Transcript for Episode 15: How to Prepare for Your Visit to the Orsay Museum

Table of Contents for this Episode

Categories: First Time in Paris, Museums in Paris, Paris


This Is the Transcript for Episode 15 of the Join Us in France Travel Podcast

00:00′ Annie: This is join us in France episode 15. Hello, I’m Annie.

Elyse: and I’m Elyse.

Annie: and we welcome you to the join us in France travel podcast. Elyse is a  professional tour guide, art historian, and a really good storyteller.

Elyse: a professional talker.

Discussing the Good and the Bad of the Orsay Museum

Annie: on today’s show, we dive into one of France’s most wonderful museums, the Orsay Museum, in Paris. I have to admit I really like that Museum because I find the art there approachable. But, there are some issues with it. So we will talk about it, it’s not too big, not too small, I just like it,
I think it’s a must-see in Paris; I think it gets a lot of visitors, right? And as always, don’t worry if you can’t take notes and you’d like to, you can find our show notes on

Order of Business for the Podcast

So, I want to update you on how the show is going; I have done a few things to get the word out about this podcast on social networks; the show has a Facebook page, with quite a few followers and quite a few Likes, we could always use more obviously. And we would love to have more people participate, tell us what you think, make comments. We really enjoy whenever
people participate on the Facebook page. There are two people who are really good about looking at her Facebook page and these are Nancy Valdez and Joseph Avioli.

Elyse: Joseph Avioli! He’s one of my clients from Paris. Here’s Joe again, thanks Joe!

Annie: yes, he’s great, he always sees the page and likes everything, he’s wonderful. So, we would love more interaction, to find us it’s very easy: it’s and then search for Join Us in France. And then, I had a harebrained idea. You see, young people, they are all on YouTube, right? And YouTube is huge, I mean, people under 40 they spent half of the Internet time on YouTube. So, I thought, we should be there too!

How Do You Say “Notre Dame”?

And I thought, I love to take pictures, and I have all these pictures of Notre Dame… Yes, I can’t stand to say “Notre Daime” that sounds so wrong. So for me, it’s not for them okay? And, I had all these pictures, and I thought maybe I could use all these pictures and make a slide show and put one of the episodes on top. And so that’s what I did!

Elyse: isn’t that a great idea?

Annie: yes! And it’s nice because you can listen to the episode while looking at pictures of Notre Dame. Now obviously, I’m not showing you pictures of what Elyse is talking about, because I don’t necessarily have all the pictures of what Elyse is talking about.

Elyse: but you get a good idea.

Annie: yes, you get a good idea, you see all these pictures, it helps you visualize. And so, that’s on YouTube. If you go to YouTube, you will find our join us in France travel podcast, that’s what it’s called. And, we only have three followers, it’s very sad…

Elyse: they’ll come!

Annie: so please, come to YouTube, and subscribe to our channel. I will not put every episode on there, because I don’t have enough pictures for every  episode, but I’ll try, I’ll probably do the Eiffel Tower, because I have a lot of pictures, that I took from the Eiffel Tower and of the Eiffel Tower. That’s all
the promotion I have for today Elyse.

Elyse: you’re always good for the promotion Annie!

Annie: well, someone has to do it! We love to see the show grow, and it has been growing, so it’s really wonderful. So now, a little music to get us in the mood, and then we’ll get right into it!

Elyse: great!

04:16′ Elyse: hi Annie!

Annie: hi Elyse, how are you?

The Museum Americans Love

Elyse: I’m fine. So, today we’re going to talk about the museum and that Americans love it to see in Paris. And that is the Orsay Museum. This is, quite honestly, it probably has a bit less of a number of visitors than the Louvre, because of visitors go to the Louvre come from every country in the world.

But, as far as Americans are concerned, it is the one Museum in Paris to not to miss. And this is very interesting because it’s a very popular Museum, and of course at the end we talk about the practical info will talk a little bit about that, but it happens to be a particularly important Museum for American tourists, and secondly Japanese tourists, but even more so for American tourists, for the simple reason that this is the museum in Paris that has Impressionist art. And as far as most Americans are concerned, their idea of painting, and painting in France, and painting in relation to the French artists, really is associated with Impressionists and for people who were not in the business of being an art historian, they kind that glop together Impressionists and post Impressionists, but I’ll explain a bit with the difference is.

Annie: okay, I glop together then.

Elyse: you’re a “gloper”, what can I tell you?! But anyway the reason why it is such an important and very very popular Museum, so I thought we should take  a tour of the Orsay Museum.

Annie: that sounds great!

Historical Origins of the Orsay Museum Building

Elyse: and what we’re going to do is we’re going to talk a little bit about the history of the building and then talk about the collection of fabulous painting and sculpture and some photography that is what has made this museum so famous all over the world.

06:40′ So, the Orsay Museum is a fabulous looking building that is along the Seine River, really almost directly across from the Louvre, it is a museum you can walk to from the other side of the river, all you have to do is walk across the bridge that goes through the Tuileries Gardens, which are the gardens that
are across the way, or you can get there if you are on the left side of the river from various buses that go by there and the Metro to. So it’s a museum that’s relatively easy to access.

The Orsay Museum Was an Administrative Building Before It Was a Train Station

And I want to say a few things about the main building itself because it is rather impressive. Orsay used to be a train station. Now, the actual history of the building is quite fascinating, it was begun NOT as a train station. This is what everybody knows, that the building was a train station before, but it turns out, that even before it was a train station, it was a palace built for the administration. It was actually a government building.

