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.