Walking through Musée de l’Orangerie evoked a distinct sense of déjà vu. The modern architecture and impressive post-impressionist/early modern collection is similar in a peculiar way to the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, a museum that I worked at in the United States. Barnes was a scientist turned art collector who confused and confounded New York by introducing artists such as Soutine and Matisse. Both the Musée de l’Orangerie and Barnes Foundation collections were carefully curated by a single collector who had very personal relationships with some of my favourite artists. The Orangerie contains the collection of French art dealer Paul Guillame and features works by Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani, Derain, Soutine, Renoir, Cézanne, Utrillo, Van Dongen, Rousseau, Laurencin and Sisley. However, the real star of the show is Monet’s Water Lillies.
Standing in the room dedicated to Monet’s masterpiece is the closest that I’ve ever come to being inside a painting. There are four large works on nearly one hundred linear meters that envelope the viewer and transport them to Monet’s Giverny estate. I was not surprised to learn however, that there was a passionate story behind the creation of these magnetic works. Monet felt compelled to undertake a great project, to create something momentous after the loss of his son. WWI was also occurring during the years that he laboured over these works which presumably intensified the feeling of gravitas. After his own personal loss and the devastation of his war-torn country, Monet was moved to create a work that would bring a sense of tranquillity to an unsettled nation. He asked French politician Georges Clemenceau, a man with whom he had a long-standing friendship, to act as intermediary in a deal where Monet’s monumental paintings were to be donated to the State. The works which were started in 1914 consumed the attention of the artist to the point that his need to continue painting caused the dissolution of the contract with the State as well as his friendship with Clemenceau. It was only upon Monet’s death in 1926 that Nymphéas (Water Lilies) was handed over by Georges Clemenceau for public display. Many visitors come to the museum solely to view these impressive works, but those who stay and venture downstairs are treated to a magnificent collection of post-impressionist/early modern works.
Whilst the entire ground floor (level 0) is dedicated to Monet’s Water Lillies, the lower ground floor (-2) contains most of the works on display within the collection. The rooms are divided up by artist and feature famous works like Derain’s Harlequin and Pierrot, Laurencin’s Spanish Dancers, and Picasso’s Large Nude with Drapery. The contemporary architecture allows to light to shoot down to the lower ground level and flood these paintings with the natural light they deserve. There are 146 paintings within the Jean Walteer – Paul Guillaume collection with the lion’s share (twenty-five and twenty-nine) being attributed to Auguste Renoir and André Detrain, twenty-two by Chaïm Soutine and fifteen by Paul Cézanne. Before visiting Musée de l’Orangerie, I wasn’t very familiar with the work of André Derain. I knew that he was associated with Fauvism and had a connection with Matisse, but I couldn’t pick his work out of a line-up. Seeing his work situated amongst other great artists of the Post-Impressionist/Early Modern movements gave a new context to his art and ignited a new appreciation for his elegant figures and inventive colour palettes.
The wonderful thing about visiting a collection that originated as a private collection is that there is a personalised element to visiting that one doesn’t get in a large national museum. Knowing that the artworks displayed spoke personally to the collector fosters an atmosphere of specialised curation. The size of the Musée de l’Orangerie collection makes it more palatable than many other French museums with the same quality of art and experience. Rather than spending hours glued to a map whilst fending off tourists in a large national museum, I would highly recommend visiting this smaller and more intimate space for a more pleasant and beautiful experience.