Architecture on Display

One of the original features of the Musée d'Orsay, compared with the traditional model of fine arts museums, is the presence of the architecture collections in its permanent exhibition spaces.



This choice is in keeping with the importance of the building that houses the museum, and to which it owes its name: the former Orsay railway station bears witness to the changes in architecture that took place in the second half of the 19th century. Built beginning in 1898 and inaugurated for the Universal Exhibition of 1900, it is the work of Victor Laloux (1850-1937), winner of the Prix de Rome in 1878, who was the teacher and mentor of several generations of architects at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. He succeeded in elegantly combining an inspiration drawn from Roman antiquity (e.g., the gigantic coffered vault is modeled on the Baths of Caracalla), a taste for decorative elements derived from the styles of the 17th and 18th centuries (thanks to the workshop of the ornamentation specialist Florian Kulikowski), and the latest techniques (e.g., the metal structure that gives the whole its lightness, the electricity used for the lighting and the locomotives, the moving carpets and staircases, etc.). The result was a masterpiece of eclectic architecture, which in 1900 led the painter Édouard Detaille to say: "The station is superb and looks just like a Palace of Fine Arts....”



Since the museum's inception in the early 1980s, the architecture collection has been the subject of a major acquisition policy, and a reflection on how architecture could find its place in the rooms, alongside painting, sculpture, decorative arts, graphic arts and photography. The solution initially chosen combined a temporary display of architectural drawings in a space made up of a tower presenting two-dimensional models (designed from engravings of representative buildings taken from architectural magazines of the period), traditional models, and finally a large section devoted to Charles Garnier's New Opera House, all designed by Richard Peduzzi. A large model of the neighborhood, created by Rémi Munier, evokes the establishment of the Opera House in its urban setting, marked by the transformations of the city made by Haussmann and his successors, while visitors can explore the New Opera House, a jewel of Second Empire architecture, thanks to a masterful model of the longitudinal section of the building, created by the Gianese workshop in Rome.



This choice of presentation with its strong scenographic identity lasted until 2007, when the models of the architectural tower of the upper pavilion were dismantled. The spaces were then gradually restructured, without any new global redesign being adopted. A second major transformation of these spaces is now underway with a re-arrangement of the collections related to architecture centering on the theme of the transformation of Paris, the capital of a modern nation. Themes specific to the evolution of Paris in the 19th century – which in fact affected all the major European capitals as well as the major cities of France – are approached in a multidisciplinary manner. The Paris of civic society and building, the Paris of architectural glorification and the restoration of heritage after the Commune, the Paris of industry, the picturesque view of the capital, and also the Paris of the performing arts through the New Opera. Temporary displays of architectural drawings and photographs allow visitors to explore themes related to the transformation of the city, such as the Universal Exhibitions, new types of buildings (hospitals, schools, railway stations etc.), religious architecture, historical monuments and restoration, urban mansions and villas, garden design etc.


The Collection of Architectural Drawings

The collections of architectural drawings and decorative arts stand at the crossroads of two artistic fields in the museum, since many architects are also active as decorators. The notion of a ‘total work of art’ found its full expression with Viollet-le-Duc, notably at the Château de Pierrefonds, but underwent an unprecedented expansion at the end of the 19th century with the Art Nouveau movement. The collections dedicated to architecture and decorative arts are thus intimately linked and kept in the same premises, the Graphic Arts and Photography Department (CAGP; consultation of works by appointment).



The origins of the collections go back to the architectural drawings formerly held by the Louvre Museum, which were donated by artists' families. They carry the prefix RF in their inventory number, unlike the architectural drawings acquired by the Musée d'Orsay, which are listed as ARO. We have consequently preserved the exceptional drawings by Jacques-Ignace Hittorff (1792-1867), Jean-Baptiste Lassus (1807-1857) and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc (1814-1879).

, Lassus, Jean-Baptiste
Jean-Baptiste Lassus
Palais des Tuileries, élévation de la façade restituée de Philibert de Lorme, en 1833
Musée d'Orsay
Don Mme Lassus, veuve de Jean-Baptiste Lassus, 1857
© photo : droits réservés
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During the inception phase of the Musée d'Orsay, the curators obtained very important donations from the descendants of architects' and engineers' families, notably the collection of the eminent architect of the City of Paris, Marcellin MAROLLIER (1829-1895), in 1980, and the Gustave Eiffel collection (1832-1923) in 1981.  This tradition of acquisition from families has continued to the present day with the very fine acquisition of the Ballard collection in 2015. What makes these vast architectural collections unique is that they also contain photographs, medals, and archives that provide information on the life of the architect, his achievements, and his professional networks.

