Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Phillips Gallery .... Details or No Details, That Is The Question

Today we had to transfer from the Green Line train to the Red Line train in order to get to Dupont Circle, which is the area of DC where Embassy Row begins. It is upscale and yuppie, with young women striding down the sidewalk in their spike heels with short skirted business attire and young men with their oxford shirts, ties, and pressed levi jeans. Plenty of people in native headgear and everyone texting or talking into their phones as they head purposefully into the train station or adjacent office buildings. The Phillips Collection is housed in the former Duncan Phillips home. Duncan was the heir to a Pittsburgh steel fortune and spent his inheritance on procuring paintings for his collection. It was a hard life, but someone had to do it.... and we are just thankful that he wanted to buy paintings instead of spending his money on women and wine. One of the first paintings that we saw was "Interior with Egyptian Curtain" by Henri Matisse. Matisse had a whole period of time where he painted pictures filled with designs; wallpaper, curtains, tablecloths, ..... kind of like a man who wears plaids with stripes. But it wasn't until we were up close to this painting that we noticed that he did not even cover all of the canvas. If you look close at the detail of the plate with fruit, the white that you see is not a color, it is the canvas showing through. It must be like using the canvas as the neutral underpainting color. At the conference, Allan and I saw Christine Debrosky do something similar.... painting an acrylic neutral umber color on the paper prior to adding pastel strokes which were not necessarily connected, leaving the umber color showing through in the finished painting. Another French Impressionist who did not seem to be overly concerned about detail was Vincent Van Gogh. In his painting "Entrance To The Public Gardens In Arles", the painting from a distance seems full of details, especially all the brush strokes of the leaves in the trees, but when you get up close, you can see that he has left out the man's face and the hands are just small blobs of paint holding the newspaper. It can't be that he did not have enough paint as you can see how much thick paint is on the newspaper and in some of the surrounding areas. This painting was done a year before his death in 1888. In contrast to this lack of detail, Pierre-Auguste Renoir had a surprising amount of detail even in his larger paintings. "Luncheon Of The Boating Party" is a huge painting, taking up one whole wall (51" by 69") and is filled with many careful details. One of the techniques that Renoir uses to guide your eye all around the painting is to paint many of the details red. Epalettes on a shoulder, bands on a sleeve, lips, collars, and roses on hats are all red and help you navigate through what is essentially white and green. But if you look even more closely you will find details that are not even seen when you are looking at the painting from across the room. The wine bottles have reflections in the glass, the wine glasses have dregs not yet drunk, and the grapes have a blush. The man seated at the lower right of the painting is depicted as possibly one of the boaters or a working man. His fingernails even have a little dirt under them and also on his hands. Her hands have little dimples around the knuckles. And the cigarette is a beautiful detail. There is a book out which is a fictional account of Renoir during the time that he was painting this painting using known facts. Many of these people in the painting were his friends, some of them other artists, and he had several sittings with them, all meeting at this restaurant near the river. One of the women that he had intended on using for the painting was not able to "sit" after all, so a different young lady took her place and ended up being Madame Renoir. This final photo shows the detail of the young lady with her dog which she brought to the luncheon. Take a good look at her face, she even has eyelashes. This painting by Renoir has always been one of my favorites and I feel so lucky to now be able to see it closely and appreciate all of the details that he took the time to put into the painting and that I had never been able to see before.

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