Annie: I did not know that.

Elyse: no very few people know that. It actually was built starting in 1810, so it was built quite a long time ago, and that first building was a good example of very fancy administration. A very beautiful building made of stone, limestone, of course, that all the big buildings in Paris are made out of, with lots of sculpture on the outside, and with some very elaborate gold gilded decorations on the wall on the rooms on the inside, moulding, and it was an administration building, through most of the 1800s.

The Original Building Is Destroyed by Fire then Rebuilding with Cast Iron and Glass

And then what happened was at the very end of the 1890s, there was a terrible terrible fire, that destroyed a good part of the building. Remember this is the same time as the Eiffel Tower and all of these things, and so they decided they were going to rebuild the structure their, and what they did is they use the same ideas they had used for the Eiffel Tower, and they gave that a couple of architects the job of creating the structure. And the actual structure that is invisible, is actually made of cast iron and glass.

Annie: yes, you do see a lot of cast iron and glass.

Elyse: you see the Windows, but you don’t really see the structure, because it got covered over, relatively quickly. So because in the memory of Parisians the building was an administrative building from the early 1800s, they made this
very modern structure, and if you go online, you can see a few pictures of when it was being built. It was a little bit like the Grand Palais, all glass and cast iron and everything.

And then, they decided they were going to cover it over, on the inside and on the outside, with neoclassical traditional style stucco, plaster, and stone. So they hid what was the modern structure of the building. So we got covered on the outside with a little bit of stone and plaster with these sculptures, very ornate, and they did the same thing on the inside with what are called “caissons”. So the inside which is this enormous tunnel curved high ceiling, is covered with plaster squares, that are actually sculpted into the ceiling. So they work acoustically but in fact they cover up the original intention of the architecture of the building.

Annie: but it looks good, it’s a very pleasant looking building.

general view of the inside of the orsay museum

The Paris — Orléans Train Line

Elyse: it’s a very pleasant looking building, so when it was finished, it was inaugurated in 1898, as a train station. And we know that Paris has a lot of train stations but this was to be the first train station for electric trains. And it was that Paris – Orléans line, which means going south and slightly southwest. And it stayed up train station for a number of years, and it only stopped to being a train station in 1839, which is the beginning of World War II but it didn’t stop being a train station because of the war. It stopped because by this point the tracks were not long enough for the trains, and the technological aspects for the train systems had changed and they could not incorporate it into the trains arriving into this train station any more.

Annie: so there was some sort of incompatibility.

Elyse: it was an incompatibility, that’s exactly what it was. So they literally stopped using it as a train station. So we have the World War II period, the occupation of Paris, and then in 1945 and for several years after that the building itself as a receiving center for prisoners of war and for people who were survivors of the camps. So it was never destroyed, it is considered being a very beautiful building, and once is stopped being used for that purpose, there was a question of what to do with it.

So, we’re talking about the period between 1950 and 1970. Some people wanted to raze the building to add other things, to change the skyline along that section of the Seine River, and of course as usual there was a group of people who wanted to keep it because it’s a very beautiful building. But, what do you do with the building that was designed to be a train station? It is  cavernous on the inside.

Annie: yes, it’s very large, and very tall.

Elyse: it’s very tall, it’s this enormous tunnel shaped building. It was not designed in any way with natural light. So, what do you do with the building like this to become a museum? Well, it took a long time for some architects and some city administrators to work it out. And finally, in the early 1970s, they came out with an idea. The Louvre Museum, which of course is the largest art museum in the world, was the home to a lot of the 19th century art collection, which was very important in relation to the history of art not just in France but all over Europe.

The 19th century is the period when painting and sculpture flourished in France. Most of the French painters and artists we know from the 19th century and the very beginning of the 20th century. And most of this work was either in storage some place, or was shown in a tiny little room.

Annie: in storage?

Elyse: in storage yes! Well, first of all, I don’t know if you realize it but, a museum is like an iceberg, the amount of work you see is usually 1/4 to 1/5 of the work that a Museum owns.

Annie: really?

Elyse: always. So what happens is, you have in permanent collections a usual rotation of works, now when you have big pieces of sculpture that makes it a bit more complicated, but basically, when it comes to painting, photography small objects, small sculptures, you have to imagine that for every one you see
there are at least three or four in storage somewhere. So, this  is what happened.

The Orsay Museum Is the Home of 19th Century French Art

15:20′ The 19th century is the century for French art. There was no specific museum dedicated exclusively to that time period in Paris. There was a Museum of 20th century art, that is the Centre Pompidou. There was a small museum at the Orangerie, and that was the Louvre which has everything from the beginning of time right up through to the end of the 19th century, but the
19th century was not the concentration of the very important work in the Louvre. So it was decided to take this train station and converted into a museum that would be the Museum of 19th century art.

Of 19th century French art at first, exclusively French. Basically everything in the museum is are things that were created between 1848 and 1914. Everything stops with World War I. And that’s another thing, that’s another thing in art history that I can talk about some of the time. So it took a number of years to work on the building and to turn it into a Museum. And when the building was opened as a museum, it was inaugurated in 1986, so that’s not very long ago, it’s 28 years
ago. And it was an immediate success. I was actually living in Paris at the time.

Annie: this is when I left France by the way. 1987.

Elyse: this is when you left France… We crossed in the air Annie, we probably could have waived to each other from our airplanes. And I remember what a big deal the opening was of the Orsay Museum. And literally, I am not exaggerating, from the first day it was full. There was a crowd waiting for the doors to open to get inside, and it has never ever changed.

