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Impressionism in Paris: A Journey Into Monet’s Back Garden

There are a number of delights on a year abroad in Paris: boulangeries on every corner, snails and oysters in fancy restaurants, the beautifully uniform Haussmann architecture.

But chief among them for me are the museums and galleries that I get into for free with my visa – eat your heart out, post-Brexit tourists! I’ve seen the big hitters: the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay (the latter is better and that is a hill I will die on). It was at the Orsay that I had my first real exposure to Impressionist art, and I’ve been falling down something of a rabbit hole ever since. I’ll never claim to be any kind of art historian but any museum or gallery in the French capital with a Monet, Renoir, or Pissarro I continue to greedily consume.

Picture credit: Jared White

The Impressionists, for those of you who don’t know, were a group of painters who revolutionised the art world of the nineteenth century with their new style that gave, well, an impression of their subjects. The phrase itself comes from one piece by Claude Monet: Impression, Soleil levant (‘Impression, sunrise’) from 1872. (See a picture I took of the real thing on the right, give it a google too.) There’s a lot of blue and brown in this painting making the details of the port of Le Havre appear blurry, obscured perhaps by fog on an early morning. At the centre the sun rises, an intense orange-red circle, reflected on the water by deft brushstrokes. There is a lack of clarity to this painting, which is the distinct characteristic of most Impressionist paintings: it is an impression rather than a reproduction. It taps into what we feel, rather than simply recreating what the artist was seeing.

In other paintings, we get a great sense of what is going on within the frame. The Impressionist approach lets you feel the sun on your face, its brightness in your eyes (to me, Camille Pissarro was brilliant at this, but I’m no expert). Renoir always beautifully captured a hazy, fun atmosphere in his party scenes, the booze flowing, everyone dancing (see his Le Moulin de la Galette and Le déjeuner des canotiers). They were all masters of light as well, the way it shines onto a scene or how it shimmers on water. All captured with the most nonchalant brushstrokes!

Picture credit: Jared White

My personal favourite is Claude Monet. Just look at this picture of him from the Musée Marmottan Monet – how can you not love that beard! Joking aside, Monet, to me, paints like no other. You might know him from that one painting every school in the country seemed to have in the art room (maybe this was just Suffolk state schools, but either way it’s Bridge over a Pond of Water Lillies, 1899). I’ve recently visited two fantastic museums in Paris that house some of his finest work: the Musée Marmottan Monet and the Musée de l’Orangerie.

Tucked away on the edge of Paris, in the 16th arrondissement, the Marmottan is home to some of Monet’s most famous works. Impression, Soleil levant is there, alongside hundreds more. The museum’s collection is dominated by Impressionist art, Pissaro, Sisley, and Manet are all here. But much of the finest stuff comes from a big donation by Monet’s son, Michel, who inherited much of his father’s work, the world’s largest collection of Monet’s work.

Standing in front of Impression is a very odd experience. To stand in front of such a famous piece of art is an unusual experience that is hard to describe. I suppose that’s why people will queue for half an hour in front of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. What a sharp contrast my experience made from what I’ve seen there. There I was, tucked away in a quiet little room, rather than jostling for a photo with tourists.

Seeing these pieces up close is the best way to engage with them. I only wish that my photos, or anyone’s photos, could do art justice if only to democratise access to it all, but it just can’t. You need to see the brushstrokes with your own eyes, the deftness of touch in some places, the more blasé dashes in others.

Picture credit: Jared White

This picture on the right, Bras de Seine à Giverny (1885), was my favourite. Something about the way the light seems to shine out of the picture, how the trees and sunshine are reflected in the water, a beautifully disrupted mirror image.

Picture credit: Jared White

They also had part of his Nymphéas (‘Water Lillies’), a series of oil paintings that he produced between 1914 1926, the year he died. Depicting the flower garden of his Giverny home, they play with perspective and reflection in a way that confuses and immerses the viewer. In some cases, it is initially unclear which way is up until you identify which half is the reflection in the water. They are even more marvellous when you find out that he was suffering from cataracts at the time he produced them.

While many of the paintings have been split up and are displayed across the globe, the biggest pieces from Monet’s Nymphéas are the star attraction of the Musée de l’Orangerie in the Jardin des Tuileries. Here, great panels are hung on the curved walls in two rooms, the way Monet had intended them to be displayed. They create a calm, meditative space wherein you are surrounded by the lilies of Monet’s expansive back garden. Take a look below.

Picture credit: Rika Canaway
Picture credit: Rika Canaway
Picture credit: Rika Canaway

Photo credit: Rika Canaway

The scale of these works is astonishing, particularly so when you look at the finer details, the careful precision of every stroke creates an image that when viewed at distance creates these beautiful scenes. But look closely, those flowers are just splodges, imprecise but somehow immersing us in a subjective perception of the scene and all we can sense from it, much better than an objective,  mechanical photograph might.

If you find yourself in Paris and have even the slightest interest in art, I implore you to carve out some time in what will be a hectic tourist’s schedule to see just some of this artwork, it might just change how you see the world.

Written by Jared White