A Brief Guide to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris

Last Updated on May 31, 2023

Edgar Degas, "Danseuses Bleues", 1897. Musée d'Orsay, Paris
Edgar Degas, “Danseuses Bleues”, 1897. Musée d’Orsay, Paris

An impressionist treasury– and much more

There’s very good reason why Paris’ Musée d’Orsay attracts millions of visitors every year, making it one of the world’s most-beloved art museums: it’s brimming with masterpieces from the modern period (roughly 1848 to 1914.)

First opened in 1986, the Orsay was created to showcase artworks that had mostly been housed at the Louvre and the Jeu de Paume gallery in the past, including masterpieces by Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne, Eugène Delacroix, Edgar Dégas, Gustave Courbet, Paul Gauguin, Mary Cassatt, Gustave Caillebotte, Alfred Sisley, Berthe Morisot, Vincent Van Gogh and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, among many others.

{Related: The Best Things to Do in Paris on a First Visit}

It offers visitors a remarkable and detailed initiation to some of the 19th and 20th century’s most important artistic movements and works– from Romanticism to Impressionism, expressionism to Fauvism, Art Nouveau and Art Deco. The museum also stages several compelling temporary exhibitions every year that are well worth seeing, offering more in-depth looks at certain artists, movements and themes.

Keep reading to learn how to make the most of the visit to your trip, including highlights from the permanent collection and info on guided tours.

Highlights from the Permanent Collection

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, "Le Moulin de la Galette", circa 1876. Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, “Le Moulin de la Galette”, circa 1876. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

There are too many highlights within the Orsay’s sprawling permanent collection to do them justice in a short guide like this one.

However, we recommend beelining to the following masterpieces and areas on a first visit, since they’re absolutely essential.

The Impressionists Gallery is probably your first port of call, if you’re like most visitors. In this recently renovated series of rooms, you’ll see masterpieces such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s “Le Moulin de la Galette” (shown above, 1876); over 80 breathtaking works by Claude Monet, including “Déjeuner sur l’Herbe”, “The Poppy Field Near Argentueil” and “Rouen Cathedral”, pastels by Edgar Degas such as “Dancers in Blue”, Edouard Manet’s “Luncheon on the Grass”, and pointillist masterpieces such as Seurat’s “The Circus” (1891).

Monet, Poppies (1873)- Musée d'Orsay
Claude Monet, Poppy Field Near Argentueil (1873)/Musée d’Orsay, Paris

You’lll also encounter masterpieces from Gaugin, Signac, Seurat, Cézanne, Caillebotte, Toulouse-Lautrec and many others, as well as naturalist, realist and pre-impressionist masterpieces from artists including Ingres, Moreau, Delacroix, Courbet, Millet, Corot and Manet.

Works such as Millet’s The Angelus (shown below) demonstrate the evolution from classical techniques in paintings to the more radical forms and experimentation with brushstrokes and light characteristic of the Impressionists.

{Related: Where to See Claude Monet’s Masterpieces in Paris?}

Elsewhere, the works of Austrian artists Gustave Klimt and Edvard Munch are showcased along French painters’. Other galleries spotlight emblematic later works from French artists including Maurice Denis, Roussel, and Pierre Bonnard.

Fans of the work of Vincent Van Gogh should beeline to works such as “La Guinguette” (showing an emblematic musical café in Montmartre) and “La Nuit Etoilée” (1888), one of the Dutch artist’s most breathtaking paintings depicting a starry night.

Vincent Van Gogh, La Nuit étoilé, 1888/Musée d’Orsay
Vincent Van Gogh, "La Guinguette" in Montmartre, October 1886 (Musée d'Orsay/Wikimedia Commons)
Vincent Van Gogh, “La Guinguette” in Montmartre, October 1886 (Musée d’Orsay/Wikimedia Commons)

Meanwhile, on the Terrasse level, sculptures and studies in plaster from the likes of Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel are highlights, and the collection of decorative art and photography is likewise intriguing if you have a bit of extra time.

{Related: Visiting the Rodin Museum and its Lush Sculpture Garden}

The Musee d’Orsay’s permanent collection also includes an important selection of architecture models, sculptures and Second-Empire models, as well as 19th-century decorative objects and furniture aligned with the Art Nouveau movement.

