The Musée de l’Orangerie is host to Monet’s most ambitious work, his grand-scale panoramic Nymphéas (known in English as Water Lilies). At the Musée, eight different paintings are laid out across two different egg-shaped rooms. They are all the same height of 6.5 feet (nearly 2 metres) but vary in length according to the wall they span. Altogether, the paintings are a total of 328 linear feet (100 meters) and cover a surface area of 2,152 square feet (200m²).
The paintings represent a continuous landscape that is punctuated by water lilies, willow trees, and reflections of clouds and trees in the serene waters. The physical shape of the rooms echo the desired theme of the artist, as their elliptical construction is the same as the mathematical symbol of infinity. Monet wanted the paintings and the gallery that would house them to serve as a refuge, offering serenity to visitors from the chaotic war-torn world outside. He wanted viewers to be able to immerse themselves completely in the paintings.
The paintings are very wide! For each of the eight different compositions, I’ll first post an image that shows their entire span taken from the website of the Musée de l’Orangerie, so you can see what the entire thing looks like. Following that, I’ll post a few pictures that I took of that same painting while we were visiting the Musée. As you’ll see, trying to get the entire span, especially without a wide-angle lens, is a bit of a challenge. But, of course, Monet designed his creations so that they are best enjoyed in person rather than at a remove through a photograph!
What is fun is seeing how the painting changes depending on where you’re standing. Below, we’ll start at the far left of the painting and move our way to the right. Notice how the painting curves with the shape of the wall.
We’ll take a few steps back, then shift slowly towards the centre.
Then we’ll move towards the right side of the painting.
And end at the far right side.
Now we’ll focus in on some specific details in the painting.
Skylights flood the rooms with natural light. The viewer’s experience is affected by the exterior weather and changing cloud cover, such as if they were standing at Monet’s pond itself. Paintings with sunrise tones are hung on the east side of the building, and those with sunset hues in the west. Monet desired to create “the illusion of an endless whole, of a wave with no horizon and no shore; nerves exhausted by work would relax there, following the restful example of those still waters, and, to whoever entered it, the room would provide a refuge of peaceful meditation in the middle of a flowering aquarium.”
While standing in the room, it is easy to lose yourself to the peaceful, natural beauty of Monet’s compositions. If I lived nearby, I would get an annual pass and visit often.
The inspiration for these pieces first came in 1914, when Monet was still grieving the loss of his second wife, Alice, and his son Jean. While struggling to find some hope for the future, Monet decided that he wanted to undertake something on a grand scale. Monet struck up a friendship with French politician Georges Clemenceau, who was Prime Minister of France during the First World War.
On November 12, 1918, the day after the Armistice, Monet wrote to Clemenceau saying that he was on the verge of finishing two decorative panels and wanted to offer them to the French state, with Clemenceau acting as intermediary. He wanted the paintings to serve as a symbol of peace. Clemenceau convinced Monet to increase the number of panels from two to a whole decorative series. The gift became official in 1920. Monet made an agreement with the director of the Museé des Beaux-Arts for a gift to the French state of the decorative panels. The director, Paul Léon, and architect, Camille Lefèvre, would oversee the installation in the Musée de l’Orangerie, according to Monet’s instructions.
Of his work, Monet stated to a friend that “these landscapes of water and reflection have become an obsession for me. It is beyond my strength as an old man, and yet I want to render what I feel.”
Monet’s work on the water lily panels consumed the last few years of his life. Monet painted and repainted them obsessively, even destroying some. Monet refused to relinquish the decorative panels up until the point he died of lung cancer on December 5, 1926, at the age of 86. Clemenceau and Léon then had Monet’s Water Lilies installed in the Musée de l’Orangerie. The exhibit was opened to the public on May 17, 1927. If you want to know more about Monet and his paintings, you can read this post.
Close-up detail of The Clouds.
There are a few quotes of Monet’s that I really like. The first, “I perhaps owe having become a painter to flowers” is how I feel about photography.
He also said, “[e]very day I discover more and more beautiful things. It’s enough to drive one mad. I have such a desire to do everything, my head is bursting with it.” This is how I feel about this blog, and wanting to share all of the incredible things we have seen and experienced!
Of course, no artist is immune from self-criticism, as he once said, “I’m not performing miracles, I’m using up and wasting a lot of paint.” I’m sure this part of the creative process is familiar to many. He also said, “[a]part from painting and gardening, I am good for nothing. My greatest masterpiece is my garden.”
On critics and criticism: “People discuss my art and pretend to understand as if it were necessary to understand, when it’s simply necessary to love.”
A quote that seems to suit this painting: “I wear myself out and struggle with the sun. And what a sun here! It would be necessary to paint here with gold and gemstones. It is wonderful.”
On why Monet liked to depict the same scene numerous times, at different times of the day and throughout the seasons: “The light constantly changes, and that alters the atmosphere and beauty of things every minute.”
A quote that I find hauntingly beautiful: “What keeps my heart awake is colourful silence.”
Also: “I would like to paint the way a bird sings.”
The Monet paintings are permanently on exhibit at the Musée de l’Orangerie. They can also be visited on a virtual tour! The museum also hosts other exhibitions by other artists, which is why we also saw the Van Gogh painting below.