Burchfield’s Close Encounters Painting


(Left) Charles Burchfield, December Moonrise, 1959. Watercolor on paper, 30 x 36 in. Gift of B. J. and Carol Cutler, 2009. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC (Right) Edouard Manet, Spanish Ballet, 1862. Oil on canvas, 24 x 35 5/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1928

One of the hazards pleasures of being a gallery educator at the Phillips is that so many of our visitors are distinguished by their sophistication and knowledge of modern art. I can’t count the number of people who are familiar with the nuances of the relationships between Renoir’s friends in Luncheon of the Boating Party.  On one tour of the permanent collection, a gentleman from Argentina told me the precise name of the dance being performed in Manet’s Spanish Ballet. And during Angels, Demons, and Savages, it seemed everyone had either seen the Jackson Pollock biopic with Ed Harris or knew the footage of Jackson himself working in his studio on a canvas on the floor.

Made in the USA is particularly interesting for me because my academic work has been on modernism—European and American. The era between the turn of the 20th century up to World War II is rich in history, experimentation, rule-breaking, and epic attempts to change the world, and all those qualities show in the willful energy of so many of the works in the exhibition.

A standout for me is Charles Burchfield—I have long loved his quivering, ecstatic (and sometimes playful) depictions of nature’s immanence. December Moonrise is an almost over-the-top example of his passionate exaltation of nature as a place of spiritual transcendence. I always stop there on my tours of the exhibition to talk about it. Sometimes I call it the “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” painting. People seem to like it. Thinking about the painting as a place—or a moment—existing in Burchfield’s imagination, I was taken aback when I was told by a tall young man from Canada that far from being an imaginary land/skyscape, the constellations in the sky (which are casting shadows from the moonlight) are true to nature. He pointed out Orion, on the right side, and Corona Borealis, on the left. Apparently these two constellations, visible in northern skies, are only seen together in the month of December. So in fact the painting is a very specific description of nature at a specific time of year.

I can safely say that facts about astronomy are not in my area of expertise, but learning about Burchfield’s respect for the actual sky and stars shining on that December night makes me love his painting even more.

Dena Crosson, Gallery Educator

Rhythm and Rhyme: A Poetry Tour, Part 1

As part of last week’s Jazz ‘n Families Fun Days festivities, I led a tour of the permanent collection using poetry as a theme. Our first stop: Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party. After looking and discussing the work for a few minutes, I shared the following Shel Silverstein poem with the group, asking them to repeat each line out loud as I read. This ‘call and response’ method allowed everyone to feel the rhythm and rhyme of the poem:

August Renoir, Luncheon of the Boating Party, 1880-1881.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Luncheon of the Boating Party, between 1880 and 1881. Oil on canvas, 51 1/4 x 69 1/8 in. Acquired 1923. The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.

We’re Out of Paint, So . . .

Let’s paint a picture with our food.
For red we’ll squeeze these cherries.
For purple let’s splash grape juice on.
For blue we’ll use blueberries.
For black just use some licorice.
For brown pour on some gravy.
For yellow you can dip your brush
In the egg yolk you just gave me.
We’ll sign our names in applesauce
And title it “Our Luncheon,”
And hang it up for everyone
To stop . . . and see . . . and munch on.

How do you think this poem relates to Luncheon of the Boating Party? Choose a color that strikes you in the painting. Imagine you are out of paint. What food would you use to paint your chosen color and why? Share your choice in the comments!

Margaret Collerd, Public Programs and In-gallery Interpretation Coordinator

Flea Market Renoir

Alphonsine Fournaise in a detail from
Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Luncheon of the Boating Party, 1880-81. French. Oil on canvas. 51 1/4 x 69 1/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1923

According to the Washington Post, a Virginia woman found a Renoir, Landscape on the Banks of the Seine, in a box of knickknacks she bought in a West Virginia flea market for $7. The best part? The painting was once owned by Alphonsine Fournaise–she who flirtatiously leans against the railing in our Luncheon of the Boating Party. The lucky bargain hunter is having the painting auctioned off, and plans to use the money for house repairs and to take her mother on a trip to France.

Ianthe Gergel, Museum Assistant