In one rainy morning, I learn that the spine of every Parisian brick, street, and metro line runs into one cathedral or another. Il pleut and I arrive—at Notre Dame, Arc de Triomph, the Louvre. I see the must-sees, despite the weather.
Because of the weather, I see the must-sees.
Paris’s winter sky has a habit of drawing its visitors inside, hungry for a rest, an elevator ride to the top of the Eiffel Tower, the chance to see the Mona Lisa smile. In cafes and museums,the city’s ceilings are accommodating, high enough to keep crowds moving, to hold us alone together.
En route anywhere, I stop for un café, s’il vous plait, and baristas respond in perfect English. My yellow poncho makes me look like a school bus, and I find myself pardon-ing for the space I take up on the métro. Everywhere I go, I am under the impression that I am about to bump into an old friend, but, inevitably, this wish or fear of mutual recognition stays abstract: I inhabit Paris anonymously, as another tourist behind a flash.
Today, my camera flashes because I mean to take a photo of Musée D’Orsay. I want the postcard to send to my parents, evidence of museum’s well-scrubbed windows, the promise of its insides. I want the photo that says “See?! This is why I took time off from school: here are the pearls Western culture! I am witness to our achievement!”
Instead, my picture is of the outside going in: a clump of people, wet hair, and sopping umbrellas. It’s a wash. Grey and static—with a giant rhinoceros in the foreground.
The photo will get folded into an email home in which I am unable to put my observations in context. I know nothing of French History. I know nothing of Art History. Instead, I rely on prosthetic knowledge, carry a Lonely Planet travel guide and a friend’s binder of art history class notes. What I get (what you get here) is unprepared: a feeling.
And, for a while, I felt anything but absorbed. A couple weeks ago, I tried the Louvre, but I spent all day entering, wandering the Jardin du Tuileries, standing in line outside the pyramid, studying the floor plan, looking up visitor trails and museum highlights. Everywhere I looked, I was too late, and the museum was saturated, thousands of eager-eyed tourists in my place.
After several weeks of feeling outside of outsiders, I gave up and took a train to the countryside. I stayed with friends of friends, thirty minutes outside Angers, about three hours southwest of Paris. I got to know a new lemon-yellow in the crinkled edges of leaves and afternoons. I walked wheat fields, gulped wide horizons, sniffed homegrown lavender, counted cows.
From the country, I took a deep breath prepared to enter, yet again. I planned to experience Paris from scratch, in tastes and textures, such as:
(1) the butter and flakes of crepes
(2) post-espresso chest flutters
(3) bicycles on leaves at Montparnasse.
I would leave colors (mostly yellows) in Angers, where they belonged. I would go back to the Louvre, back to my French classes, and “do Paris” properly.
Which is why and how I end up lining up single-file outside Musée d’Orsay, waiting to file through metal detectors and ticketing booths.
In the elevator, I let someone else pick the floor and step out blindly—into the landscapes of Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas and Cézanne. My boots are tracking rainwater on the floor, but I don’t notice.
The first painting I see is by Camille Pissarro’s, Gelée blanche (1873). A growing sun shimmers across a rolling field, melting frozen ground. The landscape is mostly suffocating, its daytime burdensome. Dense brushstrokes (and knife scratches) leave little air for breathing. A peasant man carries his load, but shadows of undulating fields disorient him, his voyeur.
Pissarro’s morning is bittersweet and familiar to me. I recognize the shy hope of daybreak’s golden hue. Like the other Impressionists, who themselves traveled from city to country, country to city, Pissarro knew something about what holds and changes across these landscapes.
Alfred Sisley, for instance, was also interested in place, defined by the elements. In Le canal du Loing (1892), the blue-grey sky interacts differently with each bare, lanky poplar tree, obfuscating the furthest branches and leaves. In another Sisley painting, Flood at Port-Marly (1876), water takes the foreground, holding shadows of buildings and boats. The deluge is disorienting, creating symmetry between sky and earth.
At the same time, Impressionists were fascinated by the daily spectacle of city life. Renoir’s Bal du moulin de la Galette (1876) not only stands for the vivacity of modern Paris, but also elaborates the same ideas of impressionist pastoral paintings, exploring the effect of light and motion on a crowd. Renoir’s bright brushstrokes keep the light—in this case, natural and artificial—alive, dancing on the cheeks and shoulders of dancers themselves.
The Impressionists teach that the sun is to blame or thank for any illusion of difference between city, village, road, dance studio, field of wheat. It is a trick of light that keeps landscape divided. The Impressionists’ Paris was and is radiant, but not because the city represents a diamond in the rough, an anomalous gem, a greatest hits collection of humanity’s accomplishment; instead, Paris was and is most valuable as of a reflection of our everywhere, everyday, anywhere.
A museum, then, works by holding light constant, no matter the day, no matter the rain. Since the building’s days as Orsay railway station, the Musée D’Orsay has served as a place between places, allowing for reunifications across history and geography. Today, Victor’s Laloux’s 1900 train station architecture is still visible, the context for every new exhibit. Walking through the world of the Impressionists, one almost hears the specter-whispers of train traffic.
In Musée D’Orsay, our only job is to stay as wide-eyed and light-footed as our predecessors. Among them is Monet, who devoted several months in 1892 and 1893 to studying the façade of Rouen Cathedral in Normandy. From an apartment across the street, Monet watched the cathedral façade remake itself in different daylights. In direct sunlight, architectural details lost shape. In grey weather and night, the Cathedral’s stone was tickled with legibility. The results of his attention are his paintings, a few of which are on display at Musée D’Orsay.
Staring at the Rouen Cathedral, I can’t help but giggle happily. Next to me, a Chinese tourist hears me and, I think, understands. I wonder if we are both moved by the same revelation.
Monet painted some thirty canvases.
Pieces of the Rouen Cathedral are on view at the National Museum of Wales in the UK, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, to name a few locations. There is a version of the cathedral at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, a few blocks from my home. Nothing ends where we expect.
I am in Paris for a fractional moment. The smallest unit of time is too whole to explain my ratio of seen vs. unseen. From here, the city only gets more mysterious. What a happy giggle, then, that every cathedral—everywhere—is polymorphous. At different times of day, in different frames, the objects of our gaze change. They talk back. Paris is something to see again and again.