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Paris' Gare d'Orsay Museum a Centerpiece

May 17, 1987|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

PARIS — The chestnut trees were in full spring flower as my wife and I walked along the River Seine toward the Tuileries Gardens.

When we crossed the bridge to the Left Bank, there was another kind of flowering at the entrance to what was once the Gare d'Orsay railroad station.

Lines of brightly dressed people were waiting for the 10:30 a.m. opening of the Museum Gare d'Orsay, the new art museum that has become the centerpiece of a new culture boom in France.

By presenting in one monumental collection the works of the great French Impressionist artists, Museum D'Orsay has become the most popular new gateway into the French artistic experience.

Art museums, festivals and "France Set to Music" are the cultural focus of "The Year of Welcome." The program was launched by Jean-Jacques Decamps, the French Minister of Tourism, in an effort to help France recover from last year's tourism decline, which affected nearly all of Europe and was triggered by fears of terrorism.

Visa Suggestion

Reduced hotel rates and a new type of rail pass are part of the program. Many sectors of the tourism industry are urging that the efforts to attract visitors be supported by ending the visa requirement for travelers from the United States.

But even with the visa requirement, there were at least a dozen Americans ahead of us in line at the Museum D'Orsay. Half an hour later, as we turned from the paintings of Monet and Renoir to look out through the clock window toward Montmartre, we heard a young woman from San Francisco say softly, "Oh, yes! This is Paris!"

The Museum D'Orsay brings together almost a century of Paris culture. The halls, galleries and corridors display some 2,300 paintings, 13,000 photographs, 1,500 sculptures and 250 pastels.

And the building itself is a work of art. The ceiling that once arched high above the railroad tracks has been preserved to vault over the magnificent entry court, which is lined with 19th-Century sculptures. Surrounded by three levels of galleries, the entry court is the museum's piece de resistance .

The paintings of Millet, Rousseau and Corot introduce you to the ground-floor galleries. Degas and Manet share the upper level with many fellow impressionist artists, as well as with the neo-Impressionism of Toulouse-Lautrec and many others. The middle level brings you to the late 19th- and early 20th-Century artists.

Outline of French History

The "Perspective on History" exhibit not only introduces the museum, but also helps visitors orient themselves to a period of art by presenting an outline of French history between 1848 and 1914.

Gare D'Orsay was hailed as a work of art even when it opened as a railroad station in 1900. Built on the site of the Orsay Palace, the stunning white station was designed by architect Victor Laloux and was described by the painter Detaille as giving "the impression of a Beaux Arts Palace."

This year, during which French history and culture are being given a greater emphasis than ever before by the country's tourism office, the Museum Gare d'Orsay is presented as the newest of five Paris "culture boom" museums opened during the past year and a half.

The Picasso Museum is installed in the Hotel Sale, which got its name from the establishment's first owner, who became wealthy collecting sales taxes. Here you will see not only the paintings from the artist's celebrated Blue and Rose period, but also his private collection of artists he admired. The National Museum of Fashion, in a wing of the Louvre, gives a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of fashion from the 11th Century to the present.

In another wing of the Louvre, the Museum of Decorative Arts glows after a five-year, 25-million-franc renovation. The new Museum of Science and Industry, situated in the La Villete redevelopment area of the city, is being hailed as the largest museum of its kind. The Louvre itself plans a major renovation of its north wing.

Artists, private galleries and hotels are participating in the Paris culture boom. When we checked into the Hotel Neurice, we were asked if we wanted the concierge desk to arrange four Museum d'Orsay tickets in order to shorten the time of our wait in line. Across the street, Hotel Inter-Continental is preparing guests for the art museum circuit by exhibiting the portrait paintings of Canadian artist Murray Stuart Smith.

The Paris Office of Tourism has prepared a calendar of "Les Grands Rendezvous" of art and musical activity. There are more than 100 entries, including symphony performances, opera, light opera, ballet, chamber music, community festivals and concerts in the great churches of the city.

Exhibitions at private galleries are included in the listing, as are the days and hours when more than 30 museums are open to the public.

"France Set to Music" is a guide prepared with the support of the government offices of culture and tourism. It covers more than 500 musical presentations and festivals in all parts of the country.

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