The Musée de l’Orangerie occupies a unique position in Paris being situated in the Jardin des Tuileries at the opposite end to the Louvre and facing out on to the Place de la Concorde. It was originally built in 1852 to shelter the orange trees in the garden at the Tuileries but it became a museum in 1922 when the building was redesigned to include oval rooms to house Claude Monet’s very famous ‘Water Lilies’ cycle, a series of decorative panels painted on canvas and donated by Monet to the state.
But what really interests me in the Musée de l’Orangerie is the Jean Walter and Paul Guillaume Collection which arrived to the museum in 1977. This is essentially the private collection of the art dealer Paul Guillaume as modified by his wife Domenica after his death.
Paul Guillaume started buying and selling art when he was only about 20 years old. He had initially started working in a garage in his teens but when he discovered Africian statutes in a cargo of rubber imported into the garage, he was so fascinated by them that he displayed them in the window. They were noticed by the poet and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire and the two men struck up a friendship. Apollinaire introduced Paul Guillaume to his artistic Montmartre friends including Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani, Francis Piacabia among others. Guillaume was hugely impressed by their work and in 1914 he opened his first gallery. He went onto become one of the greatest art dealers of his time specialising in both modern art as well as African art, being successful both in Europe and America. Guillaume was not just an art dealer but also a collector and by the 1920s he had amassed what was probably the most important modern art collection in the world. He began talking about opening up a museum of modern art but he died prematurely in 1934 at the age of 43 without realising this ambition. Before his death he had also stated that in the abscence of children he would leave his collection to the state. Therefore, his wife Domenica after his death and allegedly in fear of losing her inheritance stuffed a pillow under her dress and pretended to be preganant and ultimately found a baby to adopt who she named Jean Pierre Guillaume. In the 1950s Jean Pierre claimed that Domenica and her lover Maurice Lacour plotted to have him assassinated and charges were brought. These charges were ultimately dismissed but following a second plot involving false accusations, Lacour was sent to prison for six months. As for Guillaume ‘s collection, Domenica had sold off much of his more daring modern work, including Picasso’s cubist works, and replaced them with ‘safer’ pieces. Domenica had remarried Jean Walter, an extremely rich businessman, and when the state purchased the collection she requested that it include the names of both husbands. Paul Guillaume’s wish for a museum of modern art had now been fulfilled. The collection itself is made up of 146 works of art and is exhibited on the lower level of the museum with each artist’s works being grouped together. The visiter is first greeted by the Renoirs of which there are 25 including a delightful work entitled ‘Young Girls at the Piano’ depicting as it’s title suggests two young girls at the piano both completely engrossed in the task at hand.These are followed by the Cezannes which include several still lifes such as ‘Still life, Pears and Apples’, one of the artist’s favourite subjects. Although Domenica sold off the most daring works by Picasso, the collection still retains 12 including a very moving painting entitled The Embrace’, which shows a naked couple embracing with the woman evidently preganant and there is a sadness to the embrace as if the couple have no one else in the world but each other. The Picassos are displayed on the wall opposite the Matisses and this is fitting given that Guillaume organised a major exhibition in 1918 of works by these two great rivals and giants of the art world from the early part of the 20th century. The Matisses in the collection are mostly from the artist’s period spent in Nice and include a wonderful masterpiece entitled ‘The Three Sisters’ which shows the three sisters sitting together dressed in very different colours and two of whom are looking out of the canvas with the third engrossed in her reading. The collection also has 28 paintings by André Derain one of which is the portrait of Domenica Guillaume shown above.
In fact for Derain in particular, Guillaume did much to promote his art and the two became lifelong friends. Guillaume was also credited with being one of the first to take an interest in Amedeo Modigliani and there are five of his works in the collection including a portrait of Paul Guillaume, shown above. Again, Guillaume took an early interest in the works of Chaïm Soutine who arrived in Paris in 1912 from Lithuania and thanks to Guillaume the museum now houses the largest collection of Soutines in Europe with a whole room given over to his works which includes ‘The Altar Boy’ a popular subject with the artist. Finally, other artists included in the collection are Monet, Sisley, Utrillo, Rousseau, Laurencin, Van Donegan and Gauguin.
This is a great collection of art giving a wonderful snapshot of works from Impressionism to Modern Art spanning the period from the 1860s to the 1930s. It is an ideal choice for those who want a flavour of art from this period and can come away without a sense of being overwhelmed. And of course apart from this collection and Monet’s Water Lilies, the museum also offers temporary exhibitions such as the current exhibition featuring masterpieces from the Bridgestone Museum of Tokyo.