Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Paris: Museé de L'Orangerie

Inside the L'Orangerie Museum

Water Lilies (Les Nymphéas)
Both monumental and intimate, Water Lilies (Les Nymphéas) are the ultimate expression of Claude Monet's artistic ideas, an incredible project by a painter who wanted to explore all the variations of light in his garden at Giverny. The paintings are housed in two elliptical rooms, and encourage the visitor to gaze in endless contemplation. After the horror of the First World War, Monet wanted his work to take on this aesthetic and poetic dimension, and provide a haven for peaceful meditation. 

On the Museé de l’Orangerie website, the above description of Monet’s intention sounds inviting. The reality however is not quite what he had in mind. Around 1900, he conceived the idea that his largest and most magnificent water lily paintings might find a home, in a uniquely designed building for all to enjoy. The building already existed as a greenhouse for citrus trees. It was ultimately remodeled into two oval rooms, with a high skylight, perfectly suited to the four paintings in each. And in the center, a comfortable long double wide bench for people to sit upon and gaze. All that came to pass, but the sheer numbers of people who come to see them, make the room somewhat less contemplative than one might like. Surely, for Parisians, there must be times when fewer people would permit a visit more in line with Monet’s vision, but as a fly-by tourist, I could only sit, ponder, and then lean dramatically to look around people who stepped into view.

The eight paintings are magnificent, about eight feet wide and varying in length, each representing the light on a pond of water lilies at different times; dawn, noon, later afternoon, sunset, and reflecting cumulus clouds in the sky. It is very much like looking out a large window on a slightly foggy day, when everything is out of focus, yet discernable. The trunks of willow trees come into the picture without roots and scale upward into the sky without branching out. Only their weeping leaves rain from the sky to the water that reflects them and adds tremendous depth to the composition. The lilies themselves are mere hints of paint, applied on top of layers and layers of other colors.

After seeing so many paintings by varied artists on this trip through France, I was a bit astonished at the amount of paint, the layering, the thickness of Monet’s paintings, whereas other painters like Henri Martin let gesso covered canvas show through from time to time, without worry. It all worked the way each artist wanted, conveyed exactly what they had in mind, and the paintings never cease to astonish, a century after their deaths.

On the floor below the Water Lily exhibition there is a whole other museum. It is the Walter-Guillaume collection. Paul Guillaume was an art dealer who died prematurely. His widow, Dominica, lived more than 40 more years. She married another wealthy man, Jean Walter, and continued to purchase paintings. She sold many of Guillaume’s Picassos, and kept only the paintings done during the blue period. Guillaume loved the impressionists and post-impressionists. He was open to many new experiments like cubism, so the collection is widely varied and interesting.  We got the audio guide in English. It was well worth the money as each painting was explained in detail, whereas the label next to each work had nothing more than the name of the painting and the artist.

Next to the museum is the enormous Tuileries Garden. It is filled with sculptures, collected by kings and the government of France, over the last 500 years. A picnic in the park with a longish visit to the L’Orangerie would make a wonderful day in Paris for anyone wanting to drop out of the usual tourist whirlwind.

The Big Tree by Andre Durain