Museums old and new

Having seen firsthand the lines Sunday at L’Orangerie, Lynn wisely ordered tickets in advance for Monday. We took the Metro across the river and down to the Concorde bridge, walked across the Tulieries and were greeted with a small line standing in the bitter cold waiting to be allowed into the building.

Inside, L’Orangerie is like no other art museum in the world. The art was created specifically for the space and given to the French state by Monet. Altogether, eight immense Water Lillies adorn the walls of two elliptical rooms positioned end to end. That’s all there is to the main museum–eight huge paintings that evoke the full day from sunrise to sunset over Monet’s beloved gardens in Giverny. The effect is stunning and contemplative, as Monet planned.

This is just one of the eight water lily paintings Monet created for this museum. If you look closely enough (I did), you can see the seams in all the huge panels.

Downstairs, L’Orangerie showcases a more conventional gallery of major Impressionist works collected by Parisian art dealer Paul Guillaume and his wife, including large collections of Renoir, Cezanne, Rousseau, Matisse, Picasso, Derain, Utrillo and Modigliani. The paintings are all arranged according to artist along a narrow double hall that makes viewing easy. The hallway also exhibits four models of the L’Orangerie building in its various stages from original construction under Louis XIV to house (what else?) orange trees to its contemporary layout as a double museum.

The star of the day was a temporary exhibit of American paintings from the 1930s, which drew the largest crowds, as it was closing at the end of the week. The highlight of that show is Grant Woods’ iconic American Gothic, being shown for the first time in Europe. The six small galleries were tightly crowded with visitors viewing American masters like Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keefe and Jackson Pollack, grouped thematically with commentary on various aspects of the Great Depression in the U.S.

For such a seemingly small museum, we still spent more than two hours walking through, before stopping for a quick sandwich in the tiny cafeteria.

By now, it was well past 2 p.m., and I wanted to venture forward to see the Musée de l’Armée in Les Invalides, which we had not seen last time we were in Paris, because we couldn’t find the entrance. Lynn demurred, wondering if we wouldn’t be better going over there another day. I insisted, since we were almost there; from L’Orangerie, you can see the gilded dome of the church where Napoleon is buried, which was really what I wanted to see.

Cannons line up in the courtyard of Invalides, the dome over Napoleon’s tomb looms in the background of this massive museum complex, which also serves as a military installation. As you can imagine, entry is a bit more restrictive than most museums.

As it turned out, Invalides is huge, so big that we could not tour the entire museum before we were ushered out at 5 p.m. right as we walked through 1943 in the Great Wars sections. Although we had to leave just before the Allied invasions of France, it was interesting to read the accounts of the two Great Wars from the French perspective, which you can imagine is somewhat different from our own American history.

Napoleon’s tomb is impressive, classical and un-Napoleon like, not marked with his name. It simply towers there on the lower level under the dome of the church surrounded by bas relief sculptures that depict Napoleon as a Roman god. He would have liked that.

A tomb fit for an emperor. The friezes along the perimeter depict Napoleon as a Roman consul.

On the upper level of the rotunda are several rooms of tombs of great French military figures like Vauban and Marshall Foch, creating a pantheon effect in the church. The entire space is voluminous and unheated, so visiting in the depths of winter is physically challenging.

After being booted from Invalides at 5 p.m., we worked our way home on the Metro for a well deserved glass of wine before another delicious dinner at La Forge around the corner. The proprietors seemed pleased that we returned so soon, as the restaurant on a Tuesday night was much quieter. The food and the wine were no less wonderful, however.


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