The Musée d’Orsay – the Orsay Museum, Paris

The Musée d’Orsay – the Orsay Museum, Paris.

On the river Seine in Paris stands the Musée d’Orsay – the Orsay Museum. When James Joyce lived in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s, the building was not a museum.

Instead, the building was the Gare d’Orsay – the Orsay railway station. The trains from Gare d’Orsay took passengers to south-western France. The railway station closed in 1939 at the onset of the Second World War, and it was transformed into a post office before it was the Renaud-Barrault Theatre Company. In 1981, construction for the Musée d’Orsay commenced.

In Joyce’s time, the Gare d’Orsay was an impressively large Beaux-Arts building, built between 1898 and 1900, in time for the 1900 Paris World Expo, the Exposition Universelle. Hence, it was relatively new in 1920 when James Joyce arrived in Paris, and especially so when Joyce first arrived in Paris as a young man to study medicine in 1902. That didn’t work out and he returned to Dublin in 1903.

Australian author Christine Stead (1902-1983) wrote about Paris in her novel, The Beauties and the Furies (1936). In the novel, she wrote of the Gare d’Orsay:

“Two bland, translucent clockfaces” greeted passengers.

With Gothic, Renaissance, and French Neo-Classical architecture of the times (many churches in Paris had a mixture of architectural styles), the Gare d’Orsay was made of iron and glass. It was designed for “social and urban contexts” wrote Arthur Drexler in The Architecture of the École des Beaux-Arts (1977).

However, James Joyce rarely, if ever, went to Gare d’Orsay, because he took trains to and from the Gare de Lyon, the Gare du Nord, or the Gare Montparnasse. Whenever Joyce travelled to the French countryside, he predominantly took trains to central, western, or northern France, and not the Gare d’Orsay to the south-west.

Before construction of the Musée d’Orsay, permission was granted in 1970 to demolish the railway station. The Minister for Cultural Affairs, Jacques Duhamel, didn’t want another new hotel on the site. The Directorate of the Museum of France suggested that the site could hold a museum to bridge the gap between the classical art of The Louvre and the modern art of the National Museum of Modern Art at the Georges Pompidou Centre. The plan was accepted and a feasibility study was commissioned in 1974. 

In 1978, ACT Architecture won the competition for the design of the museum with a team of three architects: Pierre Colboc, Renaud Bardon, and Jean-Paul Philippon. Construction commenced in 1981, and the museum was officially opened in July 1986. It is one of the largest art museums in Europe at 20,000 square metres (220,000 square feet) on four floors. 

A large anonymous donation from an American patron will pay for the planned radical renovations from 2020-2021. 

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