Portraits and Walt Kuhn’s Plumes

(Left) Walt Kuhn, Plumes, oil on canvas, 40 x 30 in. Acquired 1932. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. (Right) Marion "Duke" Green, Untitled, 2014. Watercolor and colored pencil on paper.

(Left) Walt Kuhn, Plumes, oil on canvas, 40 x 30 in. Acquired 1932. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. (Right) Marion “Duke” Green, Untitled, 2014. Watercolor and colored pencil on paper.

The Phillips is currently hosting the exhibition Art and Wellness: Creative Aging. The display features work from an ongoing collaboration between The Phillips Collection and Iona Senior Services. The program encourages older adults (many of whom suffer from chronic illness, including Alzheimer’s or related dementia), along with their families and caregivers, to make connections and access personal experiences and long-term memories through gallery conversations and hands-on art therapy.

Participants in the program looked at Walt Kuhn’s Plumes together. The painting prompted a group dialogue about how portraits convey mood and  composition, and how they can evoke personal memories. Individuals described the figure as “pensive,” “isolated,” “aloof,” and “not happy.” On participant, Duke, said, “She seems rather stiff and cold.” Another group member spoke of a “dichotomy” in the composition. She stated, “The feathers she wears on her head…there’s such an opposite appearance between what she’s wearing and how she presents herself.”

In the art therapy studio, Duke was drawn to Kuhn’s use of portraiture. He reminisced about his time drawing on the Atlantic City boardwalk with charcoal, and how he would identify women that inspired his work. He was eager to replicate the image: “It’s hard to go back to drawing after so many years. You see, I used to draw people’s portraits. But over time I’ve grown comfortable with it again.” Duke’s experience replicating Plumes gave him the confidence to continue to immerse himself in the artistic process, and reinvigorated his love for portraiture.

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