From polar bears to African elephants, here’s your guide to one of Paris’s most spectacular museums: the Musée d’Orsay. Whether you’re devoted to Degas, crave a selfie with Van Gogh, or want to spend three days counting every dot in your favourite pointillist masterpiece, you’ll find everything you need to plan your visit right here. Read on to learn about the highlights, uncover the hidden gems, and find practical information on how to make the most of your trip.
Why should you visit the Musée d’Orsay?
The real question is: why wouldn’t you?
The Orsay occupies a specific niche filled by none of its fellow museums in Paris. It has the biggest collection of famous Impressionist paintings on the planet, spanning a period between the mid-1800s and early 1900s. If you’re a big fan of Impressionism, this is the best place in the world for you to go. Even if you’re not a big fan of this art style, there’s a good chance you’ll be won over after a visit here – the range is a lot wider than you might think, and different approaches by different artists provide some unique interpretations.
You’ll also be able to see some of the most well-known Van Gogh paintings in existence, including the famous Starry Night over the Rhône and one of his most infamous self-portraits. The intimate presentation of these iconic works of art is pretty special, especially considering the Orsay Museum is generally not as busy as other major museums like the Louvre.
Lastly, the building itself is absolutely spectacular. Even if it wasn’t full of some of the world’s most famous artworks, it’d be a noteworthy landmark and tourist attraction in itself. The museum is set in a spacious and elegant former railway station, and watching the sun beam in through the windows is almost enough to make you want to create your very own impressionist painting of the scene (side note: please don’t bring paint into the museum).
Famous Impressionist paintings at the Musée d’Orsay
After being told that this museum features the world’s foremost Impressionist art collection, you could reasonably expect there to be some pretty famous paintings here. And you’d be right. From grim self-portraits to an extravagant pointillist circus, here are a few of the Musée d’Orsay’s absolute highlights.
Georges Seurat – The Circus
The Circus was Seurat’s last known painting before his death, and can be seen as the final masterpiece of this legendary artist. Seurat employed a new style known as Pointillism – basically thousands of coloured dots giving the impression of a collective whole.
Early critics missed the point. This off-shoot of Impressionism wasn’t immediately popular – ‘Pointillism’ was actually coined as an insult by art critics of the time – but opinions changed as people gradually began to recognize the value in this unique way of painting. Turns out that laborious and painstaking techniques used to create never-before-seen images might actually capture the public imagination!
Vincent van Gogh – Starry Night Over the Rhône
If you ask someone to start listing famous paintings, it’s only a matter of time until the words ‘starry night’ come out of their mouth. This Post-Impressionist artwork is one of the museum’s top highlights, and gives visitors the remarkable opportunity to get close to one of the world’s greatest artistic legacies.
Standing inches away from the brushstrokes of Van Gogh, you’ll understand why people rate his work so highly – and why it’s different to see his richly textured paintings in real life rather than in picture format. The colours are astounding, and visitors are instantly transported back through the years to this exact moment, when the artist looked out on the water and saw the reflections of gas lanterns on the water.
Vincent van Gogh – Self-portrait (1889)
Having battled with severe mental health issues throughout his life, Van Gogh was acutely aware of his mood and wellbeing. He reflected these emotions in his self-portraits, which were often accompanied by descriptions of how he was feeling. In this case, the image was accompanied by a letter to his younger brother, saying: “you will notice that my facial expressions have become much calmer, although my eyes have the same insecure look as before.”
It’s a compelling painting, and the hallucinatory swirling patterns in the background seem to move around and mesmerize you from all angles. Despite Van Gogh stating that he feels much calmer, there’s something tumultuous, dark, and troubled in this painting that can still be recognized over 130 years later.
Édouard Manet – Luncheon on the Grass
This is a seminal painting in the world of art history, and understanding its significance is crucial to understanding many of the other works found in the museum – especially the next one on this list (more on that later). Manet occupied a crucial space between Realism and Impressionism, which is reflected in his work. The Luncheon on the Grass caused a bit of a furore when it first came out, and to this day, people are divided in their reactions.
