Size Matters


Arthur G. Dove, Waterfall, 1925. Oil on hardboard, 10 x 8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1926

Would Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party have the same effect on its viewers if it didn’t take up nearly an entire wall at 51 x 69 inches? Conversely, would Jacob Lawrence’s panels from The Migration Series be so poignant if each were triple the size, Panel no. 1 measuring only 12 x 18 inches? In art, size matters. It can make a large piece overcome you. It can force you to inspect a smaller piece more intently than you might if it were just little bit bigger.

One of the smaller paintings and one of my favorites in The Phillips Collection is Arthur Dove’s Waterfall, measuring only 10 x 8 inches. This oil painting done on hardboard could escape you if you were walking through the galleries quickly, but it is a work worth a closer look. In a typical Dovian way, a style shared by other members of the Alfred Stieglitz circle including John Marin and Georgia O’Keeffe, a natural subject is abstracted in a way that does not immediately depict its title. But as the title indicates, it is a waterfall, a subject found in the nature around us that, when you think about it, does not really have a typical look to it. Not all waterfalls look the same, and Dove is aware of this phenomenon. Dark grey blues swirl into beige washes with highlights of white put carefully on top. The surface is loaded with painterly texture and monochromatic gradients. What the painting captures is a moment in time, the moment you forget what you’re looking at and see only the colors and shapes that make up the nature in front of you.

If we could only ask Dove, why so small? Why is it that the artist chose to depict such a grandiose subject in such a small window? Perhaps it is precisely for this irony. It is at once artful and emotional to represent a subject that takes up so much space in the world around us and impose it onto a surface that only takes up a fraction of a gallery wall. The unique smallness of Waterfall is what drew me to the piece in the first place, intrigued by its placement amongst larger O’Keeffe and Marin works that I could spot from the gallery next door. When I took the time to really look at the painting, it instantly became one of my favorites, and that was because of its size. So size in art really does matter, and sometimes, smaller is better.

Annie Dolan, Marketing and Communications Intern


Meeting Marin at J. Crew

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John Marin, Pertaining to Fifth Avenue and Forty-Second Street, 1933. Oil on canvas, 28 x 36 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1937

There are many teachable moments created by The Phillips Collection. One of my favorite works of art is Pertaining to Fifth Avenue and Forty-Second Street by John Marin.

Many of the students we work with live in Washington, DC, so offering up a street scene gives them subject matter to which they can relate. We capitalize on that, asking them to “jump into” the painting and tell us what they would hear, see, feel, and smell. At almost any age, students are anxious to thrust a hand into the air and tell us.

There is also the artistic expression to be explored. Marin fearlessly shows us slashing black outlines, blank white canvas, flattened buildings, overlapping geometric shapes and dashed off human forms. We try to get our students to identify Marin’s technical bravado.

If we are lucky, we can lead our students to an understanding of the relationship of the artistic technique and the subject matter; how the diagonal line created by the body of the man on center conveys the tottering gait of a drunk, how the straight lines of uneven width impress upon us the energy of the city, that the palette of grays and blues gives the wash of urban grit, and the flattened perspective gives us a sense of how closely the people and buildings are packed.

Recently, while at J. Crew, in the middle of a holiday shopping sprint, I turn around and find a large book about John Marin on the sweater table.

Marin at JCrew

Photo: Carla White Freyvogel

First I think: “Hey! That is MY John Marin!” What is a book on him doing here, at J. Crew, amidst the sweaters (40% off!)?

I rack my brain. As a museum educator, I am trained to find relationships between works of art and…”The Outside World”. There must be a merchandizing department at J. Crew. They must have thought this out. There is a relationship and it is up to me to find it.

Were the sweaters to be in Marin-esque colors? Actually, they were! Seafoam green, shades of blue, a smattering of grey. Some earth tones such as moss. A slash of unexpected color in the gold. Would that mean that on the table showcasing evening-wear in dark grey, languid chalk color and ebony, I would find a catalogue for Francis Bacon?

Or could J. Crew have done a market study which revealed that shoppers had a strong affinity for John Marin? Perhaps the converse: that those who had a strong appreciation for Marin with his sea scenes, sand, sky and loosely contained paint application, tend to gravitate towards the casual elegance of J. Crew? (Here, I plead guilty!)

Perhaps it was a lifestyle decision: those who shop at J. Crew are also looking for a cocktail table book. Something to place out there for the world to see, next to the nuts and cheeses, that says “Yes, I spend a lot of money on consumables but once you guys have left, I will curl up with the catalogue raissonne of John Marin…some casual reading.”

I am still unsure what the connection was meant to be. And, you know, it is unlikely that the folks at J. Crew intended for me to over-think this.

However, I am looking again at Pertaining to Fifth Avenue and Forty-Second Street and now the camel hair coat pops off the canvas, the dog is a Jack Russell, the drunk has been sampling microbrews, the three girls arm-in-arm are in the same dress—wool crepe but different colors; I envision boat shoes on the men and the food truck is selling fish tacos.

Carla White Freyvogel, School Programs Educator

Stieglitz and Marin: Together, Apart, and Together Again, Part 3

In this three part series, Conservation Assistant Caroline Hoover outlines the process of treating a photogravure by Marius de Zayas. Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

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(clockwise from top left) Spraying to wet up for pulp fills; using an eye dropper to get blended color matched pulp; dropping pulp into loss areas to correct thickness and transparency on light box; adjusting pulp fills to correct thickness

Paper pulp was prepared from a high quality artist paper to fill in the losses around the edges of the brittle backing paper. The backing paper was wet up in order to attach these areas of pulp. Using an eye dropper and tweezers, the pulp was dropped into the areas of loss and built up to the same thickness of the original paper. Excess water was removed and the fills were then coated with a sizing agent to ensure attachment. The paper, with its new fills, was dried between felts. Afterwards, the pulp fills were trimmed to the edge of the original paper.

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(left) Using a bone folder to get rid of excess water and flatten fills (center) coating fills with methyl cellulose to size (right) drying whole piece with fills

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(left) photogravure next to pulp filled paper (right) detail of fills

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(left) trimming excess fills (right) Alfred Stieglitz and John Marin backing page

Two tiny, thin Japanese tissue hinges were used to re-attach the photogravure to its backing paper at the top edge to secure the artwork. The picture is now ready to join its companions in a future exhibit.

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Attaching hinges

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The piece after treatment