Musée de L’Orangerie


There is a treasured secret in Paris. It’s much smaller than the Louvre or even the Musée D’Orsay, but infinitely more fairytale and serene. The Musée De L’Orangerie is a charming, little jewel box of an art museum set just at the edge of the Tuileries Garden amid the chaos of Place de la Concorde. A calm oasis in the heart of the city, this sacred space holds Monet’s crowning achievements, the Water Lilies and Willows of his home in Giverny. They refer to all of these masterpieces as the Nymphéas here in Paris. (Nymphéas means water lilies in French.) And they are evidence of Monet’s lifelong obsession with the eternity of beauty.

Each of the canvases displayed here is six and a half feet tall, and if lined up side by side, they would be almost 300 feet long. To be surrounded by that size and scale of art makes you feel as if you are actually inside the paintings. The best way for me to describe it to you, is to ask you to think of the film “What Dreams May Come,” and the way it portrayed heaven as a world made entirely of paint. That is the feeling you get when you sit at the center of these masterpieces for an afternoon.  Heaven…made entirely of paint.

I will confess here and now that I am not much of a fan of Impressionism in general. I don’t feel any visceral impact from many of the paintings of that genre. Quite often, it feels as though there is no emotion or passion in it, nothing to hold my interest. But, these breathtaking panels of Monet’s are completely different.

They are huge, emotional works, designed to capture the changing qualities of light in his garden, passing through the hours of sunrise to sunset. And with no horizon to orient yourself as you study them, the elements of sky, earth, water and air seem to melt together, with only the water lilies and the willows to create a rhythm. The works are almost abstract, particularly the images of dusk. And they assault your every sense with their grace and power.

Monet willed these masterworks to the city of Paris with one condition. He wanted to design the architecture of the space so that the visitor would feel that they had taken a vacation from the city without ever having to leave it. Here is the journey he designed.

First, you walk across a glass-sided catwalk and into a stark white, circular vestibule. Monet demanded this space be devoid of any color. In fact, all three rooms in his design are completely white: floors, ceilings, walls, everything but the paintings. This vestibule is simply the first step in that journey. A blank circle, designed to empty your mind and help you decompress from the chaos of the city. Here, you take a couple of deep breaths and pay homage to the bronze bust of Monet that stands guard to the beauty you haven’t yet seen.

At the back of the vestibule, there are two 45-degree angle entrances that lead you into the first of two long, white, oval rooms. The first of these rooms is devoted to Monet’s Water Lilies. The four gently curving walls are a beautiful backdrop for the Water Lilies, which are the only source of color in the entire space. They surround you everywhere you look. It’s like climbing inside a painted waterscape.

Once you have experienced this first room, you move on to the second. You travel through two more 45-degree angled archways to arrive at another pure white, oval room, identical to the first. This space is where the Willows live. Equally powerful, equally beautiful, but darker, more brooding somehow.

These two rooms are each lit from above, through a white scrim which diffuses the light and makes the space feel otherworldly somehow. The only thing to see in these two large oval spaces is the magic of the water lilies and willow trees themselves, the interplay between color and light. And in the center of each room, rest two long benches on which the visitors sit while they meditate on the beauty that surrounds them.

In 1927, one year after Monet’s death, these eight masterpieces were actually laid into the gently curving walls of these two rooms at the Musée de L’Orangerie. The canvases cannot be removed. In fact, they remained embedded in the walls thoughout a huge renovation of this museum which began in 2000. Since it was impossible to detach the paintings from their home, demolition and construction had to take place around them. To protect the paintings from water, heat, dust and vibrations, they were sealed inside reinforced boxes, each attached to an alarm system.

The result of this six-year renovation is the addition of two lower floors, which now house a gift shop, a café and an entire floor devoted to other masterpieces by Renoir, Cézanne, Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani, Soutine, and Derain to name a few. There’s even a space downstairs dedicated to temporary exhibitions as well.  Now that the renovation is complete, the museum is worthy of the beauty that abides within it; but the star, of course, is Monet.

