From the orangerie to the museum

Vue du Musée de l'Orangerie
© Camille Gharbi
Corps de texte

The building from the Second Empire to the Water Lilies

The building has not always showcased works of art. In fact, it was built in 1852 as a winter shelter for the orange trees that lined the garden of the Tuileries Palace. Before this, the orange trees were housed in the Grande Galerie of the Louvre.
At the request of Emperor Napoleon III, the new structure was built on the garden terrace along the Seine, known as the “waterfront terrace,” in a record time of four months and according to the plans drawn up by the architect Firmin Bourgeois (1786-1853). The structure closely resembles a greenhouse: its southern façade facing the river is made of glass to let in the light and the heat from the sun. The opposite façade, facing the rue de Rivoli, is almost entirely windowless so as to avoid the north winds.

L’Orangerie des Tuilerie, vue du sud-est. © Neurdein / Roger-Viollet, Paris

The main entrances are located on either side, to the west and east, and were decorated by Louis Visconti (1791-1853), the architect responsible for the renovations at the Louvre.  The doorways framed by columns echo the decoration of the Tuileries Palace. They are topped by triangular pediments sculpted by Charles Gallois-Poignant, representing cornucopias, plants and ears of corn in connection to the site’s function.
Following the fall of the Empire in 1870 and the fire at the Tuileries Palace in 1871, the Orangerie became the property of the State. It continued to be used to store the orange trees and as the setting for various events: horticultural, musical and artistic shows, banquets, contests, dog shows, etc., until 1922.

 (vers 1900)
Vue de l’angle du quai des Tuileries et de la place de la Concorde devant la porterne de l’Orangerie des Tuileries, vers 1900 © Neurdein / Roger-Viollet, Paris


The installation of the Water Lilies

After World War One, a new fate brought about radical changes to the Orangerie. Indeed, in 1921, the State assigned the building to the Under-Secretariat of State for Fine Arts, together with its counterpart, the Jeu de Paume, built in 1862 on the terrace lining the rue de Rivoli. The idea was to provide a space to exhibit works by living artists. It was at this moment that Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929), President of the Council, suggested that the large Water Lilies set that Claude Monet (1840-1926) was painting at the time and which he had donated to the State be installed at the Orangerie rather than in the courtyard of the brand new Musée Rodin. The donation was formalized in 1922.

Claude Monet spent a lot of time on the architectural design alongside the architect Camille Lefèvre (1876-1946). In the end, 8 panels, each 2 meters (6.66 ft) high and spanning a total length of 91 meters (298.6 ft), were arranged in 2 oval rooms that form the symbol of infinity. Their east-west orientation places them in the path of the sun and along the historical axis of Paris which runs from the Arc de Triomphe to the Louvre. A vestibule provides access to the two rooms and marks the transition from the outside world. Finally, the natural light that enters through the ceiling immerses visitors in a state of grace, as intended by the painter.

Le 17 mai 1927, dans l’ancienne Orangerie du jardin des Tuileries, inauguration en présence de Georges Clemenceau du musée abritant les Nymphéas légués par Claude Monet à l’Etat. Photographie inédite de l’Illustration. DR

The “Musée Claude Monet” was inaugurated by Clemenceau on May 17, 1927, a few months after the artist’s death. It was transformed into an annex of the Musée du Luxembourg, and the building became the Musée National de l’Orangerie des Tuileries.

Major exhibitions at the Musée de l’Orangerie from the 1930s to the 1950s

The Musée National de l’Orangerie des Tuileries was attached to the Louvre in 1930. The western half of the building, next to the Place de la Concorde, was thus transformed into a series of four rooms intended for the temporary exhibitions of the national museums, which marked a new chapter in its history. A series of magnificent exhibitions were held every year: a cycle on the Impressionists from 1930 to 1933, the exhibition dedicated to the 17th-century Peintres de la réalité [Painters of Reality] in 1934, which has become legendary, Rubens et son temps [Rubens and His Age] which attracted a million visitors in 1936, and Degas in 1937. In 1942 an exhibition was held dedicated to Arno Breker, a German sculptor who studied in France and who became an official artist of the Third Reich. The masterpieces of French private collections recovered in Germany by the French Commission for Art Recovery and the allies, the Monuments Men, were displayed here in 1946.

Deux personnes devant le musée de l’Orangerie, surplombant la place de la Concorde, regardent un mât montrant l’affiche de l’exposition De David à Toulouse-Lautrec, 1955 © Keystone France/Getty images

In 1945, the Orangerie, along with the Jeu de Paume, which housed the Impressionist collections of the Louvre, formed a single entity attached to the Paintings Department of the Louvre Museum. The Réunion des Musées Nationaux continued to organize major exhibitions here from 1946 to 1960 which proved highly successful, such as Van Gogh et les peintres d’Auvers-sur-Oise [Van Gogh and The Painters of Auvers-sur-Oise] and De David à Toulouse-Lautrec [From David to Toulouse-Lautrec] in 1954 and 1955. This led to the construction of the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, which opened in 1964.

