Here’s my guide to visiting the ravishing Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris. The Marmottan Monet is the premiere destination for Impressionism in Paris. If you’re an art lover, the Musee Marmottan is a must visit museum in Paris.
The Marmottan is a small almost secret museum in Paris tucked away in the 16th arrondissement. The museum is a veritable hidden gem in Paris. You won’t have to battle the annoying crowds that throng the Louvre or the Musee d’Orsay.
Are you Monet-crazy? This is your museum. The Marmottan has more Monet paintings than the Musee d’Orsay. Or any other museum in the world.
Despite those accolades, the Marmottan wasn’t a museum I expected to like. I generally don’t like Impressionism, jaded by its over saturation and cloying subjects. I haven’t liked it since I was a teenager, truth be told.
I own a book from that 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.
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’ syrupy faux take on life, pastel colors, and their endless pretty scenes of rosy cheeked young women and haystacks. I found most Impressionist works trite, superficial, and unchallenging.
Generally, I prefer my art less frothy and with a dash of philosophical purpose or intellectual rigor. This has been the state of affairs for decades: a standoff between me and Impressionism.
The Jamais Vu Phenomenon
So what changed? Why am I writing this?
My pre-conceived opinion was revised by a recent visit to the Marmottan. 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 Monet’s massive water lily canvases, that I experienced the phenomenon of “jamais vu” in full force.
“Jamais vu” is the opposite of “deja vu.” It’s 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 postage stamp 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 massive water lilies were stunning.
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. After constant rejection of their works by the government-sanctioned Salon, the artists organized their own independent exhibitions.
Unlike prior artists, the Impressionists rebelled against the rigid rules of the hierarchic and tyrannical art establishment. Those rules required that paintings have clear cut finished appearances and depict idealized themes from history, literature, or mythology.
In the face of intense criticism, the Impressionists forged their own path and redefined how to paint. Instead of painting what they knew, the artists painted what they saw and felt.
The Impressionists aimed to capture the ephemeral, sensory effect of a leisurely scene — the impression that objects made on the eye in a fleeting instant. The Impressionists used fast and loose brushwork, a lighter palette, and tried to capture the effects of light. Monet described it as the “search for instantaneity.”
Impressionism made its debut at what was derogatorily dubbed the “Exhibition of the Impressionists” in 1874. Critics hated the art work. They thought the Impressionists sketch-like style was unfinished, scandalous, and horribly ugly.
In particular, Monet’s painting, Impression: Sunrise, shocked the public. One sneering critic decried the work as nothing more than an “impression,” worse than wallpaper. The insult stuck and gave birth to the name of the radical movement. Now, the painting is the most famous in the Marmottan collection.
The Impressionists were initially inspired by Edouard Manet, though he was not a formal member of their group. The fountainhead and messiah was Claude Monet, who is synonymous with the movement. Monet was one of the few artists to achieve financial and critical success in his lifetime.
Overview of 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. The museum’s main and second floors are beautifully decorated in the Empire style to highlight his collection.
Empire styles give way to Impressionist paintings via a large donation. In 1957, Victorine Donop de Monchy bequeathed her father’s collection of Impressionist works. In 1966, Michel Monet, Monet’s single heir, bequeathed his substantial collection of his father’s work, as well as Monet’s property in Giverny in 1966.
READ: Guide To Monet’s Giverny
To accommodate these works, a specially built basement gallery was added. It houses 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 Monet paintings — the world’s largest single collection of Monet. It also houses some fantastic paintings by Renoir, Degas, Gaugin, Manet, and Berthe Morisot.
The Appeal of Monet’s Water Lilies
The water lilies were exquisite, a revelation. As I stood before them, the colors astounded and captivated me. I was spellbound.
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 superheated green-golds, sultry oranges, flame reds, and mossy greens.
The intensely-colored lilies are a theater-like recreation of the experience of physically being at a pond. 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, pulling me in a sort of sensory overload.
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 his beloved 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.
There are plenty of other paintings by Monet to admire as well. The Marmottan paintings provide an overview of Monet’s entire career, from early industrial scenes to his time in Normandy to his final years.
You’ll find various renditions of the Japanese bridge from his Giverny gardens, which pre-date the water lilies. You can find other garden paintings as well — lilies, irises, roses, and a series of weeping willows.
Other Impressionist Paintings
The museum also has a large cache of works by other Impressionists — Edouard Manet, Camille Pissarro, Renoir, Gustave Caillebotte, Alfred Sisley, and Auguste Rodin. There’s also works by precursor artists who influenced the Impressionists, such as Eugene Delacroix and Camille Corot.
My favorites were by Berthe Morisot. The Marmottan owns 100 of her paintings.
As far as Impressionists go, she’s one of the unsung heroes. Appealingly more Edouard Manet in style than Renoir. 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’s art 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: 12 euros. Combo ticket of 21.50 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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