Critics said (and continue to say) that the painting lacks form, is confusing to look at, and needlessly provocative, while iconic French novelist and man-of-letters Émile Zola claimed it was one of the greatest works of Manet’s generation. So is it a masterpiece, or is it formless and devoid of technique? See it for yourself and make your own decision!
Claude Monet – Luncheon on the Grass
No, that’s not a typo. Manet’s near-namesake Monet also created his own luncheon, presumably bitter about having not been invited to the original one. While you might think of Claude Monet as that well-bearded old man who loved painting water lilies, he was also a bit of a mischievous soul.
Monet and Manet were contemporaries, and by all accounts quite close friends. Monet’s reinterpretation of his friend’s controversial painting can be seen in a lot of different ways: as a tribute, a friendly joke, or a bit of light one-upmanship between friends. The real question is, which luncheon do you like better?
Edgar Degas – The Absinthe Drinker
Ugly. Disgusting. Brutal. These are some of the words used by critics at the painting’s reception in 1876, which as you may have guessed didn’t go too great. Almost two decades passed, and it was time for Degas to get the credit he deserved. His painting was once again exhibited in 1892, ready for a more sophisticated modern audience to welcome it with open arms. Everyone applauded and Degas was lauded for his… – wait, no, they still absolutely hated everything about it.
This isn’t a pretty painting. It’s morbid, sombre, and off-putting. The slumped couple are thoroughly unpleasant to look at, with their bleak expressions devoid of any joy or spark. And that’s exactly why it’s so brilliant. Degas perfectly captures the hopelessness and blankness of the situation. The vacant stares, the loneliness, and the lethargy of the scene are overwhelming. You can understand why early critics found it hard to look at, but these days we might find it harder to look away.
Francois Pompon – Polar Bear
The last highlight on this list isn’t a painting, but it’s so representative of the museum’s collection that it’s impossible not to include here. Francois Pompon’s Polar Bear is one of the most familiar and treasured sights at the museum, and it’s easy to see why people flock to it.
Pompon represents the animal in its simple and purest form, and actively sought out just to capture the essence of the creature with nothing superfluous. It’s amazing how minimalist he was in his approach, and how effective it was. And it’s a polar bear – what’s not to like?
The biggest mistake you can make when visiting a museum is to stop at just the highlights. The point of visiting the Louvre isn’t to spot the Mona Lisa and walk out again – there are plenty of hidden treasures waiting to be discovered by those who are willing to spend just a little bit of extra time. Seeing some of the lesser-known gems on the list below is a low-effort, high-reward way of getting the most out of your trip to the Orsay Museum. Don’t skip these – you’ll regret it later!
Georges Lemmen – The Beach at Heist
This colourful masterpiece by Georges Lemmen is a great example of the pointillist technique that became popular with Belgian artists near the end of the 1880s. The Beach at Heist is a peaceful scene, depicting a serene beach landscape with a solitary boat – potentially abandoned – against a stunning backdrop of vivid orange, purple, and yellow. It’s easy to get lost in the countless circles and ovals that make up the background of this painting, and it’s a must-see if you’re visiting the Orsay.
Gustave Moreau – Galatea
It might sound cliché, but it doesn’t take a great stretch of the imagination to call Galatea a truly beautiful painting. With hints of silver seemingly woven into the canvas, the subject shimmers and shines, and takes on an entirely new life.
The theme of the painting was taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and tells the story of a beautiful, unobtainable nymph coveted by a brutal cyclops named Polyphemus. The image of the one-eyed giant looming at the top of the painting adds layers of depth and drama to an already spellbinding scene.
Claude Monet – London Houses of Parliament: The Sun Shining Through the Fog
Monet may be most famous for his water lilies, but it should be remembered that he created a whole range of masterpieces – and not only based on flowers! He even managed to make political buildings look great, as evidenced by this painting.
