Guarding Renoir

Image courtesy of The Phillips Collection

My first day working as a Museum Assistant at The Phillips Collection happened to be the opening of Renoir and Friends. By some administrative fluke, or perhaps as a test, I was assigned to guard the pride and joy of the collection and the centerpiece of the show, Luncheon of the Boating Party.

Renoir has become a bit of a divisive artist in the art world. Beloved by much of the general public, he is remembered by his detractors for cloying pastels, mushy vegetation, and vaguely voyeuristic nudes. In some circles, Renoir has come to stand for “easy art”—the type of art for people who don’t know much about art. This attitude even made its way into mainstream media when, in 2015, art students protesting Renoir’s art, picketed outside the MFA in Boston holding signs proclaiming “GOD HATES RENOIR” and “reNOir.” The Atlantic ran a piece titled “Why Absolutely Everyone Hates Renoir.” The Guardian, The Smithsonian Magazine, and NPR all followed suit and ran pieces on the artist’s maligned reputation. With all this floating around in the back of my mind, I was curious to see what it would be like to guard arguably Renoir’s most famous work.

If I was expecting impassioned tongue and cheek protests I was sorely disappointed. I didn’t, however, see the sort of superficial adoration that super-famous works (think the Mona Lisa) seem to provoke.

Instead I witnessed people of varying age, race, gender, and physical ability pay homage to art that genuinely seemed to matter to them. The Luncheon of the Boating Party, like Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series or the Rothko Room, is a sort of pilgrimage destination within the Phillips. People would arrive at the final room of the show and break into beaming grins, eagerly snap pictures with friends, or fall into sobered silence when finally face to face with this masterpiece.

On some occasions visitors would come up to me or my colleagues to express their satisfaction and comment on how wonderful it must be to work at such a place.

It was moving to see art matter as profoundly as it did in the gallery with Luncheon of the Boating Party. In a world where our attention spans have been so shortened; where we have become desensitized through the sensationalism that bombards us daily, somehow the aura of this painting still has the power to move people either to joy or (perhaps even more impressively) to humbled silence. Whether or not this makes Renoir a great artist is somewhat beside the point. The reactions to Luncheon of the Boating Party are evidence that art can still matter to us collectively in profound and personal ways. In this sense, it doesn’t matter if the people gazing glassy-eyed at the painting “know” anything about art or art history; it seemed to strike them at a human level and in a way that reminds us all of the most fundamental point of art and its creation: to build connections within and between people.

Elliot Mackin, Museum Assistant

“Hundreds and Hundreds of Klees”

Theodoros Stamos, Full Moon, 1948. Oil on canvas, 20 x 24 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. Gift of Peggy Davis Winston in memory of Thomas B. Winston, 1994

“I saw just hundreds of Klees, hundreds and hundreds. Between Nierendorf Gallery and the Buchholz’s Gallery there were just hundreds all the time with changing exhibitions.”—Theodoros Stamos

The son of Greek immigrants, Theodoros Stamos grew up on the Lower East Side of New York and exhibited an early talent for art, receiving a grant to attend the American Artists School at age 13. It was there that Stamos met artist Joseph Solman, an important mentor, whose own infectious love of Paul Klee was quickly instilled in his young protégé. Stamos not only recalled seeing “hundreds” of Klees on view regularly at New York’s commercial galleries, he also enjoyed physical contact with his art while working as a framer, handling paintings that Klee’s dealer brought to his 18th Street frame shop from 1941 to 1948.

This work is on view in Ten Americans: After Paul Klee through May 6, 2018.

Tuesday Tunes: A Playlist for Norman Lewis

Norman Lewis, Untitled, 1947, Oil and sand on canvas, 33 7/8 × 20 in. Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY © Estate of Norman W. Lewis

Taking inspiration from the major theme of music in Ten Americans: After Paul Klee, we paired 11 staff members with 11 works from the exhibition and asked them to respond to create a playlist in response to their individual artwork. Amy Wike, Head of Marketing & Partnerships, created her playlist in response to Norman Lewis’s “Untitled.”

What immediately strikes me about this painting is the hazy but bright colors that give a luminous quality to an otherwise hauntingly dark work. In my playlist, you’ll find songs reminiscent of dusk, the twilight hour, and the ethereal.

Amy Wike, Head of Marketing & Partnerships

Feeling inspired? Create your own playlist based around works in the exhibition and send it to us at and we may feature it on our blog and social media.