.
1. Buy the Ticket in Advance
One of the most important tips on a visit to the Orsay Museum is to buy the ticket well in advance. The quickest and easiest option is to purchase it through the online ticket office, but keep in mind that the individual ticket is usually the last option on the list. Nowadays, the ticket for permanent collections and exhibitions costs €14 and €11 for companions of young people under 18, residing in the European Union (maximum limit of 2 companions).
The good news is that admission is free for all minors under 18 and young people under 26, residing in the European Economic Area. In that case, simply present an identification document at the entrance, after passing the security checkpoint. Finally, the Orsay Museum is also freely accessible on the first Sunday of each month.
2. Enter Through the Right Entrance
Are you thinking about buying your ticket online? If so, then this next tip will be very useful to you. In order to reduce the waiting time, the Orsay Museum has decided to install a four-row system, divided by doors/entrances with letters from A to D:
- A – Individual visitors without ticket/reservation
- B – Groups with reservation
- C – Individual visitors with a ticket
- D – School groups with reservations
So, if you’re not in a group and have the ticket in hand (or on your smartphone), you can go directly to entrance C, which usually has a much shorter queue than the others.
3. Choose the Right Time
The Orsay Museum is open every day (except Mondays), from 9:30 am to 6 pm. On Thursdays, the schedule runs until 9:45 pm. The museum is closed on May 1st and December 25th. If you need it, all this information can be consulted (and confirmed) on the official website.
WARNING: On Thursdays, the rooms start to close at 9:15 pm, and the rest of the days, at 5:15 pm!
Do you want some advice? Visit the Orsay Museum early in the day – or in the late afternoon, if it is Thursday. And avoid Tuesdays: as the Louvre Museum is closed that day, Tuesdays can be almost as popular as weekends!
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