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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Experiencing a masterpiece: Monet’s ‘Waterlilies’ in Paris, France

Published: December 3, 2010
Section: Arts, Etc.

During my semester in Copenhagen, I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to travel across Europe and treat it as a classroom as accompanied by professors, I discover new cities. In my study abroad program, you are allowed the opportunity to take a class focusing on a particular feature of a city and then experience that feature first-hand. I chose to take a class titled “Impressionism in Paris.”

I had been to Paris on my backpacking trip a few weeks earlier but my study abroad program assured us that when we go on a “study tour” with professors. This means we have the best guides, the most culturally and academically stimulating experiences, and the guarantee that the impressions the particular city makes on us will never leave us: and that they will change us.

While I enjoyed my trip with my friends, this trip—plane cancelation madness and all—did what it was intended to: leave me in awe of history and art.

After our beautiful tour of Versailles in the snow and the experience of delicious French food, we woke the next morning to have a guided tour of the Musée d’Orsay and while this museum houses spectacular works of art by Renoir, Van Gogh, Manet and many others, it was a normal museum experience in which I felt privileged to attend but nothing too special had occurred.

The jaw-dropping, life-changing experience was coming. It was across the river Seine at the Musée de l’Orangerie where Monet’s “Waterlilies” is on display. You’re probably wondering what I’m talking about since any reputable art museum in the world has at least one of Monet’s “Waterlilies.” However, not many know the story behind these paintings and, until this class, neither did I.

The “Waterlilies” paintings that are housed across the world are part of a study on light and shadows that Monet conducted in his garden. He painted more than 200 studies on the lilies and his garden alone. They were a prequel to one of the final projects of his life and, in my opinion his very best work.

He had a vision; he wanted to have huge paintings that would make the audience feel as if they were in his garden, in the water and surrounding the water, that they were a part of the painting.

He wanted these paintings to tower over the viewer and to flow into each other so that there was no beginning and no end. He wanted them to be housed in natural light so that the colors would be true to the way he created them.

It took him more than 20 years to complete his vision, from his studies to the final product. In between he suffered from cataracts and was forced to have surgery.

One year after his death in 1927, the paintings were placed in the Musée de l’Orangerie. The rooms housing four paintings each are round, and just as Monet had envisioned, natural light floods in from a skylight causing the paintings to live and breathe as they change with the day.

They flow on rounded walls to create an oval where you sit in the middle in awe of the sheer size and beauty of the work. They are more than six feet tall and more than 300 feet wide if placed together.

The rooms, one focused on the “Waterlilies” in sunrise and the other in sunset, are silent rooms with guards whispering “shhh” and signs reminding you these are meditative places. The “Waterlilies” are so abstract in their creation that it is hard to decide whether they are a depiction of the lilies themselves or their reflection in the water, regardless, their beauty is overwhelming.

The rooms have ambient sound in the form of classical and operatic music that causes you to feel as if you’re in a show of some sort, maybe a dream. Viewers wander in and out of the room but, for the most part, they sit on the benches in the middle of the room surrounded by the lilies, the water and the light.

When I sat, I didn’t know where to look. You feel the need to focus on one or the other, on the tree, the lily itself, to focus, to pick your favorite, but it’s not possible because it’s not a museum, it’s an experience.

To quote my professor Suzanne, “it’s the closest thing to a religious experience you can have without being in a church.” She is right; it’s numbing, in a wonderful way. I felt that swelling in my throat that you get right before you cry but it’s not sadness that I felt, it was a ridiculous amount of sensory overload, of beauty and of experiencing a masterpiece.

In 1909, Monet wrote, “These landscapes of water and reflection have become an obsession for me. It is beyond my strength as an old man, and yet I want to render what I feel.”

In the Musée de l’Orangerie, you feel Monet’s feelings and, if you’re lucky, his “Waterlilies” becomes an obsession that you can share. Leaving was beyond difficult, but that’s part of their beauty; a book or a photo cannot do them justice. You have to be there, in that room, the way he wanted you to be.