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Last Updated: Wednesday, 17 May 2006, 13:52 GMT 14:52 UK
Monet water lilies see light of day again
Caroline Wyatt
BBC News, Paris

"These landscapes of water and reflections have become an obsession for me."

Monet painting
Monet began work on the water lily series in 1916

So wrote the Impressionist Monet to a friend in 1908, about the water lilies in his garden at Giverny, which he painted over and over again during the last 30 years of his life.

Today, visitors to Paris can once again enjoy some of the best-loved images of Monet's water lily series at the Orangerie Museum, which reopened to the public on Wednesday after a renovation that has lasted six years and cost $31m.

'Romantic setting'

Originally, the Orangerie was a rather upmarket garden shed, built in 1852 to house the trees of the Tuileries gardens in winter.

It was only later that it became the romantic setting for some of the most stunning paintings Monet created, offering them to the nation in 1922.

Inside the Orangerie

The eight-panel mural was set in place a few years later, attracting up to half a million visitors each year to see for themselves how Monet - almost obsessively - captured the changing light and swirling colour of his water-garden, even as the artist started to go blind.

The water lily murals were last seen here in public in 1999.

Since then, they have had to be kept under protective glass during the renovation work, as they could not be moved - making an already difficult task far harder.

The main difference that visitors will notice is the removal of the "improvements" of the 1960s, when city planners built a concrete ceiling above the paintings to add an extra storey to the gallery - taking away the natural light that had so beguiled Monet himself.

What we've done has all been aimed at bringing the collection back into the light
Olivier Brochet

Olivier Brochet, the architect, says he hopes Monet would have approved of the renovation.

"What we've done has all been aimed at bringing the collection back into the light. The water lilies are all about light, the passage of the sun throughout the day, and time passing," he says.

"So when we were asked to renovate the museum we decided that we had first and foremost to demolish the extra floor, to take out something created at a time when we weren't so aware of the wealth of our heritage. And everything else followed on from that."

The other works - mainly by French Impressionists - which used to hang in the 1960s gallery upstairs now have a new home in the underground gallery.

It also has some natural light, as well as displaying the remains of a Roman wall which considerably delayed the construction work when it was unexpectedly excavated during the renovations.

New generation

At the press preview of the reopening, most were enthusiastic about the changes, though British architect Andrew Todd had some reservations.

"It was definitely ramshackle before, and it had something of that garden character - something of the looseness, the slight messiness that bound the paintings to the Orangerie. I think they've cleared up a lot of the messiness, but it's lost something at the same time," he says.

Monet painting
The water lily canvases took until 1926 to complete
"The first impression visitors get now is of a great concrete mausoleum, which generates more of an atmosphere of veneration rather than the informality of the relationship as it was before."

But the water lilies' curator disagrees. Philippe Saunier says the new architecture is bold in its own way, inviting the visitor to appreciate the works as Monet intended.

"The most important thing for us was the restoration of natural light, which was so fundamental to Monet," he says.

"The study of light is the basis of the Impressionist movement, so we wanted to restore that as the essence of this building, which was once described as the Sistine Chapel of Impressionism."

Today, the city of Paris is hoping that the re-working of the Orangerie museum will illuminate Monet for a new generation - and perhaps, bring back a little bit of the Monet-mania last seen here in 1999.

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