Paris Sketch: Monet at l’Orangerie

I wrote this during a moment of reflection in front of Monet’s famous Water Lilies, and it’s only lightly edited here. Scroll down for more information about the gallery.

It’s hard to resist people watching instead. Just two elliptical galleries, no hurry, no trying to take in every painting and learn the significance of what’s contained in hundreds of frames. Not even four walls to work your way around in each room. So I sit and take my time, there’s nowhere else to be. I can try and meditate, like Monet intended for this space, but the world is here too. (At least not too many of the world, on a rainy-sunny October day before the school holidays.) I can’t stop turning my attention to the people. Perhaps it’s a kind of meditation, to draw the gaze back to the painting over and over, just as we pull attention back to the breath. The most intense of practice, when the urgency of tourism is all around.

But here in the second room – honestly, it’s hard to understand – there are fewer people, and they are slower in here, quieter, taking their time more. How can there be fewer people in here? Perhaps it’s that people are popping in, thinking, ‘Oh, right, more of the same,’ and leaving again, so the rest of us have a little more space. Otherwise, I don’t understand why people would pay the ticket price for two rooms of art, and not even go into the second one. In the Louvre, upstairs from the Mona Lisa is quieter like this, but there is at least some logic in that – there’s still a lot more to see without climbing the stairs.

But there are people in here, quand même. Mostly they have either phone or audioguide in hand, or juggle both. We all take pictures: to say I was here, to remind us of what we noticed. It’s harder not to judge the ones who film and photograph every panel; the work is here, the art is in this space. It won’t keep existing in thousands of amateur depictions that mostly won’t be looked at again anyway.

There’s a guy in artsy garb who seems to be lingering as much as me (writing in the blank pages of my planner, while a young artist nearby draws in her sketchbook), seems to be observing the people as much as the art as he moves back and forward between the two rooms.

So many photos: close-ups of the brush strokes, standing back for the sweep of the canvas, posing self-consciously in front of the dappled wash of colour while a friend takes the snap, knowing that everyone can see the pose, but determined to get the shot. Is this the one? Is this the photo that will convince her she is beautiful, cultured, present, worthy, whole?

Here he is again, rolled-up trousers and a shirt patterned with sticks of rock candy, watching the people and the art. (Or putting himself in the frame?)

Anyway, that art…

No, but it’s the space that makes it; at least, it’s the space you feel first.

Two oval rooms, proportioned to give a sweeping, gliding length to the art. The art was made for the space, the space for the art, a unique opportunity and a unique longevity of circumstance. Like the unfaded vivid frescoes of Santa Croce in Florence, we can see the art exactly where it was meant to be, feel the effect that was intended.

There are no corners or edges, just two walls, your gaze flowing around the room with the waters of Giverny. Fluid, generous; unrestrained yet serene. This art is for the whole self, the whole room, for all of us here, all at once. Stand in for a closer look, we can all still enjoy it. Foreground yourself in the phone’s frame for a moment, and you are obscuring nothing, we can still all feel the gentle movement of waterlilies and willows; we can all still see the light catching and the green reflections and the watery clouds. Monet gave these to the city to mark armistice, to celebrate peace.

There’s a lull, it’s lunchtime, peace settles.


After I moved on, I discovered more than the two rooms of Water Lilies for which the Musée de l’Orangerie museum is most famous. Underneath the space created for Monet’s masterpieces is the collection Les Arts à Paris, which includes works by Picasso, Renoir, Cézanne, and Matisse, among others, and is itself well worth the ticket price.

Polished metal bench in the foreground, with one of Picasso's sculptural nude paintings hanging on the wall.
Picasso at l’Orangerie

Well, I imagine it would be if I had bought a ticket, but this visit was my first taking advantage of my Carte Blanche – the annual pass for Musée d’Orsay, one of my favourite places in the world, which is also valid for l’Orangerie. I intend to spend much more time at the Musée d’Orsay while we’re living here, so I figure that shelling out for the Carte Blanche will make that a reality.

The Louvre might be the superstar of Paris art attractions, but my top recommendation is the Musée d’Orsay. If you enjoy impressionism, or nineteenth and twentieth century art and design generally, it’s not to be missed. The building – the former Gare d’Orsay – is a glorious 1900 beaux-arts space, perfectly emblematic of the kind of modern urban landscape the impressionists were keen to convey. The collections of the Musée d’Orsay and Orangerie together make for impressionist heaven.

At l’Orangerie this time I also enjoyed the temporary exhibition of work by Sam Szafran, full of energetic paintings and drawings, definitely worth the extra time.

Two dynamic paintings by Sam Szafran, depicting a printers' studio with angular lines and skewed perspectives.
Works by Sam Szafran

The Musée de l’Orangerie is located in the Jardin des Tuileries, just a ten-minute walk from the Musée d’Orsay across a pedestrian bridge. The closest metro is Concorde. Full details of tickets and hours here.

Annual Carte Blanche membership currently costs €52 for an individual. Full details here.

The Sam Szafran exhibition at l’Orangerie runs until 16 January 2023./

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2 thoughts on “Paris Sketch: Monet at l’Orangerie

  1. This thoughtful piece really resonated with me. I have been there and loved the way the colors were so vibrant on the canvases in person. Galleries and houses of art give off such a beautiful spirituality. Museums almost feel like church in their reverence. Thank you for sharing! Bonne journee, Tracy

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