Monet’s cycle of eight Nymphéas are not so much paintings as they are an installation. Many people “know” them (or have a vague sense of the water lily paintings in general) via their reproduction on umbrellas and calendars, but you really must be at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris in order to see them in their entirety. I guess this could be said about any painting and its reproduced incarnations, but here I’m being literal. Over 19 feet long, the paintings are too big to take a picture of. They will not fit in a singular field of view; rather, they are a field, and the viewer is surrounded and suspended in it.
Wrapping the walls of two oval-shaped rooms, the canvases are not flush against a flat wall; they are convex on a curved wall, so that to stand in front of them is to move into them in space, literally. They are an environment, complete with an elliptical sky of diffused light above. It is precisely the installation that Monet intended.
I felt alone in these rooms, even though there were other people stumbling around. I felt submerged in color, thrilled to the core, yet peaceful at the same time. As paintings, the Nymphéas are flawless, whether viewed up close or fifteen feet away. I might say that this is my favorite work of art, ever. And damn, I love the French. They let you take pictures inside their museums, saying “Here, this is for you, too.”