It’s easy to imagine the bustling crowds and noise that filled the Gare d’Orsay train station — now the Musée d’Orsay — when it opened in the elegant heart of Paris in 1900.
Situated on the left bank of the Seine, across the river from the Louvre and the Tuileries gardens, the imposing Gare d’Orsay was built to accommodate visitors pouring into Paris from southwest France for the 1900 International Exposition. A vital hub for decades, the building was designed by architect Victor Laloux, who wrapped the modern steel and glass structure in a Beaux Arts stone façade that fit into its stately surroundings. He also created the glass-domed Grand Palais for the exposition.
Laloux capped the station’s soaring central space with a vast glass vault, bringing diffused Parisian light into the great hall that rises 105 feet and is 150 yards long. Travelers arriving here often stayed in the fashionable hotel on the upper floors, where associations and political parties held their banquets. (Charles de Gaulle famously held a press conference in the hotel ballroom in 1958 declaring his willingness to return to power.)
The station, where Orson Welles shot his 1962 film version of Kafka’s “The Trial,” was eventually abandoned and fell into disrepair. It was close to being demolished in the 1970s to make way for a hotel. But a public campaign to save the building meshed with a move by French cultural officials and curators to create a museum dedicated to the art of the 19th century. The palatial Orsay, with its spectacular interior space and extravagantly adorned Beaux-Arts façade, was chosen as the site for the new national museum in 1977.
The station was renovated and transformed into the Musée d’Orsay under the direction of Italian architect Gae Aulenti. It opened in 1986 and immediately became a magnet for Parisians and visitors from around the world. Aulenti, who a decade later turned San Francisco’s old main library into the Asian Art Museum, created galleries inside the shell of Laloux’s landmark building while retaining its essential character. The luminous hall, with its great gilded clock, rosettes and cartouches, was brought back to life.
“There was a reconsideration of the 19th century,” said Guy Cogeval, the president and director of the Musée d’Orsay, where the full flowering of French and other Western art from 1848 to 1914 is displayed. A diverse range of painting, sculpture, drawings, furniture, decorative art and photography was brought together under the same immense roof. Visitors can see the connection between Ingres and early Degas; the Realist Millet and his admirer Van Gogh. The survey begins in 1848 because that was a pivotal year in the social and political history of France and Europe.
“It’s the time of the bourgeois revolution, of the introduction of the First Republic in France, the abolition of slavery, the beginning of Marxism, the beginning of trade unions,” said Cogeval, a tall rail of a man with short reddish hair. “So the new world that we know today started in 1848.”
Since becoming director two years ago, Cogeval has been rearranging parts of the collection and remodeling the galleries. The current renovation, which will be finished in 2011 in time for the museum’s 25th anniversary, is intended to create greater intimacy between the viewer and the art. White stone floors will be replaced by dark wood. A new lighting system called Solux, which wasn’t invented when Aulenti designed the galleries, will be installed, bringing greater clarity to the viewing of individual works. Before, there was only indirect light in the upper Impressionist galleries, which will look quite different when they reopen a year from now.
White walls are being repainted in colors to complement the paintings. Earlier, Cogeval had the long corridor on the main floor painted olive green, akin to the color of the steel columns. “It was really an accursed corridor,” he said. “People rushed through to see the Impressionists.”
The works of Van Gogh and Gauguin will hang on a dark violet wall. “It will be a revolution. Van Gogh’s blue self-portrait will gleam as it never has,” Cogeval said, a spark in his blue eyes.