Where is Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party?
Many consider Pierre-Auguste Renoir's masterpiece to be the greatest impressionist painting of them all. For Thomas Hoving in "Art for Dummies," it belongs on a short list of the 15 greatest works of art of Western Civilization. Its "five gorgeous young women and nine of the handsomest of men... at the moment they have just polished off a great French meal with copious wine" is surely one of the most life affirming works of the 19th century, as well as being one of the sexiest of all time. I'm quite serious when I say its well known as one of great "date" paintings in this city.
This irresistible work, with its larger than life canvas, is the centerpiece of the Phillips in Washington D.C. - a treasure trove of modern art. The Collection opened to the public in 1921 as America's first museum of modern art and its sources. Housed in the unique setting of founder Duncan Phillips's 1897 Georgian Revival home in Dupont Circle, the gallery should be on every art lovers list when they visit this city of great museums. But I know from experience that it tends to be overlooked for the bigger more famous places.
One way to get the word out to the rest of the country is to send their "greatest hits" on tour. Partly for this reason, and partly because of construction of a new center for research and an expansion of the main building, Luncheon was quietly sent on tour last month and won't return for two years. "Art Beyond Isms: Masterworks from El Greco to Picasso" is the title of the exhibit of 55 of the Phillip's greatest European masterpieces that will visit Houston, Buffalo, Denver and Nashville. Included are works by Courbet, Cézanne, Daumier, Degas, Monet, van Gogh, and Picasso, alongside work by earlier masters such as Delacroix, Ingres and Chardin that founder Duncan Phillips felt anticipated the modern movements. This is a wonderful introduction to the origins and development of modern art told through its most luminous and appealing high points. Don't miss it if comes to a city near you.
The Eye of Duncan Phillips
Duncan Phillips had superb taste and was committed to gathering and interpreting the art of the modern age. He collected work that reflected his personal understanding of this art. His goal was not to create an encyclopedic collection, but rather to assemble works that would resonate with each other, thereby revealing the visual harmonies that tie together historical masterworks with the art of his own time. When Phillips opened the museum he conceived of it as a "joy giving, life enhancing influence, assisting people to see the beautiful as true artists see." Those words are the key to the collection and to the experience of this museum.
Without these 55 masterworks, does the Phillips seem empty? Not at all, because the collection numbers over 2,400 items, many of which are normally in storage. This tour has freed up so much valuable space that the curators have been able to hang some of the other first-rate work from their collections - pieces that normally would not be so easily seen. On my recent visit I feasted on two works by Giorgio Morandi, who isn't exactly well represented in museums in the United States, as well as wonderful pieces by Nicholas de Stael, Georges Braque, Paul Klee, Jean Dubuffet, and the inevitable Picasso among the great Europeans. The Phillips also has some of the best of the best Americans such as Albert Pinkham Ryder, Thomas Eakins, John Henry Twachtman, John Marin, Arthur Dove, Adolph Gottlieb, Phillip Guston, Richard Diebenkorn and whole rooms devoted to Milton Avery and Mark Rothko.
Pierre Bonnard "At Home"
Best of all, the Phillips is home to a wonderful exhibit of the work of Pierre Bonnard that runs through mid-January. As the director of the Phillips, Jay Gates says "Duncan Phillips was one of Pierre Bonnard's earliest and most passionate supporters in this country... the exuberance of color and line and the joy of everyday life reflected in Bonnard's work resonated with Phillips' own intuitive approach to art." In fact, Phillips considered Bonnard and John Marin his two favorite painters. His important collection forms the core of the "Early and Late" exhibit which, despite its title, explores the full range of Bonnard's artistic production, showcasing over 60 paintings as well as 70 additional works. It is indeed a rare treat to see all these works by Bonnard in the collector's original home. You can wander from room to room, floor to floor and end up in a salubrious room filled with Bonnard's supreme achievements: large canvases celebrating his love of the Mediterranean and of his wife. My favorite is Bonnard's version of the mythological scene painted by Titian, Rubens, Tiepolo and others, the Abduction of Europa - on loan from the Toledo Museum.
Bonnard appealed to Phillips for several reasons. His blend of subjective, personal sensation, expressionistic design and classical motifs fulfilled a craving for an art of enchantment, for a transforming and enthralling aesthetic experience. These are reasons why he will also appeal to contemporary viewers. Phillips believed strongly in the need to sustain the atmosphere of intimacy at the gallery. Bonnard's style of painting that celebrates the pleasures of everyday life and the intimacy of the bourgeoisie home is the apotheosis of the great tradition of French painting. Thus it serves as a kind of glorious culmination of the rest of his collection. These are reasons why this exhibit works so much better than the larger exhibit of Bonnard that the Tate and the Museum of Modern Art held in 1998. Late in life Phillips wrote that his personal collection of Bonnard's work was a memorial to his genius. "With us Bonnard is at home." He certainly is right now.
For a lot of information but little visual detail of the Renoir painting, see the online feature at the Phillip's website:
There's a great reproduction of Luncheon of the Boating Party online at Mark Harden's Artchive: http://www.artchive.com/artchive/R/renoir/boating.jpg.html
This article is copyrighted 2002. Please do not republish any portion of this article without written permission.
Joseph Phelan can be contacted at email@example.com
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