The Most Popular Museum in Paris

Annie: it is a very popular Museum.

Elyse: it is a very popular Museum. Now I know we’ve had another podcast talking about Versailles. Versailles is a humongous place that is packed to the brim inside the Château, but when you go there if you go to the park, you don’t feel it. You don’t feel the fact that there’s that many thousands of people there, but of course, inside the Château you do. Orsay is pretty much the same thing, except that there’s no park on the outside.

Late Opening Hours at the Orsay Museum

There is the Seine River, you can walk along the banks along the Seine River. But, this is what happens. Orsay is open, like all the other museums, six days a week, it’s opened late one night, which happens to be Thursday night.

Annie: by late you mean?

Elyse: 8:45 PM.

Annie: well, that’s not very late, but okay.

Elyse: well, except for the weekend where they have the museums open all might long. Like in the Ben Stiller movie where you know, the museum comes to life in the middle of the night.

Annie: Night at the Museum!

Elyse: it would be wonderful to have some of the statues coming to life tapping you on the shoulder. But they don’t. But otherwise, to go closing time is 6 o’clock. And 6 o’clock means you start getting shootout at 5:45 PM. They start announcing that the museum is closing.

Annie: yeah, French people like to go home at the end of the day, and they won’t keep it open for you.

Elyse: but all people do!

Annie: yeah but in America they are much more… No? She’s waving know at me!

Elyse: no, in fact the museums have even shorter hours because Orsay is open from 9:30 in the morning on. So, it’s open from 9:30 till 5:45, Thursday nights open till 8:45. That’s basically the hours that you’ll get. But the thing about Orsay is that it opens at 9:30, if you are not there on a day when it’s -25,000
outside, and the winds are coming off the Seine River, you might as well show up at 9 o’clock in the morning because at 9:30 there is already a crowd outside waiting to get in. It is an extremely popular Museum.

Annie: although, last time I was there, it was just a couple of years ago, I think it was February or maybe early March and it was manageable; there were people, but it was manageable.

Buy Your Tickets for the Orsay Museum in Advance!

Elyse: if you were there in February unless it was the period of the vacation, you know winter break, you will have somewhat less congestion. Obviously, the summer months are just unbearable in terms of getting in. However, the same advice applies here, it’s even on the website, it’s interesting, it says very clearly: this is a museum that is very popular, the crowds show up immediately at opening times, in order to avoid standing on line for one hour, to buy your tickets in advance. Buy your ticket online, and when you buy the tickets, make sure it is a ticket that you can print out because once you the ticket to the Orsay Museum, you can actually use the ticket to go to the Rodin Museum as well.

Annie: oh, and that is one you should go to, it’s my favorite museum in Paris.

Elyse: yes will talk about it because some smaller museums… I like talking about these big ones because these are the ones that people of heard of, the ones people want to go to, but there are some small ones that are absolute gems and the Rodin Museum is one of them. What’s interesting, is that it’s encouraged even by people who run the museum for you to buy the
ticket ahead of time.

Different Entrances into the Orsay Museum

There are two different doorways into the museum if you have your ticket ahead of time you go to the door that’s to the right of the big esplanade, you may have a five minute wait to get in and then you go to the security check
which now is obligatory in all of these museums? And then you go into the museum. Because otherwise you can really spend an hour outside. But the other problem to is that the Orsay Museum is famous for his permanent collection will talk about what’s in it in a minute, but it’s also famous for very good temporary exhibits.

So what happens is, when you have a very good exhibit their a temporary exhibit, it doubles the crowd that’s waiting on line to get inside. Which means it’s one of those places where it’s not worth it, I  wouldn’t want to if I only had a few days in Paris, even if I had a week in Paris, I wouldn’t want to wait on line for an hour and a half to get a ticket.

Annie: of course estimation point if you can do it some other way, do it some other way.

Elyse: and it doesn’t cost any different. I mean, it’s same price it’s the exact same price.

Annie: is it part of the museum pass?

Elyse: it is part of the museum pass, which is wonderful because with the museum pass aside from the fact that you might have a teeny little weight, you can go in you can go out, you can go back in a little bit later she feels like it. The advantages of the pass is that you really have an open sesame and you can go in and out as much as you want.

Why Is the Orsay Museum So Popular? A Historical Review

23:00′ Elyse: So, let’s talk about this museum and why it’s incredibly popular, and why it’s incredibly famous. As I mentioned just a couple of minutes ago, the 19th century was the century for French artists. If we talk about the Renaissance, we usually think about Italy. If we talk about most of the painting
and even a lot of the sculpture that was done from the early 1800s to the beginning of World War I, even though there are artists in other countries that we’ve heard of, the majority of art that we know about as general culture is French.

The 1800s Are the Glory Days of French Painting

This was their glorious artistic century. Which is kind of ironic because
it certainly wasn’t from a political point of view. But it was actually the richest incredible time for painting. And this is one of the things you do see, if you take the time, and have the patience, to not just go see the Impressionist artwork in the Museum, but to see everything in the Museum, and this is something that I feel very strongly about, France was a country that had spent basically 100 years doing a very conservative academic painting. In fact, it’s called the Academy.

orsay museum visitor taking a picture of the art on the wall

Academic Painting Under Louis XIV

This is where we get the sense of academic painting because in France starting with our wonderful famous Louis XIV, you have what are
called the academies. And these are the different societies: one for writing, one for painting, one for architecture, one for mathematics, and all these different subjects, and this group of people, largely man until the very recent times, they decided what was in and what was out. What you could do, and what you can do.