The acquisition of the Jean Walter and Paul Guillaume collection

It was the acquisition by the State in 1959 and 1963 of the Jean Walter and Paul Guillaume collection, subject to usufruct, which gave the Musée de l’Orangerie its definitive appearance. Indeed, Domenica Walter (1898-1977), the widow of the art dealer Paul Guillaume (1891-1934) and then of the architect and industrialist Jean Walter (1883-1957), fulfilled her first husband’s desire to create the “first museum of French modern art” open to the public. The State offered to exhibit the collection at the Orangerie.

A second renovation project was led by the architect Olivier Lahalle from 1960 to 1965. The exhibition galleries were knocked down, and two superimposed levels running the entire length were added to the building.  A monumental staircase with a banister designed by Raymond Subes (1893-1970) replaced the entrance vestibule to the Water Lilies. It led to a series of salons requested by Domenica to display the 146 paintings. A public presentation of the collection took place in 1966, inaugurated by the Minister of Culture André Malraux. Domenica kept the paintings until her death in 1977.

A third renovation project was carried out from 1978 to 1984 in order to consolidate the building, refurbish the rooms, and permanently house the entire collection, named the “Jean Walter and Paul Guillaume collection” according to Domenica’s wishes. The Orangerie thus became an independent national museum, separate from the administrative supervision of the Louvre and the Jeu de Paume, whose Impressionist collections were destined for the future Musée d’Orsay.

2000-2006: a new museum

Vue du rez-de-chaussée du musée de l'Orangerie (vers 2002) © Agence Brochet/EMOC


The last transformation of the Orangerie took place between 2000 and 2006 under the aegis of the architect Olivier Brochet, the architectural firm Brochet/Layus/Pueyo, and Pierre Georgel, then director of the museum. The rooms built on two levels were eliminated and natural light was restored in the rooms dedicated to Monet’s Water Lilies. Spaces were dug out of the basement, to the north of the building, to house the Jean Walter and Paul Guillaume collection. Temporary exhibition spaces, an auditorium, an educational room and a bookshop were also created. The work was delayed and modified by the discovery of the remains of the “Fossés Jaunes” (yellow ditches) defensive walls built in 1566 to protect the Tuileries Palace.

The museum reopened on May 17, 2006 and is once again developing an ambitious exhibition policy. Since May 2010, it has been attached to the Musée d'Orsay within the Établissement public du musée d'Orsay et du musée de l'Orangerie.

The building is currently surrounded by several sculptures. Along the north façade is a work by Alain Kirili, executed in 1986, Grand Commandement blanc [Big White Commandment]. In front of the museum entrance is a cast of Rodin's Baiser [The Kiss]. If you want to enter the building from the opposite side of the entrance, you can see Reclining Nude, a cast of 1951, by Henry Moore (1898-1986) at the foot of the stairs, and then a cast of Le Lion au serpent [Lion with a Snake] by Antoine-Louis Barye (1796-1875) on the terrace by the water.

September 2020: New presentation of the collection

The collection of the Musée de l’Orangerie retraces certain unique facets of 20th-century art, from the large-scale Water Lilies decoration by Claude Monet, the ultimate and founding masterpiece of abstraction and immersive works, to the painting collection of Paul Guillaume and Domenica Walter, characterized by the tension between modernity and figuration, from Renoir to Matisse, from Cézanne to Picasso, from Douanier Rousseau to Modigliani and Soutine.

Vue de la Galerie Les Arts à Paris © Camille Gharbi

The new presentation of the Musée de l’Orangerie collection, in renovated spaces, creates a closer connection between the two parts of the collection – Water Lilies / École de Paris [School of Paris] in the early 20th century – with an elegant spatial and visual coherence within the building and a fluid, educational and stimulating visitor circuit. The visit begins with a striking entrance to the collection with large polyptychs by Joan Mitchell (a loan from the Musée national d’Art moderne) on the one hand, and large-scale works by the modern “primitives” - Picasso, Douanier Rousseau, Derain, Modigliani, Matisse, etc., on the other – based on the vision of the poet Guillaume Apollinaire. The monographic galleries offer the public a new, more up-close and comfortable perspective of the works.

The exceptional loan of a set of African and Oceanian sculptures, previously in the Paul Guillaume collection, by the Musée du Quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, as well as several drawings and archives, enrich the tour. The two new galleries – one dedicated to close-ups of the collection (three per year), and the other to contemporary counterpoints to the Water Lilies – contribute to the dynamism and constant renewal of this prestigious collection.
Action financed by the Région Île-de-France