Le Musée d’Orsay
Le Triomphe des mairies 8, 1987)
Les Concours d’esquisses peintes, 18161863 1986December 14, 1986), and the National Academy of Design, New York (January 13, 1987March 15, 1987).
The railroad station known as the Gare d’Orsay was built for the World’s Fair of 1900 in the very center of Paris as a prestigious display for the Orleans Railroad Company. The bold iron structure, constructed with the most up-to-date technology, was hidden under traditional decoration with profuse ornaments and fashionable murals, all artfully orchestrated by the architect Victor Laloux. It was known as the Orsay Palace, and boasted the city’s most luxurious hotel.
By World War II the station had more or less fallen into disuse. For a while it still housed a suburban railway; then even that was abandoned. Something had to be done with the building—or rather the site, since demolition was the order of the day. Le Corbusier had proposed tearing it down in order to build a skyscraper in its place, not the happiest idea for that particular spot, almost exactly opposite the Louvre across the river. No matter how fervent our admiration for Le Corbusier, we must be thankful that nothing came of this project.
In 1973, the central wholesale market of Paris (les Halles), one of the greatest iron and glass structures of the nineteenth century and the masterpiece of Baltard, was savagely destroyed in the teeth of widespread protest. At the time our ideas of nineteenth-century art were being reassessed, scholarly interest was intense, and “Postmodern” architecture was taking shape. The architecture of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the last gasp of the classicizing tradition, came back into favor. The indignation aroused by the destruction of Baltard’s great work, a symbol of modernism celebrated by Emile Zola in one of his best novels, Le Ventre de Paris, redounded to the advantage of the abandoned railway station. The government agreed to save the building and turn it into a museum of nineteenth-century art.
Ugly as the station may seem, especially the façade, the decision was probably a wise one. Laloux had been sensitive to the site, and his railroad station establishes a strong and effective visual dialogue with the Louvre. Probably no architect of the 1970s would have done so well, and one feared the worst when one considered the monstrosity built on the site of the old Montparnasse railroad station.
Nobody ever contemplated moving the whole nineteenth century out of the Louvre to the Gare d’Orsay. It was always agreed that Jacques-Louis David and his followers were going to stay in the old museum. The year 1848, when important political and artistic changes seemed to coincide, appeared to be a good starting point: the Second Republic and the Realist movement, led by Gustave Courbet, would provide a decisive beginning. This was the original plan when Georges Pompidou was prime minister. He was succeeded by Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who embraced the project wholeheartedly, but insisted that the collection must begin with Delacroix. This reflected the old established idea that modern art began with the Romanticism of 1830. We may surmise also that the Bourgeois Monarchy of Louis …
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The Avant-Garde and the Academy: An Exchange July 16, 1987