Musee de l’Orangerie is an art museum in Paris famous for being chosen by the impressionist painter Claude Monet as the permanent home for his Water Lilies (Nymphéas) paintings, which are displayed in two large oval rooms. In this post, we’ll cover whether Musee de l’Orangerie is worth a visit to see these large installations by Monet and other tips for your visit to this popular point of interest in Paris.
The story of how Musee de l’Orangerie came to be the permanent home of the giant Water Lilies murals is an interesting one. The building for the museum was constructed in the 1850s, and was used for various purposes until becoming an annex of the Musée du Luxembourg. Around this time, Claude Monet sought to donate decorative panels to the French government as a monument to the end of World War I, and it was suggested to Monet that Orangerie be their exhibition place.
In 1922, Monet signed a contract donating the Water Lilies series of decorative panels painted on canvas to the French government, to be housed in oval rooms at the Orangerie. Together with Monet, the Louvre’s head architect, Camille Lefèvre, drafted plans for to house Monet’s large Water Lilies murals, incorporating natural light, plain walls, and sparse interior decoration. The design of the oval rooms for Water Lilies was made to Monet’s specifications, and they were opened in 1927 a few months after the great artist died. With these oval rooms for Water Lilies open, Musee de l’Orangerie claimed its spot among the pantheon of renowned Paris art museums…
One of the early criticisms of Musee de l’Orangerie, even when it was just an annex of Musée du Luxembourg, was that it was too small. This remained a concern even with Water Lilies, and over time, the museum acquired more works and eventually expanded. This has occurred in various phases over the years, most recently in January 2000, the museum closed for renovation work and didn’t re-open to the public in May 2006.
Over a decade later, Musee de l’Orangerie still looks fresh and fully modernized. It’s an excellent museum experience, even as you’re in the “basement” perusing the galleries. These lower galleries definitely don’t have the same grandiosity as the Louvre or even Musee d’Orsay, but they work. Even the oval rooms that house Water Lilies are fairly minimalist–they get their wow-factor by virtue of that, not in spite of it.
I’d recommend Musee de l’Orangerie solely to see Water Lilies. I have never seen an installation of art quite like this. The presentation in the oval rooms with the crisp white walls and abundant natural light gives the murals an airy feel, making every little detail pop.
I could stand in these two rooms for hours. The rest of Musee de l’Orangerie is gravy once you’ve seen Water Lilies. And wow, is there a lot of gravy…
The lower levels of the museum are often overshadowed by Water Lilies, but they house a formidable Impressionist art collection. On display are works by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, Amedeo Modigliani, Pablo Picasso, Henri Rousseau, Alfred Sisley, and many others.
These galleries of “other” Impressionist works do not rival Musee d’Orsay, but it’s an impressive collection, nonetheless. If this were anywhere but Paris, I think Musee de l’Orangerie would be the city’s crown jewel in terms of art museums. Here, both Musee d’Orsay and the Louvre overshadow Musee de l’Orangerie.
Personally, I’m not sure that’s the best way to look at it. I’d approach Musee de l’Orangerie and Musee d’Orsay as ‘companion’ experiences (to be sure, Paris treats them as sister museums, right down to the co-branding).
Musee d’Orsay is where you go to really learn about the Impressionist movement and its full timeline, and follow that up with a stop at the nearby Orangerie to appreciate the pinnacle of that movement.
In terms of tips for Musee de l’Orangerie, my first would be to go early to see Water Lilies before the crowds appear. There are always going to be other people in there, but it can get really crowded. Another option (which we did not try) would be to go shortly before closing.
As with the other popular spots in Paris, you can avoid ticket lines with the Paris Museum Pass. You’ll still have to wait for security, but we found lines here to be relatively modest (as compared to other top tier attractions in Paris).
How much time Musee de l’Orangerie requires is a good question. Ideally, I’d say around 2 hours. You could certainly spend more time inside, but that gives you plenty of time to peruse the downstairs galleries, which contain some impressive works.
Musee de l’Orangerie is not as large as the Louvre or Musee d’Orsay, which is a common complaint about it. I don’t really get that. The Water Lilies rooms are places you’re going to want to sit/stand in for a while to take in their full, meditative beauty. The lower levels likewise showcase contemplative pieces.
We toured Musee de l’Orangerie with the audio guide, and had no problem spending over 2 hours in the museum. Even then, we skipped a few of the lower level rooms. If the oval rooms were less crowded, I could’ve easily spent another hour up there, too.
Still, if you’re planning on seeing the Louvre and Orsay in addition to Orangerie, definitely budget more time for the former two museums. If you’re on the fence about Musee de l’Orangerie because you’re already visiting those two museums, I’d strongly encourage visiting Orangerie.
While you might be concerned about “art museum overload” you can avoid that by potentially just going to see Water Lilies. This would not be my first recommendation.
There are some excellent galleries in the lower levels, but if it’s a matter of skipping Musee de l’Orangerie or going but only for Water Lilies, I’d certainly recommend the latter.
Overall, I’d highly recommend Musee de l’Orangerie when visiting Paris. It’s fairly small, but packs a powerful punch thanks to Water Lilies and a heavy concentration of masterworks in its lower levels. As a fan of Claude Monet, I was absolutely entranced by the presentation of Water Lilies. Words and photos do absolutely no justice to standing inches from those murals, seeing every brushstroke in vivid detail. It’s easy to get lost in these paintings (and worth it). My only complaint about Musee de l’Orangerie is that it’s making me kick myself even more for skipping Monet’s Garden in Giverny when we passed by it last year.
Planning your own trip to Paris, France? Check out our posts about Paris for more ideas of what to do in the City of Lights. If you’re venturing beyond Paris, you’ll also want to consult our France posts, which cover a variety of places, from Normandy to the Loire Valley. In addition to these posts, I recommend planning with Rick Steves Paris and Rick Steves France guidebooks.
Have you toured Musee de l’Orangerie? What did you think of the experience? Did the Water Lilies rooms take your breath away? If you’ve visited other art museums in Paris, how do you think Orangerie compared to those? Any tips of your own to add about visiting Musee de l’Orangerie? Any questions? Hearing from readers is part of the fun (and is helpful to others), so please share your thoughts in the comments below!