Last but certainly not least, the ornate antique clock that stands on the north wall against a glass and metal-paned wall offers views of the Seine just beyond– and is is a fitting remnant of the museum’s past as a rail hub.

By DrSocc - Template:Katie Frizzi, CC BY 3.0 us, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13268838
The ornate Belle Epoque clock was designed by Victor Laloux/ Image: By DrSocc – Template:Katie Frizzi, CC BY 3.0 

Known as “La Grande Horloge” (the Grand Clock) it was designed by Victor Laloux in 1900, and is considered an excellent example of the Beaux Arts style populer at the turn of the 20th century.

Making the Most of Your Visit to the Musée d’Orsay

To make the most of your visit, I recommend that you reserve at least two to three hours for it (perhaps even four if you plan to have tea or lunch onsite). This will allow you time to really linger, appreciating the works that most strongly capture your imagination and pique your curiosity.

Gustave Caillebotte, "The Floor Scrapers", 1875. Musée d'Orsay, Paris. Public domain.
Gustave Caillebotte, “The Floor Scrapers”, 1875. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Public domain.

{Related: The Best Modern Art Museums & Collections in Paris}

You can focus your visit around clusters of favorite artists (or movements): you can perhaps begin with the early Impressionists and move through to the post-expressionists.

Maurice de Vlaminck, "Restaurant La Machine", 1905. Musée d'Orsay
Maurice de Vlaminck,”Restaurant La Machine”, 1905. Musée d’Orsay

This might help you gain a stronger understanding of how something like the antinaturalist, wild use of color in Fauvist paintings by Maurice de Vlaminck (shown above) differ from the more muted tones and classical elements evident in the early impressionism of Caillebotte or Monet.

Restaurants, Café & Giftshops at the Musée d’Orsay

The Musée d’Orsay houses a formal sit-down restaurant, café and tearoom selling sandwiches, salads, and other more casual fare, and an outdoor dining area called Le Kiosque du Parvis that offers light snacks.

See more on the restaurants, their opening times and dining options here.

For gifts and souvenirs, visit the main giftshop and bookshop near the main entrance to the exhibitions. There’s another souvenir shop near the Impressionists gallery, and a kid’s area/shop located in the Nave.

Musée d’Orsay: Location, Contact Details & Buying Tickets

The Musée d'Orsay is located on the left bank of the Seine river, at the edge of Saint-Germain.
The Musée d’Orsay is located on the left bank of the Seine river, at the edge of Saint-Germain/Pixabay

The museum is situated at the edge of the Saint-Germain-des-Près district in Paris’ 7th arrondissement, between Quai Anatole France and Rue de Lille. The museum faces the left bank of the Seine River.

Opening times: The museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday, 9:30 am to 6:00 pm (last access to museum is at 5 pm; the exhibition rooms close at 5:30). Late openings on Thursdays until 9:45 pm (last access to museum is at 9:00 pm.

The museum is closed on Mondays, May 1st, and December 25th.

Accessibility: The main entrance and all levels of this museum are wheelchair-accessible. Individuals assisting disabled visitors are admitted free of charge. Wheelchairs are available for free nearby the coat check area. See more information for visitors with limited mobility and other disabilities here.

Tickets: Tickets are available online at the ticket office, or by visiting one of the kiosks at the museum (but reservations are strongly recommended). See this page at the official website for current prices and visitor discount rates.

The museum is free for all visitors on the first Sunday of every month (reservations are required).

Ahead of your visit to the museum, save time by booking skip-the-line/dedicated entrance tickets to the Musée d’Orsay (via Tiqets.com). If you’d prefer a guided tour, you can book one ahead of time (in English) here (also with Tiqets).

The museum also offers a 90-minute guided tour in English called the “Masterpieces of the Musée d’Orsay”. See this page for more information.

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Musée d'Orsay Visitor Tips-- Pinterest image by Paris Unlocked

Editor’s Note: This post contains a few affiliate links. While booking tours or tickets through them comes at no additional cost to you, it does help to fund more in-depth, free features like this one. Merci!

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