Les fleurs de Monet

The allure of Monet began, for me, with les nymphéas. For too long I’d wanted to go to Musée de l’Orangerie, a museum in Paris famed for its two elliptical rooms in which long canvases of water lilies conform to the walls, providing almost the experience Monet intended the viewer to have—that of being encircled by one continuous landscape of flowers.

My grandparents (visiting for the holidays) and I had sought out the museum and found ourselves in the place of the viewer, in the middle of one oval room, then the other, each lit in muted natural light. The French have a word, feutré, meaning felt-like, and that’s exactly what this light was like. One end of the room to the other transformed light into shadow, warm, late-afternoon radiance into nightfall on the depths of a lake.

My favorite painting was in itself like three paintings, the way it progressed in color. From left to right, it comprised gentle lily pads of sage, olive, and emerald; clouds of powder pink, apricot, and mauve blended into lilac and forget-me-not; and water, jet with but a touch of aubergine. Four little red lilies like roses floated in the top right corner like tutus lifted en pointe; below, strokes meticulously applied so as to look haphazard swirled into faintly pink flowers—pink mixed with red with violet—and messy swishes of light and dark blue.

My second favorite was a mess of dark colors, all black and grays and violets and blues with lily pads so obscure as to be almost indistinct and delicate blush blossoms, single and in pairs, a tiny lonesome green blossom up and away to the right.

My third characterized clusters of lilies at the bottom and some in the background, a sky of pink mist descended amongst willow branches. It’s all pinks and blues, as if captured just before dusk or just after sunrise.

In every painting, the lilies were different: dark blue pads with the slightest touches of dark purple, and blooms light green as if memories of light blue; rough, rosy magenta and cream brushed into more cream, peach, and lightest green; vibrant, thickly painted light pink, bright red, dark pink, stone blue, passionflower, periwinkle, honey tulip, and lemon green, all smudged into fields of floating flowers.

At the Musée d’Orsay, in Paris, was Le bassin aux nymphéas, one of 17 paintings of the Japanese bridge draped in willows; another, and I liked this one more, for its cooler tones, is held at the National Gallery in London.

Though it’s not strictly a painting of water lilies, Le jardin de l’artiste à Giverny, also at the Musée d’Orsay, I found beautiful, with its beds of lavender flowers speckled in places with dark violet and white and patches of bright turquoise and red that give the illusion of reflections of lilies on a pond in the background.

Then there was the Musée Marmottan Monet, a charming little museum tucked away in the 16th arrondissement of Paris, a calm, slightly more upscale neighborhood removed from the city center. Behind a long park with a tree that, when I visited, was like cotton, covered in white blossoms, the museum proved misleading at first, seemingly dedicated as much to its décor—mirrors, chandeliers, and statuettes, all of which were art—as it was to its paintings. Though charmed by the pink and sage rotunda that is the first room and the blue and cream elegance of the second, delighted at finding a second Antonio Canova statue, L’Amour et Psyche, (I love Psyché ranimée par le baiser de l’Amour, at the Louvre), and more educated about Berthe Morisot and Camille Pissarro (there was a Pissarro special exhibition on) than I’d ever imagined I’d be after going to a museum named for Monet, I began to think that perhaps the museum was only named after the artist and I’d misunderstood what I’d read about its housing 100 of his masterpieces.

They were hidden in the basement, like coveted bottles of aged wine in a cellar. Across from a biography of the artist printed on a dark red wall was a painting of Charing Cross Bridge, in London, all white and touched with the faintest silver blue. In addition there was Londres, Le Parlement, reflets sur la Tamise, a cool, misty image, mainly teal. Impression, soleil levant was plainly the highlighted attraction, set into a wall away from the other paintings: a neon (it actually looked neon) poppy sun illumined wisps of nectarine clouds while ships like watercolor shadows faded into the water, struck definitively with teal strokes contrasting with the reflections of the sun.

Yet, I preferred the flowers. I saw another of the tulips in the Netherlands like one I’d seen at the Musée d’Orsay, Champ de tulipes en Hollande, but I liked this one more than the other. It was brighter, the yellow sunnier. Bras de Seine à Giverny was puffs of pink and white clouds; pink, navy, and blue water striped with lavender, berry, and violet; blues and greens in at least four shades each composing the trees. I quite liked Champ d’iris jaunes à Giverny, a happy field of yellow irises tilted to appear as though swaying in the wind, and of course, there were nymphéas—canvases of vivid purple blossoms and bright lime green in the leaves; light yellow, daffodil yellow, and orchid; and blue, yellow, and baby green with red flowers.

A Le bassin spoke in red with aqua, orange, pink, and purple accents, while the most beautiful Le bassin promised incandescent blue blossoms smoothed into purple and trimmed in wine. In Reflets de saule, pensive pale and deep pinks combined with ruby and cornflower blue on a midnight background. Lily of the Nile added another kind of lily to Nymphéas et agapanthes.

Finally, two wisteria, two Glycines, painted from 1919–20, echoed the water lilies at l’Orangerie, hanging from long canvases stretching the length of a wall. Both were pretty; my favored one between the two was pale yellow flowers cascading from green leaves the color of limes and seaglass, spots of pistachio and turquoise, and navy and orange trails faded into hints of pink, all set on soft, feathery lavender.

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The Royal Wedding Venue: Westminster Abbey

My first time to London, I had the fairy tale desire to see where William and Kate had married, to imagine Kate walking on the red carpet through nave and quire during what must have been the longest walk to the altar since the last royal wedding. I imagined Westminster Abbey as London’s acme of sophisticated grace and unparalleled devotion—the embodiment of London’s aura of rich ruby reds and lush velvet plums, of 530.2-carat diamonds the size of peonies and modestly opaque, slate-blue sapphires (which, as it turns out, one can find in the Tower of London). Both intimately beautiful and demonstrative of architectural and human history, Westminster Abbey didn’t disappoint.

A Royal Peculiar, meaning it falls under the jurisdiction of the monarch rather than a diocese, it’s also a gem of Early English Gothic architecture. It borrows the concept of an apse with radiating chapels from French cathedrals, while the distinctively long nave and wide transepts are characteristically English. Pointed arches mimic the fancifully tall towers of its façade; I love the clocks on the left tower, one on the front and one on the side, both black with gold numerals and hands and tea-pink daisy petals on the face. Flying buttresses, a meeting of sable and mocha, are easily visible along the length of the Abbey, while inside, ribbed vaulting and rose windows illumine it with beauty.

The nave is scintillant pinkness like stardust. Along the tops of the corridors is the most beautiful pink stained glass in the windows, each set of panes crowned with a semicircle of glass encompassing a unique shape in the center. The windows transmit so much light that they seem themselves to emit their own light—clear, bright, effulgent. In both halls are buried the dead, their graves decorated with miniature lions and princely coats of arms, and at each intersection of the vaulted ceiling are small circles, inside of each a bunch of leaves, a swirl of flowers, or something resembling the helm of a ship. At the end nearest the western doors lays the Grave of the Unknown Warrior, similar in concept to the Grave of the Unknown Soldier and encircled by handcrafted red poppies; at the opposite end, through two pastel and gold memorials—one to Isaac Newton, a globe soft yellow and covered in sketches of angels like characters on papyrus—a colorful passageway leads to the quire, blue and gold and filled with dark Victorian benches for a choir (made mundane by the staff member who vacuumed them). Kate would have stopped at the High Altar, the ceiling of which is admired for its intricately tiled square design. Every coronation ceremony since 1066 (including that of Queen Elizabeth II) has taken place here, as have sixteen royal weddings.

In the North Ambulatory Chapels, along the left side of the Abbey, one can see the sepulchre of Elizabeth Nightingale, her husband shown trying to save her from the skeleton of Death; sculptures of ships, set into the walls; and feathery angel’s wings atop another sepulchre. Between the Chapel of St. John the Baptist, the Shrine of St. Edward the Confessor, and the tomb of Henry VIII, names commemorating the dead and engraved in the stone floors are worn so as to have become invisible, trodden upon by years’ worth of inquiring visitors.

Henry VII’s Lady Chapel and its adjoining rooms—one of which holds the tomb of Elizabeth I and Mary I, the other that of Mary, Queen of Scots—are impressive examples of Gothic finery. Carved pendants and Tudor emblems, including roses and portcullis, comprise the vaulted ceiling of the Lady Chapel—painted cream, embossed with gold, and filled in equal parts with diamonds and half-flowers (three small circles arranged on one side). Straight to the back is a window in rose-colored and transparent glass, while the windows in all of the remaining chapels exhibit diamonds in the same hues of hushed blue and spring green. On the imposing metallic centerpiece halfway through the room—the tomb of Henry VII, who had the Lady Chapel built with the intention that it would serve as the final resting place for himself and for his family—are small fighting dogs, one of which has wings like a dragon’s!

In the narrow passageway to the right of the Lady Chapel when exiting, Mary I, who ruled for only five years and is known as “Bloody Mary” for burning 300 English Protestants at the stake, is tidily tucked under Elizabeth I, who ruled England for nearly fifty years during what is largely considered its “Golden Age,” a time of political stability and artistic ingenuity. Scholars speculate that Elizabeth was William Shakespeare’s inspiration for the Fairy Queen in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, though her wrath was not something with which to be reckoned: Elizabeth I considered her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, a threat, so she had her imprisoned for 19 years before finally ordering her to be beheaded. To the left when exiting the Lady Chapel is Mary, Queen of Scots’ tomb, which, as fate would have it, is just as extravagant as that of Elizabeth: Elizabeth had no sons, so Mary’s son, James VI, became king (ending the Tudor line and beginning the Stuart one) and made sure of it. I’m almost positive that at the top of the tomb dance two little unicorns.

Along the other side of the Abbey lie the tombs of Edward III, Richard II, and next to that, Anne Neville, Richard III’s beloved wife, who got a feminine silver plaque, too. Beyond those, the bodies of celebrated writers and artists, among them Charles Dickens, Geoffrey Chaucer, and Thomas Hardy, are interred within “Poet’s Corner.” One can also find niche memorials to Shakespeare, John Milton, and the baroque composer George Frideric Handel, and, on the floor, in varying shades and sizes of rectangles, memorials to Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Lewis Carroll, whose read, in a circle, “Is all our life, then, but a dream?”