The facade of the rectangular building known as the “Sistine Chapel of Impressionism,” located on the Seine side of the Tuileries Garden (and the near-twin of the Jeu de Paume on the north side), has been left intact, but the museum now has a new interior.Monet water-lily lovers will be thrilled to hear that the Musée de l’Orangerie has finally reopened today after six years of renovation work that cost the state €30 million. They will be even more thrilled to see that the panoramic series of paintings Monet donated to this museum have been brought back into the light of day, as he had intended them to be.
At first glance, the result looks depressingly familiar: The entrance hall, while filled with light from floor-to-ceiling windows and a glass roof, is all blocks of gray concrete. Step into the next room, however, and you find yourself in a smallish, unadorned oval-shaped white room with a small oval skylight. Its peaceful atmosphere changes the mood entirely and prepares you for the spectacular effect of the transition to the next room, a much larger oval-shaped space with its own oval skylight, letting in gently filtered light. Visitors can sit on the (also oval-shaped) bench in the center of the room and contemplate four of Monet’s aquatic masterpieces with nothing else to distract their attention. The next room, with four more monumental Monet paintings, is a slightly larger copy of the first.
Since the 1960s, these rooms, which had been built to Monet’s specifications, had been buried under a concrete ceiling added by a misguided architect. Olivier Brochet, the architect responsible for the current renovation, has restored their beautiful, light-bathed setting. The only problem is that the formerly little-visited Orangerie is now sure to attract crowds, making quiet contemplation of the famous water lilies much more difficult than it used to be.
The various renovations the building has undergone since it was built in the 19th century can be seen in four models on the mezzanine as you descend to the lower floor, where, in another surprising juxtaposition, paintings in ornate gilded frames are hung on the polished gray concrete wall of a long corridor. The Jean Walter/Paul Guillaume collection is presented in a series of smaller rooms, with an impressive array of works by Renoir, Rousseau, Cézanne, Monet, Sisley, Derain, Modigliani, Laurencin, Utrillo and Soutine.
Part of a wall dating from 1566, built during the reign of Charles IX, can also be seen in the basement. These archaeological vestiges were uncovered during the construction work, although some critics say their existence was no secret to those familiar with historical maps of the area. Their discovery seriously delayed the museum’s reopening, which had originally been planned for 2001.
The Musée de l’Orangerie also holds temporary exhibitions.