Even though the Musée d’Orsay is home to more than 3,000 paintings, all of which are worth looking at, there are some paintings you shouldn’t miss. Here is the list of 10 must-see paintings during your visit!

1. Bal du moulin de la Galette

Pierre-Auguste Renoir


This painting by Pierre-Auguste Renoir illustrates the flourishing café culture of Paris in the 1870s. The capital not only transformed a dirty city into a modern and well-equipped city, but it also became a place where writers, artists and the wealthy class could dance, drink and enjoy themselves to the fullest. Renoir’s Bal du Moulin de la Galette captures the very essence and spirit of the city.

2. Nymphéas bleus

Claude Monet


Monet was greatly inspired by water lilies, the botanical name for water lilies. The painting focuses only on the pond and the white water lilies in it. He had built a water garden on his property in Giverny where he grew these flowers, which became his source of inspiration for the painting.

There is no visible frame or border, horizon, sky or particular detail, so the painting exudes a sense of abstraction and infinity. The composition is also very neutral, with free but strong brushstrokes.

3. Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe

Edouard Manet


This is one of the most amazing paintings in the Musée d’Orsay. Manet was known to be a controversial figure in the art world. Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe was one of his earliest paintings which caused controversy when it was exhibited in 1863. Manet took inspiration from the classic scene of the Judgment of Paris and added a bit of audacity to it with a nude woman sitting among fully clothed men. There is no depth or perspective in the painting. The colors and lines are also irregular.

4. Dans un café (or L’Absinthe)

Edgar Degas


Originally known as Dans un café, the painting Absinthe caused a sensation when it was exhibited at the Grafton Gallery in London. This classic oil painting came across as a bit too modern: a possible sex worker and her sidekick drinking absinthe (an extremely strong alcoholic beverage) were seen as a violation of Victorian morality. The composition is quite powerful with the main subject off center and an empty space in the foreground. Color tones are balanced across the canvas.

5. Plage à Heist

Georges Lemmen


The Beach at Heist is a remarkable example of the art nouveau style, and of the original technique that Georges Lemmen developed under the influence of Henri Van de Velde and applied mainly to landscapes and portraits. He was also a follower of Pointillism and used Neo-Impressionist techniques and elements in his paintings.

The round or oval dots are separated by complementary colors while the bluish cloud seems to take possession of the sky. The boat, painted purple against a sunset highlighted in yellow and orange, seems to be the only sign of human life that exists in this landscape.

6. La nuit étoilée (Starry Night Over the Rhône)

Vincent Van Gogh


To start our selection of our favorite works in this museum, let’s take a look at The Starry Night by the famous Vincent Van Gogh. Painted in 1888 in Arles during the artist’s stay, the painting represents a night view of the city on the banks of the Rhône. The location chosen by the painter is near the Yellow House, Place Lamartine where Van Gogh had rented an apartment. This position allowed the artist to capture the reflections of gas lighting on the water of the river, contrasting with the sky dotted with stars including the constellation of the Big Dipper.

Unusual detail, there is another painting by Van Gogh entitled The Starry Night, painted the following year but this time in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence and which can be admired at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

7. Un Coin de table

Henri Fantin-Latour


Let’s go back to 1872, the year in which the painter Henri Fantin-Latour continued his series of group portraits, after that of painters some time earlier (with Hommage à Delacroix and Un atelier aux Batignolles). For this, the artist brings together eight poets, around a meal, including the famous couple: Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud. Other personalities such as Victor Hugo had been invited but the latter refused to pose…

Another absentee, the poet Albert Mérat, who following a mysterious altercation had also refused to pose next to Rimbaud. The latter is replaced on the far right of the painting by a bouquet of hydrangeas…

Henri Fantin-Latour will end his series of group portraits with a fourth canvas painted in 1885 entitled Autour du Piano, this time representing musicians.

8. Les Cathédrales de Monet

Claude Monet

Not far from the clock of the Musée d’Orsay is a series of paintings by Claude Monet representing the cathedral of Rouen. The pioneer of Impressionism strives to “capture the moment” in his works. Could we see Monet as a precursor of photography?

A certainty the painter seeks to capture the light and its variations during the day and the different seasons. The Rouen Cathedral series is a fine example. At the Musée d’Orsay you can contemplate 5 paintings, the series comprising 40 variations of the cathedral!

It is up to you to be an observer to detect the main characteristics of Impressionism, such as clearly visible brush strokes or the absence of clear contours to separate the elements…

9. La Falaise d’Étretat après l’orage

Gustave Courbet


Gustave Courbet is undoubtedly known for his work from the Musée d’Orsay L’Origine du monde, but he also immortalized the town of Étretat and its cliffs, which we will present to you in the table below. In the 19th century, the Norman town attracted many painters, including Courbet, who settled there in the summer of 1869. From his house by the sea, he could observe the Aval cliff which he would represent in many paintings. One of the most accomplished is called La Falaise d’Étretat after the storm, representing a landscape free from any human presence.

Gustave Courbet balances his composition here between the different elements of his scene: earth, sea, sky and stone. The light after the rain is both powerful and soft, giving an impression of fullness to this masterful work!

10. Portrait of the Artist

Vincent Van Gogh


Van Gogh painted several portraits of himself from 1886 to 1889. This is an iconic painting on display at the Musée d’Orsay. His self-portraits depict his journey, his emotional turmoil and his discomfort with himself and his environment. The patterns in this 1887 painting are similar to those in The Starry Night, indicating some sort of turmoil or turbulence. He fused Impressionist influences with Japanese woodblock art to add a sense of fluidity to the painting.

He also created self-portraits because he had no money to pay models. Art supplies were pricey enough. This one follows the decline of his mental health. It’s not just about experimenting with your art. It sounds more like an attempt by Van Gogh to understand himself.