The red and black tones give it a moody, mysterious, and deeply atmospheric feel. Stay around long enough, and you’ll see how it draws visitors in, absorbing them directly into the misty world of 19th-century London.
Claude Monet – Camille on her Death Bed
Camille was Monet’s first wife. By most accounts, the two were deeply in love, and sacrificed a lot in order to be together. Despite neither of their parents approving of the union, they married in 1870, and had two children together.
Both families eventually disowned them after the birth of their first child, leaving the two essentially on their own. In 1877, shortly after the birth of their second child, Camille died. This painting shows the tenderness, love, and unbearable grief felt by someone watching their spouse die in front of their eyes.
Charles de Tournemine: African Elephants
After looking at the previous painting, it might be time for something a little lighter. This is a very nice painting of elephants. In fact, some might call it the nicest ever painting of elephants. It shows the peaceful, almost joyous moment in which an African elephant herd takes time to refresh themselves in a river while the sun sets in the background. De Tournemine managed to capture something about the majesty, social nature, and freedom of elephants in his painting that makes it hold up to contemporary scrutiny. Unlike, for example, Renaissance or medieval-era cats.
Odilon Redon – Decorative Scheme for Baron de Domecy
If you were a ludicrously wealthy French aristocrat, would you commission artists to decorate your entire dining room with custom designs? If so, you might have something in common with the Baron de Domecy.
Despite what you might originally think, it actually turned out to be quite tastefully done. Redon focused on natural elements, with flowers blooming against nature-inspired backdrops, and created what must have been a very relaxing atmosphere to sit around and count your francs in.
How to get the most out of your Musée d’Orsay visit
- For the quick and ambitious:
Book your ticket in advance, and use the queue for people who pre-booked their tickets. You’ll get in faster. The only thing you need is your smartphone and your best ‘merci’ as the staff scans you through. See the highlights first, then if you have any time left, examine the other parts of the museum. There’s much more here than you might think!
- For the family field trip:
There’s a combined ticket available with the nearby Musee l’Orangerie, on the other side of the Seine. This museum is smaller, but contains eight of Monet’s huge and stunning nymphea, or water lilies. For a few euros more, you can get a bunch of added value, as well as a nice walk along the Seine with the family.
- For the art aficionado:
Go in early, around opening time. After getting up to the fifth floor, you’ll see a suggested route telling you to go right. Go left instead, then take a left again. You’ll end up face to face with Starry Night over the Rhône, and there’s a good chance you’ll have the room all to yourself.
Practical information about visiting the Musée d’Orsay
The museum is easily accessible by public transport. Whether you go by bus, metro, or RER, here are the easiest ways to get there:
Metro: Line 12, to Solférino
RER: Line C, to Musée d’Orsay station
Bus: Lines 63, 68, 69, 73, 83, 84, 87, or 94
It’s also possible to walk to the Musée d’Orsay from other major attractions like the Louvre, which is a scenic 13-minute stroll across the Seine.
Musée d’Orsay’s standard opening hours:
What else to do in Paris
If you’ve seen all the famous Impressionist paintings you can handle, both at the Musée d’Orsay and the nearby Musée de l’Orangerie, don’t worry – Paris also has the rest of art history covered! Check out antiquities from Egypt to Rome at the Louvre (alongside some of the world’s most famous paintings and statues), or immerse yourself in modern art at the Pompidou. In terms of art, the options are almost endless, and the choice is all yours.
At this point you might have had enough of museums and their priceless masterpieces though. Luckily there are plenty of other things to do in the city of love. Try a canal cruise along the iconic Seine River; a perfect low-effort way to see the city’s landmarks in style. Follow it up with some racy French cabaret, or an award-winning comedy show, and you’ll feel like a true Parisian in no time.
Oh, and the crêpes. You can’t forget the crêpes.