Burchfield’s Close Encounters Painting

burchfied_manet

(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

Director’s Desk: Spanish Ballet

Edouard Manet, Spanish Ballet, 1862. Oil on canvas, 24 x 35 5/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1928.

I would like to retreat to a more contemplative mode and share observations on one of my favorite paintings in the collection, Édouard Manet’s great Spanish Ballet, looking deeply and thoughtfully the way the Phillips encourages and fosters. I simply want to reflect on what makes me love this painting, on view with Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party and other European masterworks in a special anniversary installation.

There is a fundamental and exciting tension at its heart. The deep blacks, pearlescent pinks, and dazzling silky whites are sumptuous. The luscious colors contrast with the stumpy figures in awkward poses, accentuated by stark lighting and arranged in a rigid frieze across an ill defined stage. This contrast between seductive color and crude flatness is clearly intentional, as stark as the broad bands of dark and light that define the space, as blunt as the white paper-wrapped bouquet, dead center at the edge of Manet’s pictorial “stage,” at the feet of the dancers.

The dancers’ exotic costumes are beautiful. Horizontal ribbons of blue and black paint define the broad skirt of Lola de Valence, seated at left. With the tip of his tiniest brush, Manet scatters delicate black embellishments across a patchwork of pink, taupe, and gray brushstrokes. The tight britches of the male dancers are formed with long brush marks of white, pink, or gray. The principal dancer, Don Mariano Camprubi, poses at far right. The glistening smoothness of his pants contrasts with the explosive red-black-white-pink of his elaborate bolero jacket. The fiery red is echoed in the flower at his partner’s bodice, in Lola’s shawl, and the fabric draped at far left. A light blue similarly plays across the composition.

There is so much to delight and intrigue in this painting— come see it for yourself and enjoy!

-Dorothy Kosinski, Director

Lola de Valence

Entre tant de beautés que partout on peut voir,
Je contemple bien, amis, que le désir balance;
Mais on voit scintiller en Lola de Valence
Le charme inattendu d’un bijou rose et noir.

— Charles Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du mal (1868)

Among such beauties as one can see everywhere
I understand, my friends, that desire hesitates;
But one sees sparkling in Lola of Valencia
The unexpected charm of a black and rose jewel.

— Translated by William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954)