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Musée Mormottan Monet
To say I was thrilled about this visit is an understatement. I had even planned to remove my shades in respect of the great man. I strolled back up to Pl. de Passy, turned left and set off walking straight along rue Chaussée de la Muette, crossed the road and continued straight along Avenue du Ranelagh—admiring the parks at left and right, with families playing or having picnics and a bunch of dopey donkeys standing around—then turned right, took my first left and there I was. I gulped.
No Cameras. No mobile phones. Would they take my money, please? Bien sur! (6 euros fifty cents.) Much more sophisticated. They even took my bag off me. I wandered in there. The ground floor was full of sculptures, huge rooms with tiny beds and huge desks (what does that say about the French?), giant paintings and tiny miniatures, most of which were dull. A notable exception being ‘La Duchesse de Feltre et ses Enfants, by François-Xavier Fabre; Salon du 1810,’ in which the characters actually had personalities.
Outside a room filled with religious pictures, paintings and illustrations from the middle ages, were several statuettes of Jesus and His Mom, along with some Saintly friends, dating between the XV – XVI century. These were effective, all with innocent faces filled with love. It was difficult to come to grips with how long these objects had been in the world.
Also on the ground floor, at the extreme left above the stairs leading down to the Monet room, were an amazing set of items: First a huge chart giving all the details and major dates in Monet’s life; then, to the left of that, some real treats: ‘Palette de l’Artiste.’ Monet’s own paint-covered artist’s pallet; ‘Portrait de Michel Monet, bébé, 1878/1879.’ Renoir’s ‘Portrait de Mde Victorine de Bellio, 1892.’ Carolus Duran’s stunningly dark and atmospheric 1867 portrait of a twenty-seven year old Monet; and Monet’s ‘Clématites Blanches, 1887.’ There were some good photographs of the great man, too.
I had to save the best till last so I strolled the length of the corridor, away from the steps leading down to Monet, steered clear of the gift shops and walked up the wide, bare steps leading to the first floor.
I tried to take in the sign in front of me: ‘La Nature Sous le Pinceau et L’Encre. Peintures Chinoises des Dynasties des Ming et des Qing dans la Collection du Musée du Shangai.’ I figured maybe I could buy a sandwich in there, so I went in. Rather than a sandwich, I was confronted by a room filled with ancient scrolls, dating between the 14 and 17 hundreds, upon which were drawn or painted amazing pictures of nature: little villages near streams and waterfalls; mountains; meadows; ancient worlds from other cultures. A captivating little collection by a wide variety of oriental artists.
From here I wondered out and into another room and BANG!—my love of the impressionists and post-impressionists was immediately indulged. I knew I was onto a good thing the moment I saw Camille Pissarro’s ‘Les Boulevards Extérieurs. Effet de Neige, 1879,’ coupled with Monet’s ‘Le Train dans la Neige. La Locomotive, 1875.’ Both deal with that bleak, lonely winter feel, but the former had a touch of comedy about it, with a huddled figure trudging down the road Lowry fashion, whereas Monet gave the solitary train two blazing headlights of homely, warming fire, against the bleakness of the surrounding countryside.
So it began: Gaugin’s ‘Bouquet de Fleurs, 1897’ was impressive, and the painting and frame seemed inseparable, making me wonder if Gaugin had made it himself. Also impressive was the gorgeous ‘Rue de Paris. Temps de Pluie, 1877’ by Gustave Caillebotte. This simple picture of people strolling along a (trafficless!) Paris street was stunningly atmospheric. And, considering that details such as people’s faces blur into the mood of the piece, it seemed strangely realistic.
Renoirs ‘Claude Monet Lisant, 1872’ was hung next to his ‘Portrait de Madame Claude Monet, 1872,’ whilst to the left of the Monet portrait was a third Renoir, ‘Portrait de Julie Manet, 1894.’ At this point, one of the guards, a Monsieur Guetenet, was recruited as my personal advisor. He led me to a small circular room in which dessins et pastels by Berth Morisot hung. There was also a dark and sensual painting of Morisot by Manet: ‘Portrait de Berthe Morisot Etendue, 1873.’ M. Guetenet informed me that Morisot had been part of the exhibition that had launched the Impressionists; that she had married Manet’s brother and that the portrait in the other room, Renoir’s ‘Portrait de Julie Manet, 1894,’ was a portrait of her daughter.
Berth Morisot’s ‘Fillette au Jersey bleu’ (year not given) was a striking picture of a pretty, elfin-like child, filled with intelligence and personality. ‘Fillette au Chapeau, 1889’ showed a mischievous, beautiful girl. I looked again at Manet’s dark and sensual portrait of Morisot. Damn. She was the real thing. I was taken aback.
After a large room of lesser works that couldn’t compete with the previous intensity of talent, I saw in another hallway three paintings by Monet that failed to impress: ‘Le Mont Kolsaas en Norvége, 1895,’ ‘Le Pont de Vervy, 1889,’ and ‘Vallée de la Creuse. Effet du Soir, 1889.’ All seemed flat and lifeless and didn’t convey a sense of life or atmosphere of any kind to me.
