At the inception of the Musée d'Orsay, the drawings from the second half of the 19th-century were not separated from the Louvre's collections and, like later acquisitions, are still on the inventory of the Graphic Arts department of the Louvre. However, about seventy drawings in the fields of architecture and the decorative arts (architectural drawings by Viollet-Le-Duc, for example) and the framed pastels were transferred to Orsay and are exhibited in the museum on a rotational basis.Luxury, Calm and Voluptuousness (1904) which marks the transition between the collections of the Musée d'Orsay and those of the Musée d'Art Moderne. Some artists born before 1820 are included, namely Honoré Daumier, François Bonvin, Gustave Courbet, Charles-François Daubigny, Henri Harpignies, Ernest Meissonier and Jean-François Millet.
The constitution of the drawings collection was conditioned by the history of the national modern art collections in the second half of the 19th and the early 20th century. The core collection came from the Musée National du Luxembourg, which was inaugurated in 1818. After a slow start, acquisitions of drawings picked up in the 1880s as the museum tried to give a fair representation of contemporary art. An acquisition policy then took shape and drawings were purchased at the Salon, studio sales and posthumous auctions. State purchases for the Luxembourg included the studio collections of Henri Regnault (1872), Jean-François Millet (1875), Gustave Guillaumet (1888), Johan-Barthold Jongkind (1892), Ernest Meissonier (1893), François Bonvin (1893), and Edgar Degas (1918 and 1919).
The Luxembourg also had a "Special collection of sketches, drawings, models and original documents related to paintings and statues which have been exhibited at the Luxembourg since its inception". Donated by the artist themselves, these works were regarded as archives. A drawing by Rodin after his St John the Baptist comes from this collection.
Drawings from foreign schools remained poorly represented in the Musée du Luxembourg, despite the efforts of Léonce Bénédite, who took over as curator in 1892, gifts from artists (Edward Burne-Jones gave three studies of heads in 1893, John Leighton a Study for Andromache in 1893 and Alma-Tadema The Crowning of Aesculapius in 1903), and a few purchases. In 1922, the entire foreign collection at the Luxembourg, including the drawings, was transferred to the Musée du Jeu de Paume.
As a "museum of living artists", the Luxembourg sought to reflect contemporary art. A few years after the artists died, their works were supposed to be transferred – to the Louvre for most prestigious among them and to other institutions for the others. Major transfers were made to the Louvre in 1929, 1930 and 1931. When the Musée du Luxembourg closed in 1937, the most contemporary collections made up the core collection of drawings at the new Musée National d'Art Moderne (created in 1934, but the transfer was delayed by the war) installed in the Palais de Tokyo.
The acquisitions of these outstanding or less prestigious works enable the collections of the Musée d'Orsay to present an increasingly accurate picture of drawing in the second half of the 19th century.