The Musée de l’Orangerie is an art gallery of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings located in the west corner of the Jardin des Tuileries next to the Place de la Concorde, and an easy walk from the forecourt of The Louvre. However, there are no enormous crowds and impatient tourists here, despite a stunning collection of works by Monet, Cézanne, Matisse, Modigliani, Picasso, Renoir, Rousseau, Sisley, Soutine, and Utrillo in the permanent collections, and at the time of my visit, a collection of works from the Bridgestone Museum of Art, and the Ishibashi Foundation. I strolled in, paid a modest entrance fee (by European standards) and spent a couple of hours immersed in masterworks, with only just more than a handful other art lovers to keep me company.
The major work in the gallery is the Water Lilies by Claude Monet, eight large panels of exquisite impressionistic renderings of water lilies, evoking the changes in the light on the water and the flowers from sunrise to sunset. The works are housed in two specially designed, white, light filled, oval spaces on the top floor of the gallery. On 12 November 1918, the day after the Armistice that signalled the end of the First Word War, Monet wrote to his friend and politician Georges Clemenceau: “I am on the verge of finishing two decorative panels which I want to sign on Victory day, and am writing to ask you if they could be offered to the State with you acting as intermediary.” It wasn’t until just after Monet’s death in 1927 that the works were finally donated, and they have been in the gallery ever since.
There are nearly one hundred linear meters of Monet’s genius surrounding and immersing the viewer, unfolding a landscape dotted with water lilies, water, willow branches, trees and cloud reflections, giving, in his words, the “illusion of an endless whole, of a wave with no horizon and no shore”.
The permanent collection was thoughtfully laid out, and simply presented, so as to allow focussed attention. There were two artists working on copying some of the works in the collection as a learning exercise, happy to talk about their experience. And as a lover of impressionist and post-impressionist art, all of my best-loved artists were represented, and seminal works I thought I would never see were right in front of me, close enough to see the brush strokes.
There was no Mona Lisa, but there was time and space and quiet to absorb the artworks, in a light, beautiful space. I left the gallery with my heart and mind full of the beauty I had experienced, and strolled to the other end of the Jardin des Tuileries, giving passing attention to the many hundreds of people milling in the queue in front of the Louvre, then retired to a cafe for an espresso and a crisp, buttery pastry. No contest.