The style he should have, and the style that was not acceptable. So our idea of what was academic really comes from this thing, this academy. And so, for a long time, that’s what French painting was like. Now, some of it is okay, it happens that most of it is not my particular cup of tea, but there is some really interesting things that you can see.

New Influences After the French Revolution

But then what happened was that at the beginning of the 19th century, there was a movement: the French revolution, Napoleon and a lot of people leaving. Going to England, going to other European countries, or even to the United States, and coming back not only with new ideas about politics but, there was more of an exchange happening and there was this movement of let’s liberate ourselves from this old stuffy movement of painting.

The Organization of the Collections at the Orsay Museum

And so, what you see if you go through the entire collection at the Orsay Museum, because everything is arranged in chronological order, which is very unusual, so what you have is, you can actually follow the development of painting. It’s a little bit easier than sculpture and will talk about that situation
physically in the Museum in a minute, but it’s a start in the Museum down below on the ground floor, on one side which is on one side where you get past the security check where you show your ticket, you arrive on a kind of mezzanine Esplanade, and you have this staircase that takes you down to the ground floor with this majestic, absolutely superb view of the entire structure, and to your left on the ground floor, and then on the medium floor which is not really the second floor but they call it that, and then the top floor which is really the top floor even though they call it the fifth floor…

Annie: French logic don’t even try to figure it out!

Elyse: yeah, you have all the paintings starting with the off the 1800s, work your way back and forth in a kind of zigzag and you get to the top.

Annie: so you start from the bottom?

Elyse: yes, if you have the time. So, this is the thing about the Orsay. Something will come and they only want to see the Monet, Cézanne, Renoir. I mean, basically, they want city Impressionists. They know that this is where the Impressionists are, they walk in, they go to the top floor, they look at them
for an hour, and they leave.

Annie: and the art on the left or the right?

Elyse: all the way on the top floor on the left, standing facing the building once you get inside. So it’s on the north side, the side that’s actually closest to the Seine River. But, there are people who do that. Then, there are people, and I will confess that since I go there quite often, occasionally that’s what I do, especially since I’m accompanying people someone to talk about some of the paintings, I will take them up to the Impressionist paintings, first, and then I will say there are other things to see. Let’s go down below and let’s take a look
at some of these other things.

The Chronological Evolution of Art in France Starting in the 1800s

But, the concept of this Museum is to show the evolution of the art in France, from the beginning of the 1800s to the beginning of the 1900s. So, if you do the Museum the way the people have thought of it, you start at the bottom, you work your way through various kinds of styles, and you work your way up to the medium level, and you work your way up to the top level on the north side, and then you come back down around, and you go back down to the medium level, and on the other side, this case being the south side, you will have the period of what’s called post-Impressionism, and I’ll talk a little bit about who those people are, and then when you get back down to the bottom, you have photography, and you have in the center of this massive structure, hundreds and hundreds of pieces of sculpture.

Annie: and some of them are amazing.

Elyse: and the only other part of this Museum, which I happen to like a lot, which is a little bit ignored but I don’t think should be, there is a whole section on the median or medium level that’s on the side that is the painting side, that is Art déco, and Art nouveau. Because they have a whole section of
decorative arts, of furniture, of ceramics, magnificent original pieces that are both from the Art nouveau and Art déco period, which were the two important decorative periods for that time frame.

Temporary Exhibits at the Orsay Museum

30:25′ Annie: and if they have a temporary exhibit, it’s going to be on the very top, right?

Elyse: no! Because they just rearranged everything, see in the last two years they’ve changed a lot of the things, and thankfully for seeing the Impressionist art work they have really done what they should’ve done from the beginning, because originally it was set in these tiny little rooms, you could pull back to take a look at anything, and now they have done is they’ve taken the entire top floor, on the northern side, in these very large rooms, mostly with some natural light, not all of them, and they have made a succession of rooms all for the
Impressionist paintings.

So all temporary exhibits are on the medium level, not on the ground level, which means you don’t go down the steps, when you go in the door after you give your tickets, you go to the left, and there’s a little desk there where you can get an audio guide if you want, and all the temporary exhibits are on that level right now. And it’s a fairly decent sized space, the last exhibit that I saw a few months ago was an exhibit on the male nudity in painting, the one before that was on fashion and the paintings of the Impressionist painters and they had a collection of the paintings and of the beautiful dresses that the women wore. And they showed how they were inspired, actually some of the paintings were inspired by the dresses, and some of the dresses  were inspired by the paintings. I liked that exhibit quite a lot.

Great Quality Temporary Exhibits at the Orsay Museum

Annie: and when I was there a couple of years ago, it was an exhibit on Mahler I think, the musician, the composer, it is really fun because you entered the room and they were playing one of the symphonies, and you can walk around the room and you could see the original manuscript of the score for that piece.
And I was there with my in-laws, and they are both professional musicians, and you know I was just looking around at everything and I’m not very well educated in music, and all of a sudden I realized that my mother-in-law had found on the wall, on the score, the staff there was playing, and she was following along for quite a long time. And I thought all my goodness these
people are just out of this world!

