Inventing Impressionism: VR at the Musée D’Orsay

by | May 22, 2024

Earlier this month, I joined a unique educational event with my family: the Fin-de-siècle splendour that was the Musée d’Orsay’s VR experience, “Tonight with the Impressionists”.

Here, my children and I were totally immersed in the environment of the first Impressionist Exhibition of 1874 – a truly historic occasion for art history. This was our experience.

Having a background in History and Cultural Studies, I was focused on the accuracy of details. Was 1874 coming to life? My youngest and I kept close to each other, ever so carefully stepping through the salons of Paris filled with the painting greats. The elder kids were hanging out of windows and trying out all angles with great glee. The illusion mostly held up.

There were the expected dizzy moments when you walk over planks or avoid falling in water, but the whole experience was drawn as a comfortable cartoon with a nice actor lady in blue guiding us along – a lovely combination with the impressionist colour scheme. The attention to detail was amazing, especially in the background with rustling leaves and doves flying overhead. Aspects such as these really made the experience come to life for me. By contrast, however, it was La Belle Monde, meaning there were no dreary back-alley poverty or other uncomfortable confrontations. Even the streets were clean and this kept me a bit cynical.

If anything, I would add that the story was a trifle too long. The makers had so much information to impress on their participants that they became a little overeager to include ALL OF IT in their story. A writer, rather than an art historian would perhaps have served them well as a more strict editor.


The VR experience was a popular exhibition. Although it required an additional fee, full families of various ages joined and, due to time slots, it was not overcrowded. About eight people ran the VR experience and they had been very clearly trained to one set of instructions. The first five minutes was intended to introduce the participants to VR as well as the rules of this particular experience. The map was very flexible and people rarely bumped into each other even though easily more than thirty people were occupying the space at any one time.

As one of my daughters discovered, the experience was deeply rendered such that she was able go into small corners and still find details or float in the air and look over Paris. She even was able to go inside of the actors and look at their mouths working from the inside.

Afterwards, the older folks had to admit to being a bit stiff due to unnatural poses, constantly watching where we were going, and being afraid to colour outside the lines.



This was a very well done VR experience which did not come cheap in the production. The level of detail, the intense rendering, and the length of the story…no wonder you had to pay extra! But was it worth it? I think it was. As a visitor, you got far more out of this than simply watching the featured paintings in the exhibition rooms in the same museum. You had the chance to experience an element of their context and thus add an extra layer to what the museum was attempting to convey through their grand exhibition, “150 Years of Impressionism”. A deeper understanding was made possible.

A co-worker asked if I would want to see it again? Probably not. For me, it was one of those once-in-a-life-time things, why watch it again? If the storyline had been less constricted, however, I would have felt more able to explore Paris in 1874 with the mud and the ugliness included. Indeed, if this would become possible, yes! I would definitely visit Paris like that again, like a time traveler.

Can we please build historic digital worlds like that?


If you’re curious to discover more or perhaps even experience this VR exhibition yourself, here are the details and links!


What: Inventing Impressionism (Paris 1874), Exhibition Tonight with the Impressionists

Where: Musée d’Orsay, Paris

When: 26-3-2024 till 14-6-2024

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