Learning to Unlearn Art: Twachtman’s Glimpse of Summer

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John Henry Twachtman, Summer, late 1890s. Oil on canvas, 30 x 53 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1919

“It’s a pretty painting,” I thought, looking at John Henry Twachtman’s Summer in a first floor gallery at the Phillips.

But no, I couldn’t say just that about a painting. I had to come up with a deeper analysis of it; I had to identify features that pertained to the style of the painter’s period, the symbolism that spoke to the culture of his own time, and the significance it had on the history of art in a bigger picture.

I racked my brain as I struggled to come up with a more specific analysis of the painting, getting closer to the work to capture details.

“The brisk brushstrokes of paint, the interplay of natural light, and the use of bright colors all contribute to the vibrancy to this plein-air painting. The well-blended layers of sky blue and hazy white create soft edges of the sky. As for the symbolism…”

Then I got stuck.

When I’m in a gallery, I often find myself struggling like this to apply academic and stylistic terms to the works. Of course, these are all important components to the general understanding of art history, but was this really what Twachtman was getting at?

“I feel more and more contented with the isolation of country life. To be isolated is a fine thing and we are all then nearer to nature,” Twachtman writes in a letter to fellow artist Julian Weir. Unlike myself, who tried to do an extensive interpretation of the work, Twachtman sought to immerse himself in nature, focusing on the momentary impression of color and light of the landscape.

What’s your first impression of Twachtman’s work? Throw out any words that come to your mind when you see the painting. No need for any fancy, technical terms—”pretty” was all I came up with. After all, it’s not fair that we do a lengthy, grandiloquent interpretation of Twachtman’s work, when what he really wanted to do was share an immediate glimpse of what he saw.

Come visit the Phillips and indulge yourself with Twachtman’s snapshot of the view; the serene colors, natural beauty, or anything about it that catches your eye. Don’t struggle; just marvel.

Summer Park, Marketing & Communications Intern

Portrait of Americana: Night Baseball

Marjorie Phillips, Night Baseball, 1951. Oil on canvas, 24 1/4 x 36 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Gift of the artist, 1951 or 1952

Marjorie Phillips, Night Baseball, 1951. Oil on canvas, 24 1/4 x 36 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Gift of the artist, 1951 or 1952

My favorite work from The Phillips Collection’s permanent collection is Marjorie Phillips’s 1951 oil painting, Night Baseball. There is something nostalgic about the way Phillips represents a night at Griffith Stadium. This visual representation of the moment just before the pitch is thrown evokes all of the other senses. When I look at this painting, I hear the buzz of the crowd and I feel the wind push my skin as the breeze ushers in the smells of the ballpark. Phillips masterfully depicts a night sky that is black but somehow simultaneously glowing from the stadium lights—an effect that is familiar to anyone who has been to a nighttime sports game.

Night Baseball is an enduring snapshot of American life. Perhaps my favorite thing about this piece is its current placement within the museum: on a wall adjacent to the landing of a staircase; the location seems almost incidental. I think its placement adds to its charm—Night Baseball endears itself to the viewer by immersing her in a sensory-rich, familiar American scene.

Lizzie Moore, Marketing & Communications Intern

Celebrate Sketching on National Notebook Day

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A page from Rebecca Kingery’s notebook (left) next to Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas’s “Melancholy” (right)

It’s National Notebook Day! For some that means writing, for some that means drawing. In response to a former Phillips employee’s drawing that we shared last week, several of you sent in pages from your own sketchpads. Celebrate notebooks today and share more of your creations!

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Bud Wilkinson’s rendition of Pierre Bonnard’s “The Palm” at left; the painting in The Phillips Collection at right

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Installation view of Ellsworth Kelly’s “Untitled (EK 927)” at left; Rebecca Kingery’s sketch at right