Musée d'Orsay: Cinema returns to the Musée d'Orsay!

Cinema returns to the Musée d'Orsay!

Salle 47© Musée d'Orsay / Sophie Crépy
Very few fine arts museums devoted to the 19th century include the birth of cinema in their permanent collections. This has now been achieved with the renovation of the galleries on the 5th floor. In the rooms on the south side, fifteen films or clips of three to seven minutes are projected on to three screens equipped with sound showers. The themes will be renewed in order to present different insights into early cinema and to show the main stages of its invention (1895-1914). The Musée d'Orsay is thus going back to its roots: since it opened in 1986, a gallery has been devoted to the emergence of this medium. Essential for a better understanding of both the world of the 19th century and of the arrival of modernity, the seventh art is now an integral part of the visitor circuit.

Cinema, from Birth to Recognition

Cinema was developed at the very end of the 19th century by engineers and industrialists, who combined, to varying degrees, the techniques of photographic recording, animated images and projection: Kinetoscope by Edison, Cinematograph by Louis et Auguste Lumière, Theotrograph by Paul and Bioskop by the Skladanowsky brothers. Aspects of sound, colour and even 3D film were very quickly explored!

Although the early operators took their inspiration from painting, photography and the theatre, they went much further and took advantage of new editing possibilities. The cinema of spectacle and special effects, animations, reconstructed topical events, comic images, chase sequences, westerns, serials, melodramas and art films – within two decades, dozens of genres developed and were codified, winning over a broad audience.

As shows for a popular audience, they were originally confined to the back rooms of cafés, fairground booths or department stores. But cinemas were then set up in dedicated halls, which attracted the social and cultural elite. Artists and critics (such as Abel Gance in 1912) now considered it as “a Sixth Art".

First programme: Cinema seen through early cinema

Room 47, from September 2019

From its very beginnings, the cinema has told stories … about the cinema, and has revealed what happens behind the scenes: images of filming, demonstrations of how the cameras and processes work, stories that put the film crew on set. Innumerable films of all genres showed the workings of the new industry.

Even though the names of the operators, the early "cinematographers" and actors were not yet credited, inventors, studios and production companies fought hard to claim credit for the first devices or the originality of the worlds they created, and to prevent counterfeit copies. Although the identity of the company was sometimes mentioned in an advertisement, it would also feature in a logo inserted into the sets.

Screenplays also imagined what was happening in the dark auditorium when the spectator was invited to step into the story. This emerging medium could laugh at itself, analyse itself and look back at its short history: it was inventing itself as an art form.


Marie Robert, chief curator

George NicholsA film Johnnie© Lobster Films
Segundo de ChomónModern Sculptor© Archives Françaises du Film
Emile CohlPhantasmagoria© Gaumont Pathé Archives
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