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.