Roberta and I were in Paris recently and took the opportunity to visit the Musée National de l’Orangerie des Tuileries for the first time. Built by Napoleon III in 1852 to house his citrus trees during winter, the building, commonly called just l’Orangerie, retained its botanical use after the fall of the Empire, as well as being used for public events such as music concerts, art expositions, contests, and dog shows.
Starting in 1922, however, l’Orangerie took on a new function: as a place to exhibit the massive water lily paintings of Claude Monet (who just happened to be a good friend of France’s prime minister Georges Clemenceau).
Accordingly, two enormous oval-shaped galleries were constructed, each of them about 75 yards long, with skylights to permit the natural light the artist wanted. Construction took five years, with the installation opening to the public in 1927, a few months after Monet’s death.
Monet envisioned the galleries as an environment where visitors, enveloped by his paintings, could experience the peace that he had found while working in his garden in Giverny. A sign at the entrance to the galleries admonishes, “The waterlily rooms were designed by Claude Monet as a space for meditation. In order to respect his wishes, we would ask you to view this exceptional work in silence.”
Good luck with that. While the guards will shush anyone talking on a cellphone, the galleries are packed with people (timed admission is required), and a constant undertone of conversation accompanies any viewing of the work. Since the invention of the smartphone, however, another distraction is present: the inevitable taking of photographs with the paintings.
Like the roll of paper unfurled behind models in a fashion shoot, Monet’s paintings have become wallpaper in front of which the visitors can preen, and preen they do – after each “take,” poser and photographer look at the image to decide whether it is flattering enough or whether it should be deleted and a new attempt made. This is not only a matter of still photos – one father insisted that his young daughter stride the length of one of the paintings as he walked backwards in front of her, capturing it all on video. (To her credit, the 10-year-old looked mortified.)
Having lunch afterwards in the museum café, I asked Roberta, “What’s the closest equivalent to these galleries in the United States?”
“The Rothko Chapel,” she immediately answered, and she was right. Commissioned by John and Dominique de Menil in 1964, the chapel sits in the Montrose neighborhood of Houston, Texas. Rothko executed fourteen paintings for the octagonal space, insisting on a skylight to provide natural illumination. The chapel opened in 1971.
According to Wikipedia, about 110,000 people visit the Rothko chapel each year. I haven’t visited it since before the invention of the smartphone, but I wonder if the same thing takes place today as at l’Orangerie. After the tour busses disgorge their crowds, do the visitors sit in silence, meditating, or do a many of them simply use the paintings as a backdrop for a selfie? While not monochromatic, Rothko’s abstract paintings are so subtle that using them as wallpaper seems pointless – you might as well be standing in front of any dark-colored wall. But I suspect that people do.
Rothko would be horrified at such activity. This was an artist, remember, who once wrote, “A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer. It dies by the same token. It is therefore a risky and unfeeling act to send it out into the world. How often it must be permanently impaired by the eyes of the vulgar and the cruelty of the impotent who would extend the affliction universally!”
Well, once it’s out of the artist’s hands, a painting must make its own way in the world. Monet’s hope, that visitors could find a little enjoyment and peace in what he created, seems more humane than Rothko’s demand that we genuflect before High Art, “tragic and timeless.” Yet the paintings of both artists can bring enrichment to the life of the viewer who is willing to look. Snap a selfie, if you must, but then put the phone away. The magic is there, if you take the time to see it.