A Brief History of the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris
What is the Musée de l’Orangerie?
Musée de l’Orangerie, or Orangery Museum in English, is a small popular gallery of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings, including Monet’s Water Lilies, housed in a 19th-century Orangery.
Brady Brenot, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
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Musée de l’Orangerie History
In order to store the precious citrus trees of the Tuleries garden that were averse to the winter cold, Napoleon III, emperor of France, constructed a special building in which to house them in 1852. On the south side of the building, facing the Seine, were enormous windows that allowed the sunlight to reach the trees, whilst on the north a near windowless wall was built to protect them from the cold.
When Napoleon’s empire fell in 1870 the Orangerie became the property of the state, who subsequently opened up the building for public events, though it still remained in use as a greenhouse. Over the years the Orangerie served as a warehouse, an army barracks during the First World War and as a space for concerts, exhibitions and even a crowd-pleasing dog show.
After the war ended in 1918, Claude Monet, pioneer of French Impressionism, donated a set of eight paintings of water lilies, a symbol of peace, which he had been working on for the duration of the war. Monet would continue to paint water lilies up until his death at the age of 86, and is the subject for which he’s now arguably most famous. Though destined for the Musée Rodin, his Water Lilies, at the demand of his good friend President Georges Clemenceau, was instead put on show at the Orangerie.
Monet was very hands-on in deciding where the paintings were positioned and hung within the space. Working with architect Camille Lefèvre, he made sure that the positioning and tone of the paintings flowed, guiding the visitor through the exhibition. The panels were set up to work with the natural light: pictures with hues and colours that best fitted sunrise were positioned to the east and those with sunset hues to the west. The paintings are vast in length and scale, and taken altogether cover an area of nearly 200 square metres.
The gallery opened in 1927, just a few months after Monet’s death, however the paintings didn’t prove particularly popular. In fact, for the following two decades the temporary exhibits in the other half of the building proved a much bigger draw for the public, who crammed into the space to see exhibitions of Degas, Rubens and even Arno Breker, the official artist of the Third Reich. It was only in 1952, when the esteemed art critic Andre Masson pronounced that Monet’s Water Lilies were the ‘Sistine Chapel of Impressionism’, that people finally began to take proper notice.
In 1959 and 1963 the museum acquired the private collections of Jean Walter, an architect, and Paul Guillaume, a collector and art dealer. To accommodate the new collections, which included works by Picasso, Matisse, Renoir, and Modigliani, the museum added two new levels.
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