Monday, July 1, 2013

Washington DC: A Bit Beyond the Mall

Here I am admiring Renoir's The Luncheon of the Boating Party, worth going to DC all by itself. 
Note: This is the third travelogue post on our recent vacation to Washington, DC.

Jennifer usually researches everything for our trips before we go. She did all the research for Alaska, all the research for Boston. For DC her efforts were minimal beyond figuring out accommodation and transportation. For the most part, we walked, which simplified a lot of things. We figured we each walked a minimum of two miles a day. On the day of Jefferson Memorial sojourn, I hiked a bit over six miles. Our primary aim was to see and experience The National Mall. We accomplished that in spades. One item she researched screamed for our attendance away from the Mall, however. She asked me if I wanted to do a half-day jaunt to see one of our favorite paintings of all time. How could I say no?

Pierre-Auguste Renoir as my all-time favorite painter. The Luncheon of the Boating Party (1881) is arguably his greatest artistic accomplishment. One can devote a great deal of time seeing everything Renoir places there for us to appreciate. It is a thoroughly balanced and dynamic work with beautiful soft human tones accented with a spritely colored hat bouquet and glasses with bottles of wine on the table. The drapery trimming brightly connects everything even with the lips on the face of a young man. A remarkable work of art. The fact that it was at The Phillips Collection in Washington DC, that it was the only Renoir in the collection, meant Jennifer and I greatly desired to see it placed on the wall there.

We took the Metro to the DuPont Circle stop. This was a chic district in DC, with law offices, embassies, super-convenience stores, and sidewalk cafes. The Phillips Collection was about three miles away to the northwest of the Capitol area. The Phillips was featuring an exhibition of Cubism by the great Georges Barque. The gallery has international connections and probably very close connections with the French. Hence, Barque in DC. It must be a bit of controversy among serious Renoir aficionados that probably the artist's greatest painting is isolated from any other Renoirs, first of all, and, secondly, is owned in America. I am speculating, of course. But it isn't a stretch that there are some tensions in the art world over the Phillips Collection's Renoir coup.

The DC Metro at Union Station.
 For us, visiting a prestigious private art gallery was a terrific experience. The gallery was smaller, was visited by only paying customers ($12 to get in, still reasonable), and it featured a family's (or at least a Trust's) acquisitions and exhibitions. The atmosphere was much more intimate compared with the Smithsonian exhibitions back on the Mall. We were in the realm of private art collecting, not public art. This allowed us to feel a bit snobby, perhaps, but I felt more honored to be there than anything else. I recalled my experience with a large Renoir I saw in Boston, which I only mentioned in passing in my original Boston post. It was a moment of inspired reverence, somewhat heartbreaking to be before such brilliance and yet so much appreciated. This experience felt much the same, though The Luncheon is a more complex work, so there is much more to investigate.

Jennifer snapped this detail from The Luncheon of the Boating Party.  Renoir uses warm colors and smooth brush strokes.  But the lady's hat bouquet and the glasses on the table are like small explosions of color giving additional energy to the masterpiece.
I took this photo almost by accident.  The gentleman's hat in the middle matches the hats in the painting, his shirt a perfect color compliment to Renoir's pallet.  The lady beside him seems to have the hat bouquet coming from her own hair.  This shot gives some idea of the spacing of paintings within the gallery, with an entire wall devoted to the Renoir, of course.

Jennifer is non-plussed by Cubism, beyond certain Picassos. I find it interesting for a time but ultimately not that fulfilling. Still, Braque ranks with Picasso, so I was entertained by the exhibition and the other offerings at the Phillips. Yet, I was so overwhelmed by the magnificent Renoir that it overpowered much of the rest of the gallery's experience. Still, I was particularly impressed with El Greco's The Repentant Saint Peter, Raoul Dufy's The Opera, Paris, a token Van Gogh, as well as many minor works by great artists. But, the Renoir simply remained fixed in my mind's eye no matter where I looked. Jennifer and I ventured back to it at least three times, studying it closely and discussing it between moments of silent reflection and admiration. We didn't go to DC specifically to see this painting but we certainly looked forward to this moment contemplating the vacation in the future tense. I was not disappointed. The Luncheon of the Boating Party was almost worth the whole trip by itself.
Raoul Dufy's The Opera, Paris (1924)
Another wonderful Dufy in the Phillips Collection.
Afterwards, Jennifer and I soaked in the vibe of the DuPont Circle area. Multiple low-rise buildings sandwiched together, an occasional small well-manicured lawn. There was a hustle of traffic but not excessively so even though the circle itself is a major intersection of secondary streets and avenues in a heavily urbanized historic area. We enjoyed a relaxed lunch on the sidewalk under the canvased awning of the Kramerbooks & Afterwards Cafe. We lingered there, talking and admiring the moderately warm summer afternoon over fancy salads and refreshing cokes. On that day we returned to the Mall via the Metro.
A couple of views of DC's smallish Chinatown district.  For the past several decades more and more Chinese property owners have been selling their real estate at inflated prices.  They can make more money selling their property than they can remaining in business, thus threatening the unique look and feel of Chinatown.
Jennifer took this shot me walking toward Chinatown.  A homeless man is passed out in the morning sun.  Must have had a late night... 
The next day was our final full-day in DC and we decided to get away from the Mall completely. After a reasonable breakfast at the Corner Bakery Cafe across from Union Station we walked several blocks to Chinatown. Rather spontaneously we decided to visit the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National PortraitGallery (which share the Old Patent Office) close to Chinatown. We visited a few shops and walked through part of Chinatown while we waited for the museum building to open at 11 am.