Sisley’s ‘Printemps aux Environs de Paris. Pommiers en Fleurs’ (Year not given) was gorgeous.
In another circular room were less impressive works by Manet, Gaugin, Degas, Renoir; although there was Monet’s powerfully atmospheric ‘Entretat. L’Aiguille et la Falaise d’ Aval, 1885,’ and Renoir’s exquisite ‘Jeune Fillette Au Chapeau Blanc, 1884’’. The latter painting is central as you walk into the room and it captivates. Monet’s ‘Waterloo Bridge, 1900,’ is also effective and his ‘Michel Monet et Jean-Pierre Hoschede, 1881,’ a pastel showing Monet’s child and step-child, is haunting partly because of its quick, unfinished quality.
The Monet Room
It was time for Monet. I jogged down the steps and back along the hall and turned down the first set of steps leading to Monet’s room. At the bottom of the first set I was hit by ‘Nymphéas, 1903,’ then, the moment I turned left before descending the second set, I was hit again by the soft pink vision of ‘Bras de Seine à Giverny, 1897.’ After that, I was in the room proper and staring at ‘Impression: Soleil Levant, 1873.’
This simple painting of a misty sunrise over Le Havre gave the movement its name. It would be pointless to try to describe Monet’s love of nature; of his love of the effect of light on water, on buildings; of the mad swirls of steam from locomotives; a heat haze. A pretty face. Some water lilies. The exhibition actually begins with an entertaining collection of 1857 caricatures by a then seventeen year old Monet, but it’s hard to concentrate on them.
A painting that I didn’t know was powerful enough to draw me away from ‘Impression: Soleil Levant, 1873.’ Turning my head to the right of the painting, I was immediately struck by the staggering, truly awe-inspiring work ‘Londres, Le Parlement. Reflets sur la Tamise, 1899/1901.’
This got me moving about. The Monet ‘best of’ list goes as follows: ‘Norvège. Les Maisons rouges à Bjornegaard, 1895,’ ‘Le Pont de L’Europe, Gare Saint-Lazare, 1887,’ ‘Charing Cross Bridge, 1889/1901,’ ‘Cathédrale de Rouen. Effets de Soleil. Fin de jourée, 1892.’ Including of course the afore-mentioned ‘Impression: Soleil Levant, 1873,’ and, again, the startling ‘Londres, Le Parlement. Reflets sur la Tamise, 1899/1901.’
Beyond was a large circular room dedicated to Monet’s last years at Giverny and the pushing of his own style into the completely abstract in his quest to study nature and light effect. It is always tempting, of course, to get up close when studying paintings, but these can only be viewed from a distance. I stood too close when looking at ‘Le Pont Japonais, 1918,’ and ‘Saule Pleureur, 1918/1919,’ and thought at first that they looked like the result of someone going mad with a tin of spinach. From a reasonable distance, however, I could see them. Many others from that collection were simply awe-inspiring and beggar description.
Unfortunately, I had no such luck with five paintings that ran along one wall. They were lifeless, dull, awful things, with no redeeming features other than that one of them ‘La Maison Vue du Jardin aux Roses, 1922/1924,’ made me realise that I wanted a pizza. The others were: ‘Le Pont Japonais, 1918/1924,’ ‘L’Allée des Rosiers,’ Giverny, 1920/1922,’ ‘Le Pont Japonais, 1918/1919,’ ‘Le Pont Japonais, 1918/1924.’ I wondered if they had been painted during Monet’s famous ‘going blind’ period, but I couldn’t bring myself to check.
Having said that, my ‘best of’ list kept getting bigger: ‘La Barque, 1887,‘ Les Tuileries, 1876,’ ‘Promenade prés d’Argenteuil, 1872,’ and ‘Effet de Neige. Soleil Couchant, 1875,’ forced me to realise that a Monet ‘best of,’ list is a pretty pointless thing.
What can be said about this genius? Monet was in at the very start, giving the movement he helped create its name, outlasting all his contemporaries, and staying true to his vision, despite the onset of blindness. He even managed to do a spot of gardening. Quite the chap.
I squinted in the real life sunshine when I came out, but didn’t bother putting my shades on. I walked back to the parks and looked at the trees casting shadows; watched the light and the colours on the lawns; on the people. If Monet were here today, he wouldn’t be stuck inside any museum, I knew that much. He would be out in the sun, where the source of his inspiration was still pouring out as strongly as ever, long after he was gone.
I couldn’t draw, there was nothing I could do about it, and I was tired and had a craving for pizza to deal with, so I continued along Chaussée de la Muette, looking up at the Eiffel Tower, yet another masterpiece, and thinking about all that long gone genius and the works they had left behind. And pizza. I noticed that the lift in the Tower was on its way to the top. Someone was about the get a beautiful view.
I turned and ran down the stairs into the metro.
Musée Marmottan Monet, Académie des Beaux Arts: 2, rue Louis-Bailly, 75016. Entry. 6.50 Tel. 01.42.24.07.02. www.marmottan.com