Jamais Vu: A New Look at Monet at Paris' Musée Marmottan Monet
Updated: Feb 1
Here's my guide to visiting the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris. It's not a museum that I expected to like, but I was surprised by its beautiful art.
I don't like Impressionism. I haven’t liked it since I was a teenager. I own a book from that misbegotten bygone period, given to me by an artistic boyfriend, The Great Book of French Impressionism. It's a massive 30 pound symbol of my stupidity, both in boyfriends and in art. On the cover is Claude Monet’s famous Rue Montorgueil, Paris Festival of June 30, 1878.
A Falling Out With Impressionism
As my love affair with the book giving boy waned, so too did my love of impressionism.
My artistic taste evolved. I no longer liked the impressionists' syrypy faux take on life, pastel colors, and their endless pretty scenes of rosy cheeked young women, haystacks, and flowers. I found Impressionism trite, superficial, and unchallenging.
Generally, I prefer my art less frothy and with a dash of philosophical purpose.
This has been the state of affairs for decades: a standoff between me and Impressionism.
So far advanced was my skepticism and distaste that I had to be dragged to the Musee D'Orsay in Paris, the world's most popular museum due to its large cache of impressionist art.
Even while there, I steadfastly spurned the Renoirs and Monets and took in the more interesting Manets (pre-impressionism) and Van Goghs (post-impressionism).
The Jamais Vu Phenomenon
So what changed? Why am I writing this?
My opinion was revised, to some degree, not by a visit to the Musee D'Orsay, but by a visit to the Musée Marmottan Monet, a small almost secret museum in Paris tucked away in the 16th arrondissement.
Once again, I was dragged there against my will. I had no excuse. I was on a springtime geographical cure in Paris and staying with friends in the 16th arrondissement. Little effort was required to get there.
But it was there, as I stood before Claude Monet's massive water lily canvases, that I experienced "jamais vu" in full force.
"Jamais vu" (the opposite of "deja vu") is a French term that means “never seen." It refers to the phenomenom by which you can see something familiar, something you've seen countless times, but experience it as entirely new.
That is how I felt. I had seen hundreds of Monets. Yet, perhaps because of my long divorce from Impressionism, I felt like I was seeing the artist's work for the first time.
Stunned, I realized I liked it. Quite a bit, in fact.
The Rise and Theory Behind Impressionism
According to my massive tomb, still with me after all these years, Impressionism was once controversial, a renegade 19th century art movement.
The Impressionists stopped exhibiting at the government-sanctioned Salon and began organizing their own independent exhibitions. Their style was initially viewed as unfinished, scandalous, and horribly ugly. (Monet's Rouen Cathedral does, in fact, look fairly ugly to me.)
Impressionism is essentially the first distinctly modern movement in painting.
Unlike prior artists, impressionists aimed to capture the ephemeral, sensory effect of a scene - the impression -- objects made on the eye in a fleeting instant. They used loose brushwork, a lighter palette, and tried to capture the effects of light. They often painted outside in "plein air."
The Monet painting, Impression, Sunrise, gave birth to the name of the movement. It was first shown at what was derogatorily dubbed the "Exhibition of the Impressionists" in 1874 and is now a highlight of the Musée Marmottan Monet.
The art critic Louis Leroy used the term "impressionism" to savage the artists, saying:
"Impression I was certain of it. I was just telling myself that, since I was impressed, there had to be some impression in it — and what freedom, what ease of workmanship! A preliminary drawing for a wallpaper pattern is more finished than this seascape."
But the savaged eventually became the revered, and Leroy and his insults were consigned to the dust bin of history.
The Musée Marmottan Monet
The Musée Marmottan Monet was once home to critic and collector Paul Marmottan, who bequeathed his collection of art objects from the Napoleonic era. It has a specially built basement gallery with an exceptional overview of Monet's work, from his early caricatures to his late works of the lily pond at his home in Giverny.
The museum has over 300 Monets -- the largest single collection of Monet. Most were donated to the museum by Monet's son, Michel Monet, in 1966. If you love Impressionism or are an art lover in general, this is a must see museum in Paris.
The ground floor and upper floor of the museum hold the Napoleonic collection as well as paintings by Renoir, Dégas, Gaugin, Manet, and Berthe Morisot.
The Appeal of the Water Lilies
The water lilies were exquisite, a revelation. As I stood before them, the colors astounded and captivated me. I was spellbound.
And the water lilies are ravishing. They are a panorama of light and water, a distillation of an enchanted garden. There is a sense of audacity and physicality not present in Monet's earlier paintings.
Just as Monet’s touch becomes more vigorous and physical during his last decade, his color heats up, too. This was a different palette from Monet's other impressionist works. The pastels are gone, replaced with uperheated green-golds, sultry oranges, flame reds, and mossy greens.
How had I missed this before? Well, I must admit I hadn't seem them in person before ... or possibly had ignored them.
Maybe it was their massive scale. They were larger than me. I was used to viewing postage stamp size impressionist paintings. This time, the canvas engulfed me.
Maybe it was because they were waterscapes, not traditional landscapes. I'm a swimmer; water appeals to me at an elemental level.
Whatever the exact source of my newfound admiration, the water lilies had a startlingly emotive effect. I saw what previously I hadn't. And I even bought a water lily covered case for my iPad at the end of my visit.
Jamais vu, indeed.
Monet, the Gardener-Painter
Monet created over 250 paintings of water lilies. They were the focus of his later career where, installed at Giverny, he gardened and painted his gardens. He once joked that he was "good for nothing except painting and gardening."
The water lilies, like his earlier work Impression Sunrise, were not popular at the time. Critics joked that the works were less about a vision of nature, than a product of Monet's blurred vision (he had a cataract).
For years following Monet's death, his water lily paintings were largely ignored with many paintings gathering dust in his Giverny studio. Then, in the 1950s, with the rise of Abstract Expressionism, interest in the pieces rose. The Museum of Modern Art purchased a water lily, and museum goers liked it.
Truth be told, perhap this is why I found the water lilies so mesmerizing. I love Abstract Expressionism. To me, the water lilies, with their simplified composition and focus on pure vivid color, seem more akin to that school than the Renoir-ish impressionist paintings I have always disliked.
The museum also has quite a few works by Berthe Morisot. As far as impressionists go, she's not half bad. Though I still prefer Manet's painting of her (shown below) over her own works.
I mention her (not Renoir) because, predictably, as a woman, she has received less acclaim than her male peers.
But she was a revolutionary figure in the impressionist movement, and was included in seven of the eight Impressionist group exhibitions held between 1874 and 1886. She is now considered one of "les trois grandes dames" of Impressionism along with Marie Bracquemond and Mary Cassatt.
Seeing the museum works, especially the water lilies, seemingly for the very first time, gave me pause. I wondered what other things I’d missed or forgotten or wrongfully ignored. Probably a lot. I don't know if there's a lesson here.
Maybe I should actively reassess some of my other opinions.
But probably not ... I actually liked the feeling of jamais vu, the sense of wonder and re-discovery. It's good to be jolted now and again. What next?
Practical Information and Tips for Visiting the Musee Marmottan Monet:
Address: 2 rue Louis Boilly | 16th Arrondissement, 75016 Paris, France
Hours: Daily: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Thursday until 9 p.m., closed on Mondays
Entry: 11 euros. Combo ticket of 18.5 euros with Monet's garden and house in Giverny, which also lets you skip the line there.
Phone: +33 1 44 96 50 33
Metro: Line 9 to La Muette
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