Paris is home to two of the world’s most renowned museums-the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay. And yet, being a city that has molded countless artists for hundreds of years and continues to do so today, it has other spectacular museums for tourists to experience, even though very few make it beyond the aforementioned ones.
On my last visit to Paris I decided to eschew visiting the Musee d’Orsay again and instead check out the Musee de l’Orangerie. It is an art gallery of Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings, although it’s most famous for the eight water lilies series by Claude Monet. Compared with the striking design of the Louvre building, it’s perhaps easy to overlook the Musee de l’Orangerie, as the building itself is somewhat nondescript, especially immersed in a corner of the Tuileries Gardens. The gallery is on the bank of the Seine River in the old orangery (a greenhouse where orange trees are grown) of the Tuileries Palace.
While the gallery does have impressive works by peers of Monet including Renoir and Cezanne, as well as more contemporary ones such as Picasso and Modigliani, it is Monet’s decorative panels that most people come to the Orangerie to see, myself included. Monet had offered to donate decorative panels to the French government as a monument to the end of the First World War. In 1922 he signed a contract donating the Nympheas series of decorative panels painted on canvas to be housed in redesigned, oval rooms at the Orangerie. The redesign included the incorporation of natural light, plain walls, and sparse interior decoration. The paintings are hung under direct diffused light as Monet had originally intended and are displayed in two oval rooms all along the walls. Five years later, Monet’s Nympheas opened to the public.
Ever since I was in the third grade and had a teacher whose love of the fine arts was constantly incorporated into her lesson plans, I’ve adored Monet’s Water Lilies. In my hometown, the Philadelphia Museum of Art is home to one of his water lily inspired paintings, The Japanese Footbridge and the Water Lily Pool, a work of art I could gaze at for hours. However, a roughly 35 x 40 inch painting on a canvas just is nothing when compared with canvas panels that adorn an entire room. When you’re inside the rooms with the Nympheas you see nothing but water lilies immersed in rich and contrasting colors. It was a feeling comparable to when I gazed up at the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City; to think that one individual created such an unimaginable masterpiece. As you gaze at the panels, it’s easy to see the progress and subsequent detoriation of Monet’s eyesight (he had cataracts and was nearly blind when he painted the water lilies murals); the colors change dramatically on some of the panels. Standing in the rooms I could also see the benefits to keeping the room as sparse and plain as possible. The Nympheas are the room; anything else is secondary.
One of my favorite scenes in the Woody Allen film Midnight in Paris was the one that was filmed inside the Orangerie. Needless to say, I was in my glory upon seeing the beauty of the Nympheas on the big screen. While countless films are shot in Paris, this was the first that showcased the Orangerie.
On my next trip to Paris I may want to go back to the Musee d’Orsay or the Louvre and yet I may wish to skip them both and instead try out the Musee Marmottan, a gallery that features over 300 works of Monet’s. Sometimes visiting the lesser known museums provides a more worthwhile experience, especially since the crowds are often less.
Here is a list of some other “less visited” (well, for Paris that is) but equally fantastic museums:
- Musee Rodin
- Musee Picasso
- Espace Dali
- Musee de Montmartre