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Museums and collections


Rachel Gardner, Gallery Attendant
The Fitzwilliam Museum

Visitors sometimes stop and ask what my favourite gallery is, or which painting I would most like to own. The answer to the first question sometimes changes, but the second never does. Inevitably I pick Monet’s luminous Poplars of 1891. My choice isn’t particularly surprising, but the reasons behind it come from a moment many years ago.

When I was seventeen I went to Paris on a school trip with my French class. For most of us it was the first time crossing the Atlantic to see the cathedrals and museums we’d written essays on in imperfect French. Coping with jetlag, navigating the Metro one wrong train at a time and figuring out how to fit our massive suitcases into a tiny hotel room shared with two other teenage girls was hardly an auspicious start to two weeks in Europe.

But walking through the Tuileries on a June afternoon, the gardens drenched with sunlight, something clicked in my brain. The light was different here—suddenly all those Impressionist paintings we’d seen so many slides of made sense in a way they hadn’t before. In that moment, my whole understanding of art shifted. Trying to capture that light was made Impressionism, and Monet in particular, so remarkable.

Poplars is one of many pictures he painted around the River Epte. It’s a scene characteristic of the series: the curved line of trees that follow the bend of the river, the sky that changes colour imperceptibly from blue to white to lilac, the brilliant green leaves that seem lit from within. You can sit with it and no matter how dismal the weather outside, you feel lifted by it. Close-up it may just seem a mess of brushstrokes and daubs, but every one of them has as much intention as Poussin’s carefully controlled lines. If you’re willing to let your imagination go, this is a painting where you can almost feel Monet’s energy and deliberation.

I love this painting not only for the memories it evokes but also for its promise of summer and warmer days to come.