Hi Frugalistas! The Musée d’Orsay is the favorite Paris museum of many visitors and is an essential component of many Paris itineraries. Unlike the Louvre it is not overwhelmingly large and the crowds are not quite as overwhelming either. Therefore it’s an art museum in Paris you can enjoy. The other thing I really like about it is that it combines art that you would definitely have seen (and indeed probably recognise and know quite well) with unexpected treasures you cannot imagine. In what is probably one of my most ambitious posts, whether you are an armchair traveller, an art lover, or planning a trip to Paris, join me on a Musée d’Orsay private tour…..
A note before we start: there are nudes in this post. While I think they are artistic and tasteful, if you are reading this post at work, your employer’s monitoring software may think otherwise. Or you just may not find paintings of naked women to your taste. If that is the case, I do understand if you leave the post now. muse’Orsy private tour
Getting to the Musée d’Orsay
The Musée d’Orsay is located on the Seine diagonally opposite the Louvre and the Tuileries. The RER C stop Musée d’Orsay is right under the museum and the Solferino Metro is just three blocks away. If you are staying in the nearby popular rue Cler neighbourhood you can easily walk.
Arriving and orientation for your Musée d’Orsay private tour
The Musée d’Orsay is popular, and security is tight. This means queues for entry. Arrive early (the Museum opens at 9.30am). If you have a Museum Pass, use it, or buy an advance ticket. A Museum Pass or skip the line ticket will enable you to enter via Entrance C to the right as you face the building where the queues are much, much shorter. Otherwise turn up and join the long queue for Entrance A on the left hand side of the building.
As you enter the Museum area the first thing you should do is head to the cloak room and leave your coat and any heavy bags you may have before your Musée d’Orsay private tour begins…… museéé d’Orsay private tour
About the Musée d’Orsay
If the Musée d’Orsay looks like a railway station, it’s because it originally was. Slated to be knocked down in the 1970s until it was decided it would make a perfect home for a scattered 19th and early 20th century art collection, the building was saved. But as you look around the actual building as you enter, it’s easy to imagine the trains running through what is now the ground floor (level 0) of the museum. It may also explain why there are so many clocks in the building……
While the Musée d’Orsay is famous for its Impressionist collection it actually picks up where the Louvre leaves off in the mid-19th century.
Before we start our Musée d’Orsay visit the other thing to remember is that the Musée d’Orsay is full of some of the most famous art in the world. And the most famous art in the world is in demand. This means it is possible that THE piece you are looking to see “in the flesh” may not be on display when you visit. The last time I visited Whistler’s Mother (or Portrait of the Author’s Mother – Portrait de la Mere de l’Auteur) was nowhere to be seen. Later I discovered it was on display in Melbourne, Australia – a mere 90minute flight from my home in Sydney.
Starting our Musée d’Orsay private tour
I always like to start at the beginning of any art gallery. In the case of the Musée d’Orsay, I think this is particularly valuable as the collection “evolves” over time as you progress through it. On our tour I’m highlighting pieces that I find particularly lovely, or evocative, rather than those that are necessarily the most famous.
As you walk around level 0 you will notice that many of the pieces are from the Paris Salon – the large, prestigious Parisian art shows that refused the Impressionists later in the century. Yes, they are mainstream, but they are still beautiful. And they are not all the same…….
Neoclassicism at the Musée d’Orsay
While the Impressionists were shocking the establishment with their confronting view on what constituted art, it is interesting to consider what was considered “art” at that time…..
It’s hard to imagine, but dead saints, and nudes ruled. As did beautiful rich young women in ball dresses. And so did famous middle aged men………….
What I find interesting in this group is that all except the girl in the yellow dress were chosen for the Salon – the famous Paris art exhibition who refused the Impressionists.
Artists who march to the beat of their own drums
Before you leave the ground floor (level 0) there is a display of more modern art. Contemporaries of the Impressionists, these are the artists who marched to the beat of their own drums.
If you thought Paul Gauguin was the only French artist to paint in Polynesia, check out his contemporary, Paul Ranson who painted the brilliantly coloured Polynesian bathers in the early 20th century.
While there are a number of pieces by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec that show off his stage girl poster art, it was a stained glass window designed by him, and created by Louis Comfort Tiffany that really caught my eye. The Can Can girl I have included is not by Toulouse-Lautrec – a surprise by a contemporary, Leonetto Cappiello.
Of course I did need to feature a number of works by Van Gogh. The artist who definitely marched to the beat of his own drum. While it was hard to know what to include, and what to leave out (the Musée d’Orsay Van Gogh collection is quite large), I think I’ve managed to curate a pretty, and representative collection.
Who are the most famous artists in the Musée d’Orsay?
Before you leave the Impressionists Gallery walk down to the far end of the gallery, past the little souvenir area to the giant clock. You can appreciate a wonderful view through the clock face – as far as the hill of Montmartre. And capture a very evocative photo of the clock itself.
The stars of the show at the Musée d’Orsay are undoubtably the Impressionists. They painted to their own style. They lived outrageous lives up in the village of Montmartre.
To our modern eyes the Impressionists are pretty. To the eyes of the nineteenth century Paris art establishment they were dangerous. They were refused……
While nudes were acceptable to the establishment, Edouard Manet’s now famous “Dejeuner sur l’herbe” (Lunch on the grass) of 1863 was not. It featured at the rival Salon des Refusés, and outraged the town.
Even the charming little fife player by Edouard Manet was refused. He now features on the cover of many books about the Museum.
Sick of the constant refusals of the establishment and their annual Salon, the Impressionists set up their own Salon in 1874. Even Claude Monet himself and Edgar Degas were considered too “something” for the Salon. The Monet poppies and the Degas sepia toned ballerinas were featured in the first Impressionist exhibition of 1874. Two such well known paintings, it’s hard to imagine they were once not considered art.
Monet is famous of course for painting the same subjects over and over, but he was not the only Impressionist to do so. Check out the Degas ballet dancers – 30 years apart. The style may have changed, and loosened up somewhat, but the dancers remain the same.
The Impressionists often painted their friends. The pair of Renoirs are two of my favorite paintings of all. I actually had prints of them many years ago. I love the look on the girls’ faces. But who are the sitters, and more importantly, who are those girls? The man is the same in both paintings – a writer friend of Renoir’s. The girls are the interesting sitters. The Country Girl looking straight at us is Renoir’s future wife. The City Girl, who’s a little more modest, is Suzanne Valadon. A rare female artist of the nineteenth century she established her own studio in Montmartre. Her studio is now a museum to the artists of Montmartre that you can visit – you can read my post about the Montmartre, including the museum, here.
Architecture and decorative arts in the Musée d’Orsay
French Second Empire decoration was eclectic, drawing on multiple inspirations. From the East, the past and the new technologies of the Industrial Revolution, they all found a place in the homes of the wealthy and the growing middle class. The opulence of the style reflected the prosperity, and optimism of the reign of Napoleon III.
The beautiful ballroom you find intact (only missing its furniture) was brought in its entirety from the old railways hotel next door to the original railway station. I don’t know about you, but I can just imagine the girl that the yellow dress in one of my original photos waltzing the evening away in that room!
The later Art Nouveau style is not known for its brilliant colours, but I did find some examples that I thought were very pretty. I love the references to nature.
Before you leave, do stop to view the museum, and indeed the whole world at your feet………..
I hope you have enjoyed your Musée d’Orsay private tour. What is your favorite piece, and why?
If you are interested in a guided Musée d’Orsay tour, I recommend the Meet the Impressionists tour by Take Walks – click here to book >>
Rick Steves has an excellent, detailed self guided tour of the Musée d’Orsay: