Collection Comparison: Monet’s Coastlines

In the Collection Comparison series, we pair one work from Gauguin to Picasso: Masterworks from Switzerland with a similar work from the Phillips’s own permanent collection. 

Monet compare

(left) Claude Monet, Calm Weather, Fécamp, 1881. Oil on canvas. The Rudolf Staechelin Collection (right) Monet, Claude, Val-Saint-Nicolas, near Dieppe (Morning), 1897, Oil on canvas 25 1/2 x 39 3/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1959

After the death of his first wife, Camille, in 1879, Monet returned to the Normandy coast of France, where he had spent his youth. Currently on view in the Gauguin to Picasso exhibition, Calm Weather, Fécamp records the natural beauty of the coast looking toward Yport. Positioned from a high vantage point and perhaps painted entirely outdoors, it shows Fécamp’s imposing cliffs, which hug the coastline and appear to emerge from the sea at low tide. This work was exhibited in the Seventh Impressionist Exhibition in 1882.

Compare this to the Phillips’s Val-Saint-Nicolas, near Dieppe (Morning) at right above and on view in a nearby gallery in the museum; what similarities or differences do you see? Monet’s Calm Weather, Fécamp was painted in 1881, while Val-Saint-Nicolas, near Dieppe (Morning) was created in 1897. What changes do you notice in the artist’s style?

Order and Disorder: Three Artistic Takes on Geometrics


Anni Albers, Fox I, 1972. Photo-offset litho on paper, 24 x 20 in. Gift of Katherine and Nicholas Fox Weber, 1981; © 2008 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Roy Lichtenstein, Imperfect Diptych (Imperfect series), 1988. Woodcut, screen print, and collage on museum board, 57 7/8 in x 97 3/4 in. Gift of Sidney Stolz and David Hatfield, 2009; Frank Keller, Specter Planes VIII, 1980. Oil on wood panel, 41 x 41 in. Gift of Arthur E. Smith, 1980

To me, one of the greatest things about museums is their ability to create interesting juxtapositions that allow viewers to see things they may not have seen otherwise. In a gallery located in the original Phillips house, three striking works are put into conversation with one another: Anni AlbersFox I, Roy Lichtenstein’s Imperfect Diptych, and Frank Keller’s Specter Planes VIII. Each composition employs geometric shapes, notably triangles, to very different effects. They provide three distinct visions, demonstrating how similar subject matter can be presented in more than one way.

Anni Albers’ Fox I (1972) consists of two horizontal, patterned rectangles, separated by a wide gap. On the top, gray triangles facing in various directions are arranged in front of a red background. The bottom is an inversion of this, placing red triangles over a background of gray. The shapes are uniform in size and evenly spaced. The precision and carefully crafted geometry of this work speaks to Albers’ long career as an accomplished textile designer and weaver. The print is planned and systematic, confined within rigid parameters. Yet, there is a freedom from complete uniformity. Facing in different directions, the triangles add a dynamic element and bring vitality to the work.

Measuring 57 7/8 x 97 3/4 inches, Imperfect Diptych (1988) by Roy Lichtenstein occupies an entire gallery wall. Like Albers, Lichtenstein divides the composition into two rectangles. He depicts various geometric shapes, coloring them with matte gray, shiny silver, splashes of red and blue stripes, and of course, red and blue versions of the famous Benday dot pattern. Remember when you were in elementary school and learned how to draw a star without picking your pencil up off of the paper? This print reminds me of that technique in that the shapes seem to all stem from the same line. This composition is not as restricted as the Albers; we can see Lichtenstein starting to experiment with the idea of both preserving the shape’s geometric order, and wanting to break free from it.

Frank Keller’s Specter Planes VIII (1980) depicts various shapes that lack a coherent spatial arrangement. No two shapes are identical, though Keller does repeat some muted colors. Because it is a painting rather than a print, the artist’s hand is much more evident in this work than in the others. He employs strong diagonals to create the illusion of space, creating a depth that the Albers and Lichtenstein lack. Of the three artists, Keller breaks free from order the most. Some shapes overlap, obscuring parts of others, and some float away from the center, travelling out past the confines of the composition.

Fox I, Imperfect Diptych, and Specter Planes VIII’s current installation in the gallery together not only shows various ways to deal with geometry, but provides a rich viewing experience. From the highly ordered composition by Albers, to the work starting to break free from its confines by Lichtenstein, to the freedom of Keller’s canvas, the order and disorder of each piece is emphasized in its comparison to these gallery companions.

Emily Conforto, Marketing & Communications Intern

Frankenthaler and Motherwell: A Painterly Marriage

Motherwell in white and yellow ochre_Frankenthaler runningscape

(left) Robert Motherwell, In White and Yellow Ochre, 1961. Oil, charcoal, ink, tempera and paper collage on paper, 40 7/8 x 27 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, acquired 1965. Art © Dedalus Foundation, Inc./Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY (right) Helen Frankenthaler, Runningscape, 1962. Oil on canvas, 32 in x 52 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Gift of Gifford and Joann Phillips, 2009; © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Two of the Phillips’s most cherished Abstract Expressionist artists, Helen Frankenthaler and Robert Motherwell, shared more than a style of painting: they were also married from 1958 to 1971. Currently, a group of the couple’s works from the museum’s permanent collection are on display in neighboring galleries. Four of my favorites are Canyon and Runningscape, both by Frankenthaler, and In White and Yellow Ochre and Chi Ama, Crede by Motherwell.

Studying these works in a group, I began to think of the differences in the two artists’ styles, despite the fact that all four of the works were created in the early 1960s. I compared the soft applications of oil and acrylic in both of Frankenthaler’s works to the more aggressive elements in Motherwell’s. Utilizing varied textures, Motherwell’s In White and Yellow Ochre combines mediums with collaged materials, resulting in a harsher design and abstracted contours. In contrast, Frankenthaler uses oil paint like watercolor in Runningscape, thinning it into washes that bleed into each other to create a fluid design. Each of the artists’ larger pieces—Frankenthaler’s Canyon and Motherwell’s Chi Ama, Crede—also contain these distinctions, Canyon being composed of expansive fields of saturated color and Chi Ama, Crede of jagged applications in dull maroons and browns.

Frankenthaler canyon_Motherwell chi ama crede

(left) Helen Frankenthaler, Canyon, 1965. Acrylic on canvas, 46 1/8 in x 52 3/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, The Dreier Fund for Acquisitions and funds given by Gifford Phillips, 2001; © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York (right) Robert Motherwell, Chi Ama, Crede, 1962. Oil on canvas, 82 x 141 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, The Whitehead Foundation, Mr. and Mrs. Laughlin Phillips, Mr. and Mrs. Marc E. Leland, and the Honorable Ann Winkelman Brown and Donald A. Brown, 1998; Art © Dedalus Foundation, Inc./Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

What is interesting is that both artists were influenced by the same group of contemporaries: Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko. They also created these works in the early years of their marriage, when they were likely collaborating and comparing painting techniques. Their differences are thus results of their own personal styles retained throughout their independent careers. Frankenthaler’s paintings are distinctly feminine, whereas Motherwell’s works have a more aggressive appearance of masculinity. This pair of artists serve as a unique look at the female and male perspectives on a specific movement of art.

Annie Dolan, Marketing and Communications Intern