Elyse: yes, it’s an interesting thing that has happened in the evolution of the Museum, originally it was supposed to be exclusively for French artists. And now, that has opened up, because you have your temporary exhibits, one of the ones I saw recently was almost exclusively German art, German art of the
19th century, but also because with certain kinds of artwork, particularly in photography, they had to include American artists. Because American artists especially in photography artists are very important starting at the end of the 19th century, and then they do have Shermans, which are 19th century,
romantics, Goethe, and…

Annie: yes, it’s pretty very, I think it’s very nice that they have a little bit of everything.

Elyse: yes, it does touch on everything. Basically, it’s what we could say is the Western art 19th century Museum. And it does very much stopped in 1914. For the simple reason that art immediately changed with World War I. But, as they would say, that’s another story to tell.

The Largest Collection of Impressionist and Post Impressionist Painting and Art

33:58′ Elyse: so, just to give people an idea, I know that most people of heard of the Orsay Museum, and they do want to go there. This is the largest collection of Impressionist and post Impressionist painting and art in the world. Without question. Just some numbers for some specific painters and  artists: remember, these numbers don’t indicate what you would see at any
given time, this is the numbers for how many of these works by these artists seem owns. So, without Pacific chronological order, because it’s a bit complicated and most people were not in the business don’t really know what the order is in chronological order for some of these artists, anyway.

Lots of Edouard Manet

But anyway, just to get an idea, Manet (Edouard) who is a painter that I have come to appreciate more and more and more, I used to like him now I love him, okay? Manet has 39 paintings and 12 pastel drawings in the collection of the Museum.

A Major Collection of Renoir

Renoir (Auguste) who is a name that I think anyone who knows anything about painting in the last couple of hundred years has heard of
even if they don’t know how to recognize one of his paintings, there are 62 of his paintings. Now he was a very prolific, that does not mean other people have a Renoir, he produced a lot of artwork, but still, 62 is a huge number for any one artist.

Stunning Toulouse Lautrec

Toulouse Lautrec, who was down from where we live, in the southwest of France, and where there is a Museum that has a large collection of his works, has 18. Van Gogh, there are surprisingly fewer than you might imagine, there are 23. And the most of them, unlike a lot of the other artists, are in fact on
display. At least 50% at any given time.

Most Popular of All: Van Gogh

Annie: yes, you see some amazing Van Gogh there.

Elyse: they have his self-portraits, they have Starry Nights, now the reasons why there are only 23 is that of course he didn’t live very long. And he didn’t produce that much work although I must say for someone who died at the age of 37 he was extraordinarily prolific. However, there are other reasons. One is that it Amsterdam there is a huge van Gogh Museum, which has a huge collection of his works, and also his works are owned by many many many Americans and American museums. He is a real favorite for Americans.

Paul Gauguin

There is also Gauguin (Paul) who was his sort of friend, his friend and then his ex-friend. There are 23 of his paintings and three of his pastels.

Annie: and I enjoy those very much myself.

72 Paintings by Claude Monet

Elyse: and, probably as a two people that people go to see the most even though they are not the same in terms of style, we have Monet (Claude) there are 72. 72 paintings by Monet.

Annie: that’s a lot, I didn’t realize that, see.

Elyse: but, believe it or not, as many paintings as they have by Monet at the Orsay, there are more at the Marmottan ( which is a small Museum in the 16th arrondissement, and there are more in the United States. He was really prolific, and he lived till he was 84, and he painted
till the day he died. So his painting is magnificent and personally, if you go to see anyone painter at this Museum, it has to be Monet. That’s my attitude about it.

You Will See Wonderful Cézanne Also

But there is also one of my other favorite painters, someone who is a little more divisive as far as the public opinion about him, but that I also think is wonderful, and that is Paul Cézanne. And Cézanne there are 46 of his paintings in the Museum. So, this is just to give you an idea.

Annie: but they are not all on display at once, right?

Elyse guiding a group inside of the Orsay Museum

Whistler’s Mother

Elyse: no, but let’s say that when you go upstairs to the period that covers the Impressionists and post Impressionists because van Gogh is not Impressionist he is post Impressionists, but it doesn’t matter, all of these you will see the Monet there is a good 20 on exhibit if you count all the different things. You
have other people to, you have Whistler, people have probably heard if they’ve never seen Whistler’s mother they think of that, the actual name of the painting is Study in Gray and Black Number One, and he used his mother as an excuse to make a painting that was a study in white gray and black, there is only that painting, but it’s a major painting.

But Whistler was someone who was an expat, he was born in the United States but he went and lived his artistic life in England, and he was very
good friends with Monet. And Monet used to go and spend time with Whistler and with an English artist named Turner. And just like artists do, the three of them would go and find the place along the Thames, and the three of them would set up the easels and would all paint the same things and then they would look at each other’s work and say wow you did that! And of course, each
one has a very distinctive style. So it’s fabulous.

Do You Know about Alfred Sisley?

39:40′ Elyse: There is so much painting! But there are other painters, there are painters that most Americans have not heard of. One of them, when I take people through, that they asked me about is a man named Sisley (Alfred) who was a French painter who was in Impressionist painter, they have quite a collection of his work in the Museum. And his work is absolutely lovely, and people actually say how come I’ve never heard of him? Let’s put it this way, you have your A-list, you have your B list, this Museum has them all.

How About Camille Pissarro?

And in fact, in French art history and in French artistic circles Sisley is well-known, he is less known in the United States, Pissarro (Camille) is somebody else who is relatively well known here and not as well-known in the United States. But it is fabulous.

How to Find the Van Gogh Area

To see the Van Gogh, the Gauguin, and the Seurat (Georges) you have to go down to the second level on the other side, because those are considered being in the period after the Impressionists. But it gives you a wonderful idea of the development of the different ideas of how
to do painting.

