Wrap Yourself in Water Lilies at Paris' Musée de l'Orangerie, a Paris Hidden Gem
Updated: Dec 14, 2020
My wish is to stay always like this, living quietly in a corner of nature. -- Claude Monet
Paris' Musée de l'Orangerie, or Orangerie Museum, is one of the best small museums in Paris. It's a quick 10 minute walk from its more popular sister museum the Musée D'Orsay. And it's completely worth the detour, a hidden gem in Paris just waiting for avid fans of Impressionist Claude Monet.
On the way to the Orangerie Museum, you'll saunter past statues of Auguste Rodin's The Kiss and Henry Moore's Reclining Nude. Once inside the jewel-like museum with its sun drenched skylights, you may feel like you've stepped into an Impressionist painting.
Even better, you can feast your eyes on Claude Monet's career defining work -- his ravishing water lilies.
A Custom Built Museum
The Orangerie's main claim to fame is its famed collection of Monet's water lilies, some of which can also be found at the equally stunning Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris' 16th arrondissement.
In 1918, Monet offered 8 massive water lily paintings to the French government. In exchange, the government agreed to construct a custom built monument to showcase them to great effect.
In 1927, the water lilies were set in massive curved panels and installed in two adjoining oval shaped rooms in Paris' new museum, The Orangerie. The rooms opened in 1927. Some art historians call the Orangerie the world's first "art installation" because the space was designed specifically for Monet's paintings.
Monet: Gardener & Painter Extraordinaire
Monet is the poster boy for Impressionism. Unlike prior artists, Monet and the 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. The Impressionists often painted outside in "plein air."
Monet created over 250 paintings of water lilies. They were the singular focus of the last decades of his career. Monet installed himself at Giverny, which is an easy day trip from Paris. There, he gardened and painted his gardens. He once joked that he was "good for nothing except painting and gardening." Gardening was his single luxury.
Film maker Sacha Guitry said of Monet:
"His garden was the most beautiful in the world. He decided on the colors months in advance. He brought together all his gardeners and told them, this year I want my entire garden to be mauve ..."
At the center of this garden laboratory is a man-made pond, framed by flowers and adorned with a Japanese bridge. This pond quickly became one of Monet’s favorite subjects, with its whimsical water lily covering.
What To See at the Orangerie in Paris
1. The Water Lilies: Monet's Mad Enchantment
Working at his home in Giverny, Monet built a special studio with skylights and wheeled easels to accommodate the large format canvases. He worked on them obsessively. They were a prolonged source of inspiration.
"These landscapes of water and reflection have become an obsession for me," Monet wrote in 1909. Water lilies for Monet became what sunflowers were for Van Gogh.
An aging Monet completed the 8 panels, now known as the "Nymphéas." But sadly he didn't live to see them installed in 1927. He died of lung cancer at age 86 in December 1926.
The water lily installation is conceived so that the four panels in one gallery represent sunrise and the four in the other evoke dusk. And the water lilies are ravishing.
The rooms are a panorama of light and water. You'll feel immersed in Monet's garden at Giverney. Monet's fierce oversize brushstrokes show the lily pond surfaces, reflections, depth, and movement, all at once. It's like a distillation of a summer idyll in an enchanted place.
There is a sense of audacity and physicality not present in Monet's earlier paintings. You might feel like you are seeing then anew for the first time.
Above all, there’s vibrant color. Just as Monet’s touch becomes more vigorous and physical during his last decades, his color heats up too. The saccharine pastels are largely gone. Instead , there are superheated green-golds, sultry oranges, flame reds, cobalt blues, and mossy greens.
The paintings come close to abstraction with their "all over painting" style. To me, the water lilies are Monet's greatest works.
For years following Monet's death, the Orangerie and his water lily paintings were largely ignored. Impressionism was considered passé. And the water lilies were treated shabbily, once concealed to exhibit a cache of Flemish tapestries.
Then, in the 1950s, with the rise of Abstract Expressionism, interest in the water lilies rose. They were a logical jumping off point for abstraction. Monet became a reference point for Jackson Pollack, Joan Mitchell, Mark Rothko, and others. The Museum of Modern Art purchased a water lily, and museum goers liked it. Monet's post-war reputation continued to soar until, now, he is classified as immortal.
2. The Jean Walter and Paul Guillaume Collection
Once you're done admiring Monet's works, head downstairs to inspect another fabulous collection of paintings.
In 2000-06, under the guidance of the architect Olivier Brochet, the Orangerie was renovated and expanded. The second floor was demolished and natural light was restored in the Water Lilies rooms. And rooms were dug out on the basement level in the north of the building to install the Jean Walter and Paul Guillaume collection.
Paul Guillaume was a shrewd art dealer and a first generation modern art collector. He created his collection, consisting of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works, during the 1920s. He primarily purchased avant garde art from the first two decades of the 20th century.
Guillaume had an attraction to ill fated artists like Amedeo Modiglianai, Maurice Utrillo, and Chaim Soutine. His first acquisitions were Auguste Renoir and Paul Cezanne paintings. He collected the Fauves -- Henri Matisse, Andrew Derain, and Maurice de Vlaminck. And some Pablo Picasso.
After Guillaume died, his wife Domenica remarried Jean Walter, whose name is also attached to the collection. Together, they took over its management, dispersed some pieces, and added others. Unfortunately, she was less bold than Paul. Domenica sold off 200 pieces, including some Modigliani portraits, the de Chirico’s paintings, some splendid Matisses, and Picasso’s Cubist works. Ouch.
In the 1960s, Domenica negotiated with the French government to purchase the collection. It was agreed that the 146 works would be installed in a series of salons at the Orangerie.
The collection opened in 1966 and was the toast of the town, with Monet somewhat out of favor. Then, it was eclipsed by a resurgence of interest in Monet after Abstract Expressionism gained traction.
The new galleries suit the collection. In them, natural light floods a wide corridor where oils by Renoir and Cézanne are given pride of place. Other rooms are devoted to more modern masters like Picasso and Matisse. The museum's collection of works by Soutine is arguably the best in Paris.
Here are some other masterpieces that caught my eye: