Concorde Square in the heart of Paris has its own extremely fascinating, often terrifying, history. While this was the place where King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette were beheaded following the French revolution, it also became the spot where the 75-feet high Luxor Obelisk, a gift from Egypt to France, was erected in 1836.
Adjoined to the Concorde is the Tuileries Garden that once belonged to the Louvre, the royal palace which has today become the world’s biggest and most visited museum.
Tuileries contains its own two museums: Jeu de Paume, dedicated to modern art, and Orangerie, the subject of our interest today. The latter was built in 1852 under an order from Napoleon III, quite simply as a shelter to save orange trees in the garden from destruction under heavy snowfalls, hence its weird sounding name.
While the inventor of the Impressionist style, Claude Monet’s major works are part of the Marmottan Museum in Paris, eight of his gigantic Nymphéas, or Water Lilies, were placed in the Orangerie, whose huge walls were specially curved to emphasize their stunning impact.
While one can fully appreciate Monet’s Water Lilies by looking at his normal size paintings, the gigantic ones at the Orangerie in Paris are unique
Although he began his career in Paris where he was born in 1840, Monet spent the last 30 years of his life in Giverny in the Normandy region north of Paris, in a country house surrounded by a lake full of Nymphéas. Fascinated by their magic, he observed them meticulously and continued painting them in various sizes and forms for three full decades, reaching the mind-boggling figure of 250 works. His final eight Water Lilies, painted between 1915 and 1926, reached gigantic, wall-size dimensions.
“Recreating these enchanting water surfaces at such magnitudes has become an obsession for me,” wrote Monet in his letter to a friend. “At my age of more than 80 years, this could be described as self-inflicted torture, but I can’t help it! I have to express my visions by transferring them on canvases, whatever their size.”
The particularity of these works are the reflections of the blue sky, white and grey clouds, birds, trees and nature in general, with all their colours, on water surfaces where flowers and leaves, but also ducks and often long-tailed pheasants, float constantly.
While one can fully appreciate Monet’s Nymphéas by looking at the normal size paintings in the Marmottan museum, the Orangerie series is unique, as here each of the eight paintings displayed is about seven feet high and more than thirty-five feet long. Four of these oeuvres represent the rising sun in one part of the gallery.
The four others showing sunset scenes have a changed style. By the time he started working on them, Monet had moved to a form of abstraction, by creating a simplified technique which would be an inspiration to many other artists. By looking at these final works, one can easily understand the stimulation for some of the later generation conceptualist painters such as Pablo Picasso and Wassily Kandinski, to name only two among so many others.
Long lines of visitors wait before the Orangerie entrance, despite heavy rains these days!
The writer is an art critic based in Paris. He may be reached on ZafMasud@gmail.com
Published in Dawn, EOS, August 22nd, 2021