Annie: so, just to recap, when you start you would enter the Museum, you would start from the bottom, on your left-hand side?

What To Do If You Only Have Two Hours at the Orsay Museum

Elyse: okay, let’s say this. If you only have a couple of hours, and you don’t have more than that, obviously the thing to do is to go straight up to the Impressionists and then go to see the post Impressionists which are the van Gogh, the Gauguin, those people. Because I do think that’s what people come to see.

Annie: yes that is the outstanding stuff.

Elyse: that’s the stuff that’s most famous. It’s the most well known, it’s what people come to see. If you love that and you have more time, you can simply take the time to go back downstairs, because quite honestly, it doesn’t matter. You can go back and look at the other painting afterwords. The other
painting is a little more classical in style, it still very figurative, we’re in Museum that has no abstract painting, this is all figurative painting. But you have different schools of painting.

Orientalism at the Orsay Museum

So you have a school called Orientalism which I happen to like a lot, because it’s very colorful is very sensual is very beautiful. You have paintings that were inspired by travels to North Africa to Morocco and Algeria, you have these sexy ladies lying around in these very interesting positions. It’s very beautiful painting. You have a various other styles of painting that lead up to Impressionist painting. And you will discover that there are some very beautiful works in the midst of all of this.

Decorative Arts Too!

You also have the decorative arts, if you in furniture and things like that, it’s a lovely, small but lovely collection. And then you have the photography which is the last part added onto the collection. Strangely enough, in France, where photography was invented, invented! In the 1830s until 1975 there was no special photography department in a Museum. In the United States, in the Museum of modern Art, it was one of the first sections to be established.

Photography at the Orsay Museum

Because it was established by Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen who were both people who were functioning as professional photographers at the very beginning of the 20th century, but in the United States photography was taken much more seriously, right away, in an artistic way. Here it took a
long time. So, the collection is very interesting, and it now includes some of the earliest photography which is beautiful to see… And all these things in black and white.

Annie: I don’t even remember seeing any of it, I wonder if we skipped completely.

You Should Prioritize What You Want to See at the Orsay Museum

Elyse: you probably did! But I think the problem was a Museum like this, just like any Museum that is of a certain size, is that you have to have an idea of how much time you can give it and what your priorities are. So, when you go to a very small Museum, it’s not a problem. You go in, you go out. But anytime
you have different collections inside a Museum and you have lots of things to see, you have to make up your mind. I have gone to this Museum with some people after two hours they are done.

They had enough, they’re out. I’ve taken people to this Museum would tell me, you know what? I think I want to spend the rest of the day here. And after we’ve gone through a certain part, and everybody gets to do their own thing, they say to me I meet up with you back two nights after 5 o’clock, I just need to spend the rest of the day here. So it depends in your affinity, it depends on what it is you like.

Figurative Sculpture at the Orsay Museum

44:54 ‘Elyse: The center part of the Museum, this cavernous open center, is where all the sculpture is.

Annie: And I thought that was outstanding because I love sculpture.

Elyse: 19th century sculpture in France is very figurative, it’s mostly made out of stone, although there is some bronze sculpture. And you have the most famous sculpture which is Rodin (Auguste). However, Rodin has a few pieces in this Museum, but since he has his own Museum, not very far away in fact, most of the works are not here, they’re just a few here.

Rodin’s work is a bit scattered all over Paris and all over the world because most of it is made of bronze, so he made three or four of everything that he did, whereas what you have mostly in this Museum is very beautiful, and sometimes very strange and symbolic sculptures. Small ones, medium-size, and very big. You have a lot of female figures, you have a lot of portraits, you have a very beautiful work and you were mentioning one that you absolutely loved is a bike from, which means two different color marble sculpture.

Annie: it’s just amazing, that is one I will never forget, it’s called Negro from the Sudan and it is by Charles Cordier, and I had never heard of this, but it is this magnificent looking black person with a turban and a beautiful robe and it’s the upper body, it’s a bust and there are different colors of marble, it’s just unbelievably beautiful. I could’ve stared at that alone for an hour.

Nègre du Soudan by Cordier
Nègre du Soudan by Charles Cordier

Elyse: the sculpture is interesting because it’s all placed in this very big uniformly open space, so you can look at it from close-up, and you can look at it from far away, which is very nice. And in the rearranging of the Museum that they did starting in 2002 because they have done a lot of rearranging
inside the museum, they have made a space on the medium floor, basically the second floor on the southern side, on the side opposite to where the Impressionist painting is, where they have put a lot of smaller sculptures.

Sculptures and Paintings by Edgar Degas

So you have a few pieces by Degas (Edgar), who by the way was not just a painter, he did it many many sculptures, and he sculptures a very small because they are mostly of dancers, women.

large painting by Thomas Couture called LEs romains de la décadence
“Les romains de la décadence” by Thomas Couture, photo Annie Sargent.

Camille Claudel Pieces

And you have some sculptures by Camille Claudel, who is famous for having been associated with Rodin, and who unfortunately had a very tragic life, but there are several of her works. One she even did is an old lady in the psychiatric ward where she spent a good part of her life, it’s very very touching, it’s one of the pieces I like in the collection. But you have in normal some ounce of sculpture, you have to be careful, there is a great great great temptation to touch. Sculpture is meant for touching, the smoothness of the marble, the bumps in the bronze, but no no no no no. No touching, no touching, no touching.

