The Musée d’Orsay has the biggest collection of impressionist and post impressionist art in the world. If you are a fan of Monet or Renoir, or simply want to understand this art movement’s enduring popularity, this is a good place to start. It is a dazzling collection.
For this reason it is always busy. There were over 3 million visitors in 2015. However, a little forward planning can make life a little easier. It is possible to see the whole collection (three floors when we visited in February) in a few hours or in a day, if you want to linger.
Our Top Tips
1. Buy your tickets in advance. The entrance for ticket-holders is C, on the rue de Lille side of the building. You will still have to queue but it will quicker and you won’t have to queue again to buy a ticket. Everyone has to go through airport style security checks on entering the building. Tickets can be bought online or at FNAC stores and tourist information offices.
2. If possible visit the museum during the low season. We visited in February, around 3pm on a weekday and strolled straight in. It was still busy but bearable. The less busy times are first thing, late afternoon and late nights openings. The winter months are also quieter.
3. Pick up a floor plan and start your visit at floor zero: enter the museum and take the steps down. You will be met with a replica of the Statue of Liberty. The central sculpture aisle has some remarkable pieces as do the rooms on either side. At the far end of the floor, on the right (as you look from the entrance), past the cafe, you will find the elevator. Take that to the fifth floor.
As you step out of the elevator you will be met by one of the museum’s famous clocks and through it a view across the rooftops of Paris. The building used to be the Gare d’Orsay, a gorgeous Beaux-Arts railway station built between 1898 and 1900. The building’s clocks have been preserved and are now an iconic part of the museum.
The fifth floor is the jewel in the crown. There are paintings by Sisley, Manet, Degas, Renoir, Monet and the list goes on. There is so much to see it can be overwhelming. The curators have made things easier by hanging the most important paintings on the central columns. However, they are all masterpieces and at times it can be hard to know where to look.
4. When you reach the end of the impressionist floor, it will be time for a break. On the fifth floor you will find Cafe Campana. We stopped for a light lunch of salads and a glass of wine. They had some delicious looking puddings. Alternatively, you can head down to Level 2 for the main restaurant (check opening hours), an opulent dining room with high painted ceilings and funky chairs. It is a beautiful room – quite possibly the most beautiful museum restaurant in the world.
5. End your visit on second floor. There is post-impressionist work by Van Gogh and Gaugin, amongst others, on one side along with sculptures by Rodin (Rooms 70-72 and the terrace). On the other side are Art Nouveau decorative arts along with more post-impressionist work.
The second floor galleries are remarkable for the sympathetic way in which the rooms have been built into what was originally a railway station. Low rise walls and interesting angles mean visitors can still marvel at the magnificent steel and glass roof.
We thoroughly enjoyed our visit. Despite visiting Paris on a number of occasions, this was the first time we visited the museum. Long queues and the allure of summer sunshine always kept us away. These are our highlights:
- Bal du moulin de la galette, Renoir – as I approached the painting I could hear the music, chattering, laughing of the dance. It’s was the most peculiar feeling. Go and see if you can hear the music.
- Glace sur la Seine à Bennecour, Monet – this painting caught my eye because it captures perfectly the sensation of looking at an icy river on a sunny winter’s day. You almost want to squint as the ice reflects the winter sunlight making it hard to look.
- La gare Saint-Lazare, Monet – looking at this painting was a similar experience to Renoir’s painting. You can hear the hiss of the smoke and the chug chug of the train as it pulls in.
- Dante and Virgil, William Bouguereau – the painting is a visceral depiction of an episode in Dante’s Inferno. It is a powerful painting capturing the fury of a fight and at the same time, capturing the beauty of the flesh.
- Pan with Bear Cubs, Emmanuel Frémiet – this sculpture caught my eye because of the wry smile on Pan’s face. It is rare to see a smiling face on a sculpture.
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Useful Links: Musée d’Orsay