Because Paris is home to one of the most famous museums in the world, the Louvre, it’s easy to forget the other museums in the city. But it would be a big mistake to overlook the Louvre’s little sister, the Musee d’Orsay. Located just across the river from the Louvre, the Orsay houses artworks created between 1848 and 1915. That's a relatively short amount of time, but it's also a very special one, it includes a brilliant collective of artists: the Impressionists.
Like most of the museums in Paris, the d'Orsay was not originally built to house art. It was constructed as a train station for the 1900 World Fair. The building itself could qualify as a work of art, the classical stone exterior masking a strikingly modern interior made of metal and glass. Opened as a museum in 1986, it has been attracting millions of visitors ever since.
The main draw of the museum is its stunning collection of Impressionist paintings, probably the best in the world. It includes work from Claude Monet, Pierre-August Renoir, Edgar Degas, Édouard Manet, and Vincent Van Gogh.
Hours and Ticket Prices
The Musee d’Orsay is open 6 days a week, from Tuesday to Sunday. Its normal hours are from 9:30am-6:00pm, except on Thursdays when it is open until 9:45pm. Full price tickets are €11, a reduced rate of €8.50 is available for 18-25 year olds, and the museum is free to anyone under the age of 18, or any EU citizen between 18-25. For a few euros more, you can buy your ticket online which allows you to enter through the reserved entrance, skipping the line. If you’re going during the summer, this can easily be worth two extra euros.
As with many museums, the Orsay can be fairly overwhelming. There are tours and audio guides offered by the museum for €6 and €5 respectively. The guided tours are for adults, and children under the age of 13 are not allowed on them. For more information on the guided tours, visit their website.
Getting to the Musee d'Orsay
The museum’s address is: 1 rue de la Légion d'Honneur, Paris 75007. The easiest way to get there is by Metro, either station Solferino on Line 12 or the station Musee d’Orsay on the RER C. It is also very central, just across from the Louvre if you would like to walk.
Self-Guided Tour of the Musee d'Orsay
Your visit to the museum will start on the ground floor, which displays works of art from the mid-19th century. As you go through these rooms, you’ll notice that the paintings mostly depict classical idealized scenes or landscapes. Slowly, there is a movement towards representing more everyday scenes, such as peasants working in a field, or even a high class prostitute. This is the state of affairs the Impressionists rebelled against.
Paintings not to miss on the ground level:
After covering the ground level, head straight up to the 5th floor. This is the home of the Impressionists. You’ll also notice that there are two great overlooks: one immediately to the left of the escalators, looking over the floor of the museum, and one straight on, giving an amazing view of the city of Paris towards Montmartre and the Basilica of the Sacré-Coeur.
These next few rooms display one of the best collections of art in the world. Impressionism was a reaction to the stifling state of affairs in the French art world at the time. Instead of the painstakingly perfect portraits that would take weeks to produce in a studio, the Impressionists preferred to immerse themselves in their subjects, and paint quickly, leaving just an impression rather than a complete picture.
The biggest name you’ll see here is Claude Monet, the father of impressionism. There are 86 of his paintings in the museum, including the very famous Poppies. Monet’s specialty was depicting the way light reflected off water, so be sure to stay on the look-out for those works. Another superb painting is the Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette by Pierre-Auguste Renoir depicting a party on the hill of Montmartre. Its incredible detail, and the beautiful sun-dappled light make it a true masterpiece.
In many ways, the Impressionists were an odd group, they were drawn together more by their distaste for the old system than a shared passion. There is a lot of variation in their paintings, but one thing you’ll notice is that they are all very intentional with their treatment of light. It has famously been said that their subjects were not the objects in the paintings, but the way the light acted around the objects.
Paintings not to miss on the 5th floor:
- La Gare Saint-Lazare by Claude Monet
- Danseuses bleues by Edgar Degas
- The Floor Scrapers by Gustave Caillebotte
At the end of the impressionist gallery, take a left and take the escalators down to the second floor. This is where the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh are displayed. Van Gogh, a thoroughly troubled but brilliant painter, came after the Impressionists and did not really belong to any movement in particular. His work only became popular after his death, but today he is one of the most well-known and cherished painters of all time.
Paintings not to miss on the 2nd floor:
Although that is by no means all the Musee d’Orsay has to offer, it is a pretty good introduction to one of the world’s most extraordinary museums. For more history on the Orsay and its surrounding, take our Last Rulers of France Tour.