Photography at the Orsay Used to Be Forbidden, It’s Allowed Today

Annie: you can’t do that! And also, at the Orsay Museum there is no photography and they will really get on your case. It’s a little bit annoying I must admit, that’s the one thing I don’t like about the Orsay Museum, is that everybody has a cell phone these days, and all these smartphones are cameras, and everybody is trying to take pictures when they are not supposed
to, and the guards catch them and yell at them and it’s just unpleasant. I think it would be a much better experience for everybody if they would just let the cameras be. At the Louvre they manage!

[Addendum: Photography is now allowed at the Orsay Museum, but no tripod.]

Elyse: yes, it’s true the Louvre, I think with the local it has to do with the fact that they don’t know how to manage 25,000 people a day. And of course they do have it without flash in the Louvre.

Navigation at the Orsay Museum

But here, part of the problem is, and this is part of the downside of the Orsay Museum: it’s a Museum that is incredibly fabulous for its collection, however, it’s not an easy Museum in some ways. Number one: the way to go downstairs and upstairs, you have on both extreme ends, the extremities of the building, you have two very small elevators for handicapped, that you have to go and find, they are not easy to see where
they are.

Annie: but it is doable, because I was accompanying a person in a wheelchair, and it was fine. We managed to go everywhere, but yes you have to go find it.

Elyse: you have to find it, it’s not very easy, you have access by stairs only, to the in between floors, the medium floors, from there there is an escalator that season zags up to the top floor. If you want to get down, you have either stairs only at the back end. Or you go back to where you started at the beginning, and you go down the escalator two flights, and then you have to take the last flight down. I find that very un- user-friendly. The other thing is, and it’s the same on the other side, is the access to toilets. You have a couple of toilets that are close to the café, which is right on the floor, and right before you go into the Impressionist painting section.

Annie: and they are a little bit hard to find.

Elyse: and then the only other one is, and they just change them to make them even available, is when you enter into the Museum, you go down the stairs to the ground floor, and then down some more stairs, and both to the left and to the right are a series of toilets. I have gone in a couple of times when there’s been school groups who have come in, and they just take up one side and you have to wait.

No Backpacks in French Museums

If you’re lucky enough to find a friendly guide, and I’m saying that I’m not being sarcastic, I’m saying that because this is my experience, I really don’t find that Orsay is that user-friendly. And so, if you find a guy that wants to be helpful, they will tell you that if you were to the other side there may be more availability, but they don’t always do that. They just stand there and make sure that you don’t touch things.

Annie: yes, I remember I had a bit of a problem because they wanted me to check my camera into their backroom there. And I have expensive camera equipment, and I was not a happy camper at all.

Elyse: they wouldn’t let you carry it around?

Annie: no, they willingly carried around. It’s a small backpack with camera equipment, and I just had to pretty much that the woman with her life that if anything was missing a would have to strangle her, but it was fine. Nothing went missing I was just overly worried. I had just bought this…

Elyse: well, that’s interesting, because my experience is that you don’t have to check at least a small backpack. But they do tell you that if you check things, you should never leave your camera in the bag. So I’m surprised that it was a problem.

Annie: yes but when it’s a bag full of camera equipment, it’s all camera equipment. If you have several zoom lenses or whatever, several camera bodies, you cannot carry at all. I should have known to leave that in the hotel.

Elyse: except that I’ve gone, well, of course, I didn’t have a bag full of camera equipment, but I’ve gone with people have little cameras and the only thing is you can’t take pictures.

Annie: yes, a little camera or a cell phone, it is not a problem. It’s just if you have a lot of expensive camera equipment. You know, I just had a bad experience with that. But it’s probably not a problem for 99% of travelers.

Elyse: probably not. But I would say that this is to me the downside of Orsay, it’s not the most user-friendly, it’s a little awkward in terms of the circulation of going up and down because you have just the two extremities of the building, and there is limited handicapped access, it’s not a lot. I’m thinking of other museums that are even older that have managed to renovate the inside, one of them being the Louvre.

Annie: yes, you do have to get around, I mean, they’ll tell you… Some places they have three or four stairs and you have to go around a whole long way to get down in these three or four stairs with the wheelchair, and some things we never got back to because I couldn’t find my way around back to where the stairs were. Things like that, but we managed to visit it and see most of the things you are interested in, so it was fine. I mean, I would say, if you are needing a wheelchair don’t skip it just because of that, but do realize that it’s going to be a little slow going.

54:16′ Elyse: political advice, which is, there is an agency or an office, and you can let them know that you have a visit with someone who is in a wheelchair, and it will make it a little bit easier if they are warned in advance because you will have somebody will help indicate where you get the elevator and things like that. So, it does help to do that in advance.

The Iconic Clocks at the Orsay Museum

The other thing about the Orsay is in this fabulous clock. Now there are two of them, it was used in Martin Scorsese day and his movie Hugo Pratt, the movie about the history of cinema, he actually found the scene inside of one of the rooms.

And one of the two fabulously gorgeous clocks is aware this café is, which is at one end of the entire wing where the Impressionist painting is, and it’s very lovely. It used to be easy to get a seat there, and it wasn’t too expensive, and it
used to be until  a year and a half ago that the balcony was open, and there was a little bit of the stand there we can get a coffee or an ice cream.

And you have this fabulous view of the Louvre of the Seine River, of everything on the other side. And, when they renovated the section with the Impressionist paintings, they closed it all off. So, you no longer have access to the balcony on the outside. You can look through these enormously asked for his and take pictures of the landscape of the view of Paris, but they do not want to have any access to the outside.

