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The Unbeaten Path
At Paris's Marmottan Museum, New Visions of Monet

By John B. Holway
The Washington Post
Sunday, April 5, 1998; Page E02

Paris museum-goers who have stood on tiptoe at the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa and jostled the crowds at the Musee d'Orsay will be thrilled to discover the Marmottan Museum, one of Paris's best-kept tourist secrets. It is so secret, in fact, that Parisians themselves don't seem to know how to find it -- at least, not the ones I asked.

Now the Marmottan has come to Baltimore's Walters Gallery, with Claude Monet's giant water lily panels on display there through May. The visit has focused new attention on Paris's unsung museum. Luckily, there are still plenty of treasures left to see there.

At first glance, the Marmottan -- across a park from the Muette subway stop, behind the Arc de Triomph -- doesn't seem to have a front door, but a walk around the building reveals the entrance. Inside, in addition to works by Renoir, Manet, Morisot, Pissaro and Sisley, is a trove of more than 100 Monets -- including some works I didn't remember from my art anthologies.

For instance, Monet, the master landscapist, almost never did portraits, but two are here. In "Portrait of Jean Monet," the artist's young son looks at us through wide, doleful brown eyes. And check out the portrait of Monsieur Poly. This merry fisherman with wild black hair and beard sports a red nose and cocks his head with a mischievous twinkle, as if he'd raided the liquor cabinet once too often. This is a Monet beyond the poppies and water lilies, cathedrals and haystacks.

The museum's most historic picture is "Impression -- Sunrise," with its red sun floating in a copper sky above the water. It was misnamed -- it was actually painted at sunset -- but this was the scene that so amused the critics that they coined the derisive name "impressionism" for the new movement.

The salon has been furnished by a Tokyo newspaper, which is appropriate: The link between Monet and Japan was very close, and the walls of the artist's home in Giverny, an hour west of Paris, are covered with hundreds of Japanese prints. One small painting in the Marmottan is a full-length portrait by Sei-ichi Naruse of Monet in his famous garden.

Upstairs, on the second floor, are more surprises. There's an Alpine scene in oil, rarely reproduced. In addition, Monet had been a caricaturist in his youth, and some of his pen sketches here, done when he was 15, are as trenchant as any by Daumier. "I was known all over Le Havre as a caricaturist," Monet wrote. Indeed, he financed some of his earliest art lessons by selling the cartoons to the models, receiving from 10 to 20 francs apiece. "Had I gone on like that," he lamented, "I'd be a millionaire today."

One wing of the gallery contains the water lilies of Monet's last years (they're not all in Baltimore). Another holds side-by-side studies of his garden -- the Japanese footbridge, the rose arbor, the weeping willow. At a glance, one can see the artist change from recognizable forms to abstractions of pure color. The canvas titled "The House Seen From the Rose Garden" contains no recognizable form at all, perhaps due to the cataracts that had begun to encroach on his vision. The "house" is a yellow shape amid a wild green and red jungle.

In the galleries, the few patrons stand or sit, lost in meditation. Not a sound is heard in the rooms. One hates even to cough and break the cathedral-like mood.

You can't hear silence like that at the Louvre.

The Marmottan Museum is at 2 Rue Louis Boully, telephone 011-331-42-24-0702. Admission is about $6.50.GIRAUDON

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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