When a train station became an art museum

How L’Origine du Monde came to be hung in the Gare d’Orsay

Anyone who’s visited Paris no doubt will have admired the building, if not been inside to take in all the majestic art inside. Right in the heart of the French capital, overlooking the Seine, stands the Musée d’Orsay, just over the river from the extraordinary Tuileries Gardens. Its collections hold some of the world’s greatest works of art, not least ‘Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe’, ‘L’Origine du Monde’ and ‘Le Bal du Moulin de la Galette’.

It’s such a fixture of the Parisian tourist circuit that it’s easy to forget that it’s only actually been a museum since 1986. Because before that, for some decades, the building was a train station: today we’ll be telling you all about its remarkable transformation.

The prime location had given Napoleon ideas. In 1810, he founded the French empire’s cavalry barracks on this site, along with the Palais d’Orsay. This regal building first housed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and would later be home to the Council of State and the Court of Auditors– until the Paris Commune put paid to that. During the night of May 23, the insurgents set fire to the building. Emile Zola tells the story best in La Débâcle:

‘The immense fire, unprecedented, terrifying, engulfed the entire place, the two floors vomiting flames. The four buildings surrounding the interior courtyard were set alight at the same time; petrol streamed down the stairwells, cascading violently down as if marching straight to hell.’

What was left was a wreck of a building, which stood overlooking the Seine for several decades. But as Paris was preparing to welcome the Universal Exposition in 1900, the private Paris-Orléans rail company revived the building once more. This international event was to draw visitors from far and wide, and so this firm saw an opportunity to make this historic building the jewel in its railway-network crown.

Victor Laloux was the man in charge of proceedings. He was tasked with creating a true cathedral of the rails – one that would also house a luxury hotel. It was in good company: not all that far away, of course, stood the glamorous Palais du Louvre.

What’s more, the station would be the first to welcome exclusively electric trains. That meant Laloux didn’t have to consider allowing the black fumes of steam trains to escape when designing his station. His building could be enclosed. The greatest testament to this architectural freedom is the station’s iconic glass roof, which endures to this day. In spring 1888, the renovation works started, with 300 day workers and 80 night workers labouring tirelessly to bring the project to fruition. On July 14 1900, the ultra-modern Gare d’Orsay was inaugurated.

However, as time went on, the Gare d’Orsay struggled to keep up with the accelerating progress of the railway industry, above all because its platforms were too short to accommodate modern trains. In 1939, regional services were scrapped and only trains to the banlieues would henceforth depart from the station. But despite that, it soon became entangled in historical events once again. In 1945, it became a welcome centre for deportees and prisoners from the Second World War, and it was also the location Charles de Gaulle chose to make his speech announcing his political comeback in 1958.

But that same year, train services to the Gare d’Orsay were to come to an abrupt end, while the luxury hotel welcomed its final visitors in 1973. Yet again, it became a white elephant in the heart of the City of Light, a place the city authorities tried their hardest to ignore. Various ideas were suggested: an administrative base for Air France, perhaps, or another luxury hotel – one that would require knocking down the entire structure and starting from scratch. This almost went ahead, until another French President decided to get involved. In 1973, Georges Pompidou listed the building as a historical monument, to the great displeasure of property speculators.

That’s when officials first began to consider transforming it into a museum, as far-fetched as it may have seemed: at that time, only religious buildings or palaces had had that honour. It may have taken a good century, but it appeared people were finally beginning to admire the architecture of railway stations.

One thing led to another, and ensuing presidents took up the baton. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing officially approved the construction of the Musée d’Orsay in 1977 and François Mitterrand was also a supporter following his election in 1981. Pierre Colboc, Renaud Bardon and Jean-Paul Philippon were the architects charged with giving a new lease of life to the building. The Italian Gae Aulenti was to oversee the interior design of the museum.

On December 9 1986, the new Musée d’Orsay welcomed its first passengers: people wanting travel in time, through art, rather than across the country. The next time you make it over to the Orsay, knowing all about its railway past will lend you a whole new fascinating perspective as you wander around.

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