, Eiffel, Gustave
Gustave Eiffel
Elévation générale de la Tour Eiffel, en 1887
Musée d'Orsay
© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
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Architectural drawings have different types of status, which explains the great diversity of the sheets kept in the museum.

, Hector Guimard, Guimard, Hector
Hector Guimard
Paris, Le Métropolitain, vers 1901
Musée d'Orsay
© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / Tony Querrec
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They range from technical drawings, sometimes of great size – such as the drawings in the Hector Guimard collection (1867-1942), which are over 3 meters (10 feet) long - to artists' drawings – such as those in the François Garas collection (1866-1925), which includes pastels. The collection also includes "fine drawings,” intended to be shown at the Salon or in competition, which the artist created with an eye to the fine arts, and albums – such as those in the Victor Ruprich-Robert (1820-1887) collection – or sketches in notebooks – such as those in the Charles Le Cœur (1830-1906) collection, or in the course notes of Eugène Grasset (1845-1917), which consist of twelve volumes. Some collections also include works by one of the artist's relatives, such as in the Louis Boitte (1830-1906) collection with Alice and Zélia Boitte

, Le Coeur, Charles-Justin
Charles-Justin Le Coeur
Château de Chambéry, élévation, vers 1885
Musée d'Orsay
© Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
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La politique d’acquisition permet également d’acquérir des œuvres uniques et singulières,  particulièrement marquantes par leur sujet comme l’aquarelle Projet pour la porte monumentale de l'atelier de Winnaretta Singer, princesse de Scey-Montbéliard par Eugène Grasset, commande du sculpteur Jean Carriès (1855-1894), acquise en 2018,


This acquisition policy also makes it possible to acquire unique and singular works, particularly striking because of their subject matter, such as the watercolor ProJet pour la Porte monumental de l ‘atelier de Winna Retta Singer, princesses de Scey-Montbéliard [Proposal for the monumental door of the studio of Winnaretta Singer, Princess of Scey-Montbéliard] by Eugène Grasset [photo ou lien], commissioned by the sculptor Jean Carriès (1855-1894), acquired in 2018,

, Grasset, Eugène|Carriès, Jean
Eugène Grasset, Jean Carriès
Projet pour la porte monumentale de l'atelier de Winnaretta Singer, princesse de Scey-Montbéliard, en 1890
Musée d'Orsay
© Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
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or the ink drawing Réduction du Temple de marbre, vue à vol d’oiseau [Reduction of the Marble Temple, bird's eye view] by Louis Godineau de la Bretonnerie (1810-1877), utopian proposal by Docteur Noir, acquired in 2020. In 2019, it made it possible to acquire two exceptional drawings attributed to Gabriel Davioud (1824-1881), a great architect of the Haussmann period. This “Proposal for a circus, elevation and longitudinal section," close to the subject of the Orpheum dear to the architect, thus completes the important collection of architectural drawings devoted to places of the performing arts under the Second Empire and the Third Republic.

, Godineau de la Bretonnerie, Louis
Louis Godineau de la Bretonnerie
Réduction du projet du Temple de marbre, vue à vol d'oiseau, vers 1860
Musée d'Orsay
Achat, 2020
© Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
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The Art Nouveau and Secession movements are represented by key acquisitions, such as the Guimard collection, which entered the museum in 1992 thanks to the vigilance of an association, as well as the collection devoted to the pupils of Otto Wagner, Emil Hoppe (1876-1957), Marcel Kammerer (1878-1959) and Otto Schöntal (1878-1961), acquired in 1997[liens vers notice Kammerer]. The Emile Gallé (1846-1904) and René Lalique (1860-1945) collections are important and prestigious contributions to the museum's decorative art collections



Finally, exceptional gifts unrelated to families of architects are also an opportunity to increase the museum’s collections. In 2013, Neil Levine, an architectural historian and professor at Harvard University, offered the museum his collection of architectural drawings representative of his research on architecture in France in the 19th century. These included such great names as Hittorff, Duban, and Lassus, but also lesser-known architects who imported the teaching of architecture from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts de Paris to the United States.

A Pompeia (détail), Duban, Félix
Félix Duban
A Pompeia (détail), vers 1830
Musée d'Orsay
Don American Friends of the Musée d'Orsay, 2019
© Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
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The Musée d'Orsay's collection of architectural drawings provides an understanding of the history of architecture in Europe in the 19th century through the monuments and urban planning of Paris, the teaching at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts throughout France and beyond, the Universal Exhibitions, the careers of architects, interior and exterior decorations, architectural programs related to social policy, and restoration policies. It also promotes the understanding of the creative process of the architect, who sometimes remains a generator of ideas or an artist-poet concerned with the welfare of the individual.