Room with a view... in Paris

Photos: Courtesy of the Orangerie Gallery

Photos: Courtesy of the Orangerie Gallery

The Orangerie gallery in Paris is home to one of the largest monumental achievements of early 20th-century painting, with no equivalent worldwide. Veronica Stivala muses about her favourite gallery.

I can never get enough of museums and galleries. A trip to a new city, or even a Saturday afternoon, so often warrants a visit to that wonderful world of exhibiting spaces. They envelope you in their often high ceilings, majestic doors, mostly quiet atmosphere as you let yourself get lost in a world of art, prehistoric collections, jewellery displays, and the list goes on. 

Yet I will admit to information overload and have often found myself saturated and unable to enter one more exhibiting room. The Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of the Moving Image, both in New York, are two fantastic, yet overwhelming, examples that come to mind. The latter even features maps of the museum, forewarning visitors to pace themselves. It is for this reason that I appreciate the many free museums in London, which allow plural visits.

Illusion of an endless whole, of a wave with no horizon and no shore

It is for the same reason that I have come to value smaller museums and galleries that make for a a slower appreciation, rather than a mere box ticking of works on display. The Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris is one of my favourite pocket galleries, if you will, though perhaps this is a misnomer, given the mammoth size of the room-long paintings of Monet’s Water Lilies.

The art gallery is dedicated to impressionist and post-impressionist paintings and in addition to Monet’s works, contains creations by Cézanne, Matisse, Modigliani, Picasso, Renoir, Rousseaue, Sisley, Soutine and Utrillo, among others. Set on two floors, the upper floor is entirely dedicated to Monet’s Water Lilies. 

In keeping with my oath that less is more, I will focus on the star attraction of this gallery: the water lilies. What is special about this collection is that they were painted specifically for the two oval rooms of this gallery. As the white walls of the room curve, so do the paintings, evoking a sense in the viewer of being immersed in this ethereal world of the waterlilies. The sheer size of the wall-long paintings is mesmerising and it is easy, nay encouraged, to get lost as one imagines the picturesque water garden in the Giverny Estate in Normandy that inspired the artist to create these paintings. 

The unique set of Water Lilies were offered to the French State by Monet just after the Armistice of November 11, 1918 as a symbol of piece and were installed at the Orangerie in 1927, a few months after the artist’s death. They are truly one of the largest monumental achievements of early 20th-century painting, covering a surface area of 200m2. The dimensions and the area covered by the paint surrounds and encompasses the viewer on nearly one hundred linear metres which unfold a landscape dotted with water lilies, willow branches, tree and cloud reflections, giving the “illusion of an endless whole, of a wave with no horizon and no shore” in the words of Monet. This unique masterpiece has no equivalent worldwide.

Apart from their sheer size and beauty, what captured my attention was the hold this creation had over Monet. The entire collection, known as the Nymphéas, comprises some 300 paintings, over 40 of which were large format, and which occupied Monet for 30 years, from the late 1890s, until his death in 1926.

The visuals reproduced here are from a permanent display at the gallery, but for those visiting Paris up until August 20 of this year, they are in for a special treat: a special exhibition, entitled ‘The Water Lilies. American Abstract Painting and the last Monet’ focuses on a very specific moment in the life of Monet’s paintings, in 1955, when these great decorations were beginning to attract the attention of collectors and museums.

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