And one of the reasons, is that they don’t want anybody to try to take painting and run around the end jump off the balcony with a painting. It has nothing to do with people’s safety, believe me! Because, in the past, there were people sitting on the balustrade of the balcony and nobody could have cared less, but it has to do with the value of the work that side.

Annie: there a couple of dollars inside, yes.

Elyse: yes there a couple of dollars there, just a couple. So, you have these two fabulous clocks that are really mythical. And of course call of course, when you walk along the banks of the Seine River, or take a Bateau Mouche, for a bus, you see them. And they are one of the identifiers of the Orsay Museum.

people standing in front of the clock at the iconic orsay museum clock
Photo Annie Sargent.

How Long Should You Spend at the Orsay Museum

56:36′ Elyse: so obviously it’s a Museum that’s worth seeing. I would say that it’s a Museum that needs between two hours and a half a day according to your energy level how much time you have in Paris. But give other things a chance besides the Impressionist paintings. That’s the way I feel about it. Give us a chance! This is a Museum that is so rich in the history of 19th century art.

Annie: although, okay, I’m going to contradict you a little bit. Seeing Starry Night up close! You can get right up close, unlike Mona Lisa or something that’s behind thick glass and you can’t see nothing and it’s tiny, it’s like a waste of time. But you go see the Impressionist paintings and you can look at it from up close, and you can see the bumps of paint and the… It’s beautiful! It’s not the same at all, I mean, you have seen all these pieces of art in print or on the Internet all your life. It’s not the same, seeing it in person is not the same.

Elyse: but you’re not contradicting me, what I’m saying is that obviously this is one of the reasons why people go there but that it’s worth taking the time to seeing some other things too. Unless you really are in a rush, which of course can happen. I have been there so much, but every time I go, there will be some painting that I’ve probably seen before, some artists whose work I really like, or maybe a new artist, and I say oh! gee! That really is beautiful. Wow, look at the color in that, or look at the way they use lights in that painting, so there is always something new to discover. There is always
something rich to see. The paintings are absolutely beautiful, and in fact in the subject matter they are more varied than people imagine. But what I’m saying is that, unless you only have a very limited amount of time…

Annie: yes, don’t just go to the Impressionists and stop!

Getting Food at the Orsay Museum

Elyse: don’t just go there and stop. Try to take the time to see at least, to see some other areas. Because it’s a  very special Museum in that way. Now, just one last thing, I talked a little bit about of what I consider to be difficulties and stir in terms of circulation and finding toilets and things like that, it’s a Museum that’s in a very posh part of Paris. It’s the seventh arrondissement. You have a lot of government buildings nearby, in the Museum itself you have this café, which has raised its prices now that they’ve renovated, so it’s pricey because a little salad is €14. I find that pricey.

There’s also a restaurant, a real sit down restaurant in the café, which have never actually eaten in, but apparently it’s very nice, I would imagine that lunch is about €30 or something like that. But, if you go out the Museum, there is a big Esplanade, and there’s a stand there, but when you go up the little street that’s right there, that’s really, it’s a street called Rue de Bellechasse, which will take you to where the Metro or where most of the buses are, you have a whole series of little snack places. They are takeout, or you can sit inside. They have quiche, they have sandwiches, they have salads, and right on the corner, right across the street from the Museum is a very nice café brasserie, chic, obviously we are in a government building and very chic areas, but you do have access to various places to eat right there.

Shopping in the Orsay Museum Neighborhood

And if you go all the way up Belle chasse, you get to the corner of Boulevard Saint Germain, and you have a big Bay Cree, and you have a few other stores like that there. So you can get things, you can always get something in go sit on the steps of the Esplanade, you can always go and stand or sit by the banks of the river if you want to do that. You don’t have to worry about whether you can just sit inside the hotel… The hotel? I must be ready for something, inside the Museum! And in that case, which have to do is be very careful to make sure you keep your ticket to be able to go back in, unless you are done. There are even bicycles that you can rent and to bring you back to the Museum.

Annie: but not inside of the Museum, obviously!

Elyse: no! Obviously Annie! Talk about bicycles, bicycles were only invented at the end of the 19th century and the one of the first people to make any kind of artwork was Toulouse-Lautrec who did posters of bicycles. Bicycle chains and Simpson bicycles, so bicycles are part of the painting of the 19th century. So if you want to see your Monet, Manet, Renoirs and all this wonderful sculpture and be delighted by this part of Paris because it is absolutely exquisite as well, don’t forget that the only thing to do is either get there very very early, or like with a lot of other places, all around 1 o’clock in the afternoon when there seems to be a loan because people have either stop coming in or they are running off to get some lunch. And that way it may be a little bit easier, or and you don’t have to stand on line. Or simply do as we suggested in the
beginning and simply buy your ticket in advance online.

Annie: thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you! I’m going to have to cut you off, we’ve been talking a long time again.

Elyse: oh I would like to talk about painting some more, please!

Annie: some other day!

Elyse: one day I want to talk about Monet, you’ll let me?

Annie: I will let you, I will be happy to. Okay, thank you everybody. I would like to remind you to go check out our Facebook page, we are join us and friends on Facebook. And our youtube channel, the Join Us in France Travel Podcast. Thank you very much, will talk to you next week! Au revoir !

Elyse: Au revoir.

the orsay museum clock seen from the outside of the museum


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Categories: First Time in Paris, Museums in Paris, Paris