For most tourists, there are two museums in Paris, the Louvre and the Musée d'Orsay. The latter is a converted railway station, and is essentially the home to the Impressionists. People visit the Louvre because they feel that they have to; how many people can explain why the Mona Lisa is either important or a great piece of art? On the other hand, people visit the d’Orsay because Impressionist art (and all the other related schools of post-, pre- and anyone generally French and non-literal) has become pretty much the general favorite of just about everybody. The images stick in one’s brain, the painting styles intrigue even non-painters, and in a word, the stuff does at least part of what art is supposed to do, which is connect emotionally to the viewer. If beauty is supposed to be a part of art, and beauty is transcendent, then Impressionism is everybody’s most beautiful and most transcendent.
I’ve talked a lot about art over the years, what it is and how it can be defined. “Caveman,” of course, is the most detailed I’ve gotten, but I’ve thrown out other things over the years as well, often contradicting things I’ve said at other times. So it goes. Art, whatever it is, is always tied into a process of learning. With the passage of time I find not that my tastes change, necessarily, but that I start enjoying more and more stuff that previously had left me cold. Almost all of our major trips, and a lot of our day trips and short jaunts, include visits to art venues of one sort or another. It’s not just something we do because that’s what tourists are supposed to do; often it is the driving force of our trip in the first place. I mean, I strongly want to go back to Madrid, which I thought was a pretty bland city overall, solely because of the Prado and Thyssen museums (and, admittedly, a couple of really good restaurants).
We took a day for the Musée d'Orsay. Because of its contents, it is wildly popular. The main collection on the top floor fills up with people quickly, so if you really want to look at the paintings, you’ve got to be there when the doors open, otherwise you’ll be looking at other people looking at the paintings. Then you walk down the stairs to the decorative arts exhibits on the side, if you happen to be a fan of craftsman, nouveau and deco; they’ve got things you’ve never thought of, like Norwegian Viking-inspired art deco, plus the Viennese Secessionists and so forth. And then down on the first floor are the special exhibits, by which time you’ve probably exhausted your couple of hours of museum attention time, and need a break.
Tied into one’s d’Orsay ticket is admission to the Orangerie on the other side of the Seine, which wasn’t open the last time we were in Paris. After a long morning at the d'Orsay and a nice lunch break, you stroll over there, and you walk into a couple of elliptical rooms maybe a hundred yards long, on which are hung Monet water lily paintings stretching over the entire walls. These are a show stopper. Aside from architecture, there are few absolutely mammoth works of art, period, much less mammoth works of art that hit you in the gut and take your breath away and make believe for a while in humanity’s better nature. The Monets in the Orangerie are one of those magical places. The Sistine Chapel is another, if you want a comparison. You are awed by what one person can do beyond all imagining, a bravado artistic performance few would even attempt, much less at which they would succeed.
I can’t describe the experience of the Orangerie any better than that, and I’m certainly not going to post a picture of the paintings, which would give you no idea of what the experience is like. You simply have to go there. But be prepared. Plenty of people would storm into the room, look around, shrug and move on. Plenty of others were struck dumb and were sitting quietly in the middle just trying to absorb it all. You want to be one of the latter. These paintings are not just a tick on your list, another place you’ve been that you can talk about when you get home. These enormous canvasses, created by perhaps the most beloved painter ever as he was going blind in his old age, speak to something that cannot be articulated.
I obviously still have not recovered from the experience.