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A beautiful art collection housed in stunning architecture, the Musée d'Orsay is situated in Paris, France. It is on the south side of the river, almost opposite its better known counterpart, the Louvre, and although it is less famous, it does not deserve to be in the shadow of its pyramid-toting rival. It features a superb collection of 19th and early 20th Century Western art in a quite spectacular setting.
Although the museum only opened its doors in 1986, the building and the collections both date back much further than this. It occupies the old Orsay Station and Hotel building, which opened in 1900, on the site of the old Palais d'Orsay1. Victor Laloux, architect of the Hotel de Ville in Paris, was given the demanding task of designing a large modern railway terminal which would fit in with the elegant surroundings of the Louvre, the Tuileries, and the Palais de la Légion d'honneur. This was a challenge because the pragmatic necessities involved in building a modern functional station were incompatible with the prevailing local architecture. So although the station itself is attractive enough, its integration with the surroundings was achieved by making the Hotel d'Orsay act as an aesthetically pleasing facade on the river side.
By 1939, the station had lost its central role in France's southwestern rail network. Longer trains had been introduced on the main lines and so it was relagated to suburban services. By the 1970s the building was threatened with destruction, to be replaced by a modern hotel. Fortunately this beautiful building was spared when it was listed on the Supplementary Inventory of Historical Monuments in 1973 and then classified as a Historical Monument in 1978.
When the station was converted into a museum, it was modified according to the ACT architecture group's2 plans. Whilst the exterior is largely unchanged, their most striking contribution is the design of the interior of the great hall, integrating three levels of galleries down each side. It does not diminish the vast expanse of the hall, and yet it transforms its character. By comparison, the turbine hall in London's Tate Modern gallery, while impressive, seems like a big but rather non-descript empty space.
An important factor in the building's reprise was the choice of the Direction des Musées de France to use it as a museum to contain art from the second half of the 19th Century. The official decision to build this museum in the Orsay station was made in 1977. The collections it now contains originate mainly from The Louvre, the Musée du Jeu de Paume and the Musée National d'Art Moderne (originally installed in the Centre Pompidou).
The museum focuses on a fairly narrow period - the latter half of the 19th Century and first decade and a half of the 20th Century. By concentrating on a relatively short time span, it is able to expand the scope of the collection beyond painting and sculpture to a greater extent than most museums, with extensive exhibits of furniture, photography, decorative arts and architecture.
An exhaustive catalogue of the works on display would be excessive here, but to give a brief idea of what's available, there are many paintings and pastels by Ingres, Delacroix, Degas, Moreau, Millet, Courbet, Manet, Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat, and Toulouse-Lautrec, to name but a few.