Claude Monet talks to me. Yeah, I know that sounds weird. He doesn’t exactly appear to me in dreams, but he has a draw I can’t resist.
Claude and I first met up when I was a teenager, visiting a traveling exhibit of his paintings in San Francisco. Despite all the teen stuff that was clouding my head (mostly boys, if we’re honest) seeing some of his Water Lilies paintings was a singular moment of clarity in an otherwise turbulent time. Let me be clear that I’m not an art person. I appreciate some art, but I know almost nothing about art and go to museums generally when they are on a “must-see” list for a place I am
visiting. Claude doesn’t seem to understand this.
Claude and I next met up about 10 years ago, in Washington, DC. I admit, he’d faded from my memory a bit so I was taken aback when I encountered more of the Water Lilies at a museum there and it instantly brought me to tears. Standing before those paintings, I felt an instant presence and was overwhelmed by their beauty, their emotion, and their power. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t move, and all I could do was stand before them and let them overtake me. I felt some deep connection to Claude that I couldn’t (and still can’t) explain.
That experience was the first time I ever truly felt a deep connection to any art and I never forgot it. So when my family went to Paris, I knew I had to have another chat with Claude.
Walls That Talk
We went to the Orangerie (La Musee de l’Orangerie), located at the edge of the Tuileries on the right bank of the Seine. I admit that the Tuileries made me a little cranky (sorry, but gravel does not constitute a park in my mind) so when we entered the Orangerie I might not have been in
the best frame of mind. Claude quickly changed my mood.
The Orangerie is a wonderful contrast to the Louvre. The Louvre is a giant hulking monster of a museum, threatening to swallow you up into its crowds, its endless hallways, and the vast belly of the pyramid – not to mention in its reputation.
In contrast, the Orangerie is tiny with few people and a delightful feeling of lightness and buoyancy. The first floor leads you to the exhibit of
Les Nymphéas, the Water Lilies paintings. No photos are allowed, so you’ll have to look them up online to get a glimpse. The paintings fill two gigantic oval-shaped rooms. I was unprepared for the sheer size of the paintings themselves. I’d seen pieces of the collection before, but many of these canvases cover the entire length of the walls. They are huge, like someone unrolled a bolt of fabric all along the length of a wall. I stood in the center of the room and slowly turned, allowing my eyes to read the paintings. Then I walked the perimeters of the rooms, to see them up close. I think I did this twice, telling myself I had to remember every inch because I might never see them in person again.
At one point I had to sit down, because I simply could not catch my breath. I felt like I was breathing in a pastel cloud that swirled around me like a beautiful hurricane. I don’t know exactly why these paintings speak to me so deeply, but I could lose myself in them for days. This was A Moment for me – to be in the presence of the full paintings and see, smell, taste, and hear them. It’s something I’ll never forget. (There is a basement in the Orangerie with some other paintings worth seeing if you have time. We buzzed through those pretty quickly, but it’s worth a few moments).
Part of our trip to France involved a few days in Normandy. Conveniently, Giverny, where Monet lived and painted, is on the way to Normandy from Paris. A stop was definitely in order. We bought our tickets online (I highly recommend this since there was a very long line and the tickets got us in through the garden entrance where there was absolutely no line. The tickets were good on any day at any time, so if you’re going to be in the area, it makes sense to buy and print them).
Claude got to me again here. First, we walked through the gardens surrounding the home in the backyard. They are rich and dense and a bit wild – the entire backyard is just this riotous, crazy mix of flowers. There are so many flowers and paths, you could spend an afternoon becoming acquainted with them all. There is also a chicken coop. The yard is alive and free and spirited.
Next we entered Monet’s home. This tiny little home has only about 5 or 6 rooms and it feels very cozy, just like a place you might like to rent in the country for some time away from the hustle of modern life. I loved the bedroom (Claude’s bed, Claude’s view!), the dining room, and the kitchen. The rooms are warm and bright with lots of yellow and blue. I could have sat down at the kitchen table and never left. If I sat down, I’m pretty sure Claude would have been sitting across from me and would have simply sat in that comfortable silence you have when you understand each other.
I fell in love with the tile in the kitchen. It was a house I could live in without question. Each room had its own color and personality. It was vibrant yet calm at the same time. I fully understand how he could have lived here and felt the need to create and to take the beauty that was pressing on him and put it on canvas. Claude was still there in that house.
Facing the Scene
The hottest commodity at Giverny is the Oriental garden, the lily pond in the famous paintings. To get to it, you must go outside, walk down some stairs, go through a tunnel that goes underneath the road and emerges on the other side. When you get there, it is like coming through the Rabbit Hole. I felt as if I’d actually walked into the paintings. The bridge, the willows, the lilies, the trees, the flowers, the water — it’s all there and suddenly you’ve stepped into the picture (it reminds me of the scene in Mary Poppins where she and the children step into the chalk drawings and it all becomes alive and real).
And yes, Claude made me cry again. I stood there overlooking that pond and I understood why he had to paint it and how it might have made him feel. It was otherworldly and if his spirit is anywhere, it is there, swirling among the lilies, making ripples in the water and dancing with the leaves. Oh Claude, I felt you brush past me.
There is a reality check however. The crowds. The Oriental garden is packed. You have to squint a bit to blur out all the people ruining the view. You have to create your own little mental space where you see only the view and breathe in only the essence of the place and not the visitors. You have muscle people away to get a tiny space on the bridge for a photo (we managed!). If you can do that, it’s magical.
Shopping, Of Course
On our way out, I had to stop at the gift shop. I wasn’t a fan and Claude doesn’t approve. T-shirts, mugs, posters, etc. are available with reproductions of Monet’s work. I was hoping for items inspired by the gardens, not literally depicting them. I brought home a mug (which has surprised me I admit – it’s made of fine, transparent china with a lovely shape and holds more than it looks like, so maybe Claude is ok with it) and a dish towel. Never fear though, just down the road is the quaint village of Giverny itself. There’s a lovely little collection of shops and restaurants and even a small Impressionism museum to visit. I
would definitely recommend leaving time to browse this area, which is off the main drag on a quiet side street. I desperate;y wanted to buy a sculpture of an apple that was made of wire and drift wood, but it was too big for my suitcase!
So, now you know about my affair with Claude. Whatever you do, don’t tell Thomas Jefferson (I had another Moment at Monticello I’ll tell you about sometime…).
Claude Monet talks to me. Yeah, I know that sounds weird. He doesn’t exactly appear to me in dreams, but he has a draw I can’t resist. Meeting Claude Claude and I first met up when I was a teenager, visiting a traveling exhibit of his paintings in San Francisco. Despite all the teen stuff … Read more