Circling back to the building, I entered it as a child. I had no expectations really, only vague preconceptions. That is why it all sort of blew my mind. Even after all the incredible art and history we had experienced, these two collections in opposite wings of a gigantic Federal neo-classical style building were almost overwhelming. The American Art wing is filled with fascinating works. It is plentiful, there are hundreds of paintings and sculptures. Jennifer I spent more than and hour venturing through this wing before we realized that we had not seen anything in the portrait gallery at all. Many famous landscapes were prominently featured. I introduced Jennifer to the work of Thomas Benton, who I admire.  His enormous mural, Achelous and Hercules, was on display among several of his other paintings. 
Part of the large atrium in the American Art Museum.  This section of the building is more of an archive than a museum with hundreds of paintings and sculptures on display is multiple alcoves.
A shot of me on the second level of the atrium.  Notice how the art is cataloged into short, numbered shelf spaces.
Part of a spacious lobby area dividing the American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery.
A huge atrium or covered courtyard served as a place to dine or to relax and converse between the two museums.  The darker stone in the floor is actually water running in large, slightly slanted rectangular areas.  It was just enough water for children to splash through and was neatly drained at the lower edge of the water feature; just enough water to hear it trickle in the large enclosed space.
A portrait of Katharine Hepburn and her four Oscars in the National Portrait Gallery.  These were first Oscars I have ever seen personally.
An old cigarette machine transformed into vending for art trinkets.
A work by famous American painter Edward Hopper.
Jennifer managed to sneak a pic of this artist's charcoal portraits before being told that it was part of a special collection.  Photos were not allowed.
Walking to the opposite wing, the portrait gallery had hundreds of works, mostly paintings but some sculpture and some large charcoal work. It was like I was walking inside a dream and these fantastic emotional manifestations of art were everywhere. My Samsung camera's battery died after my trek to the Jefferson Memorial, so we were dependent upon Jennifer and her iPhone. She took a lot of great photos but we saw far more of which neither of us took pictures.
Stuart's famously unfinished portrait of George Washington (1796) was a grand treat as part of the Hall of Presidents in the Portrait Gallery.  This photo comes from Wikipedia.  Seeing it up close and real was an unexpectedly powerful experience for me.
We walked every inch of the museum including the top two floors where works are stacked in shelved isles more in storage than on display. Hundreds and hundreds of fine works, amazing. After this we spent probably a half hour in the Hall of Presidents portion alone. By this time Jennifer, like me, was not even thinking about taking pictures. We were in the moment. There was an incredible huge abstract painting of President Clinton, an impressive rich oil rendering of Ronald Reagan, and a wonderful, humorous sculpture of Bush Senior. And, of course, there was the Gilbert Stuart unfinished rendering of George Washington along with his portrait of Thomas Jefferson. I remember standing in front of the Washington portrait with Jennifer. The unfinished canvas is not faded a bit to a faint grey tinge, no longer white or even beige. I was honored to be there. That unexpected moment compared favorably with the Renoir experience the day before at the Phillips. Neither Jennifer nor I thought about snapping photos. Seems incredible and somewhat regrettable in retrospect. But something had happened to us and we felt no need for photos. We had finally arrived at the wonderful vacation possibility of a satiated moment, lacking nothing, rich and generous and calm. So rare and appreciated.
A good beer store located a couple of doors from our hotel.
Jennifer really admired this bronze sculpture in the American Art Museum.
Jennifer took this interesting photo of the inside of a light fixture in our hotel lobby. 
After lunch in Chinatown and a couple more shops we walked back to The Liaison, hit our now favorite beer store, went up into our boutique room and enjoyed the air conditioning for a couple of hours. Chinatown was not that impressive to me but I think Jennifer enjoyed it. The double museum experience was like a "artistic overload" dessert, the decadent cherry on top of the cream. Unexpected in its magnitude and wealth of rich art. There are many things to see and do in DC that Jennifer and I did even attempt in our time there. But, we pretty much nailed the National Mall and DC Art experience. The trip vacation is a treasure to reflect upon like Alaska and Boston and even Destin and Lake Seed.
After 25 years of marriage, loving DC, and each other.

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