Monet summed up his passion for the Nymphéas with this. “These landscapes of water and reflection have become an obsession for me…It is beyond my strength as an old man, and yet I want to render what I feel.”  Well, render it he did. You don’t just see these paintings. You feel them. The violets and blues, greens and russet browns, they haunt you, long after you leave the museum. But it’s friendly haunting…and a beautiful one.

In his lifetime, Monet painted around 250 oils of his beloved Japanese-style lagoon at Giverny. And in my opinion, by far the most powerful are the Nymphéas displayed here. These eight panels, filled with light and reflection, are the crowning achievements of Monet’s garden. They are his life’s work. They are his legacy, and he bequeathed them to Paris, the City of Light.     How fitting.

Learning French Is Hard, Y’all!

I have a bachelor’s degree in journalism and I’m the proud owner of two master’s degrees with 4.0 averages: one in education and one in theater -all from highly respected, private universities. I’ve even been awarded the Phi Delta Kappa key (huge scholastic honor for educators). I have had the pleasure of teaching Fine Arts in private universities for over 25 years. And, in fact, am considered very intelligent and highly capable by both peers and students alike. In short…I am not a stupid person. But, I will tell you that at the age of 51, I realized with glaring certainty that I am not NEARLY as smart as I thought I was.

It’s been almost a full year since my husband and I moved to Paris. During that time, I have taken French language courses for weeks and weeks. I have practiced my grammar with our “oh-so-patient” Parisian friends. Even our wonderful neighbors from the fifth floor have helped with this process. We have dinner with them about once a month or so, and for entire evenings we speak roughly 80% French and 20% English. And I am still hopelessly confused by the French language.

Why is French so difficult, you may ask? Well, I’ll tell you. French has nine different verb tenses, each one with six different conjugations depending on the subject (I, you-familiar, he/she/it, we, you-formal or plural, and they). Each conjugation changes depending on the gender of the subject being referred to -as well as whether it is singular or plural. Even items have genders in French. They don’t simply say “the book” or “the purse.” Every single item has a gender. And there is no sense whatsoever to which items are masculine and which are feminine, so you just have to memorize every single noun in the entire French language to know whether it is male or female. For instance…high heeled shoes? MASCULINE. So the conjugation must include the ending for a masculine verb. As I said, there is absolutely no rhyme or reason to it. No wonder the French need to drink wine at every meal.

There are many rules in the French language, and for every rule there are many exceptions. This only adds to the horror. I now despise the film “Eat, Pray, Love” because after having seen the lead characters becoming fluent in Italian within three months, I was convinced I could do the same with French. Hey…I had even learned Dutch -one of the least-spoken, funniest-sounding, weirdest languages on the planet. French had to be easier, right? Not on your life.

Learning French is the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. I’m constantly humbled and sometimes even humiliated by how wretched my French actually is. My accent is excellent, they tell me, which oddly enough, adds to the problem. Whenever I start a conversation with someone here, they assume I’m fluent because of my accent. So, they begin their rapid-fire French in response. I call this “Firehose French” because it shoots out at 1,000 miles an hour with no pauses or punctuation of any kind. I start to feel strangely “out of body” and see images of Charlie Brown listening to his school teacher “Wah wah wah wah wah wah wah.”

Of course, I ask the person I’m speaking with to slow down. I apologize. I tell them that I’m an American and speak French like a Spanish cow. Fortunately, this makes them laugh, and we stumble and bumble our way through the conversation until I’ve gotten my point across. There are times when I actually understand French, but only when the conversation is slow and uses tiny words. Little French kids can out-language me in seconds. It’s a humbling thing to be this bad at something for this long…and every day to wake up knowing that you have to face it again.

I start French language classes again next Monday. I am praying that they will help me to be better, faster, and even funnier in French. And God willing, it won’t take the rest of my natural life. But I’m not holding my breath.

As we ease into 2016, and you start making goals for the new year, please use this embarrassing confessional tale of mine to remind you, “No matter how slow you go, you’re still lapping everybody on the couch.”

And say a prayer for me.  Remember, I start school again on Monday.