Pierre Bonnard, The Open Window, 1921. Oil on canvas, 46 1/2 x 37 3/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1930
A couple of days ago, I attended a spotlight talk focused on one of my favorite paintings in the Collection: Pierre Bonnard’s The Open Window (1921). We began with a quiet reflection on the painting, after which Phillips Librarian Karen Schneider guided our group to an understanding of the subject matter, palette, and structural lines of the work.
Examining the painting, the viewer is drawn first to the scene out the window–the serenity of the lush green trees and fading blue sky of the world outside. Then we observe the hard lines of the window frame and the bright, warm colors of the interior setting. Last, we notice a woman sitting, perhaps sleeping, in the bottom right hand corner, blurred and barely discernible. I almost didn’t notice her at all. This was in fact the artist’s intent, I learned. With contrasting hues and structural lines, Bonnard is recreating the experience of going out into the bright light and then coming back inside. We are caught in the moment when vision is temporarily impaired, and we only catch the outline of a form out of the corner of our eye. The outside is still beckoning.
Did you know that Pierre Bonnard actually visited The Phillips Collection in 1926? After complementing Marjorie Phillips on her paintings, he asked to borrow a brush so he could touch up one of his works in the Collection. Fortunately, she said she didn’t have one with her and convinced him not to alter the work!
Jane Clifford, Marketing Intern
Henri Matisse, Studio, Quai Saint-Michel, 1916. Oil on canvas, 58 1/4 x 46 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1940
Weekday Spotlight Talks at the Phillips are an ideal way to spend some quality time with a particular work in the permanent collection and can often lead to new insights into composition, materials, and the artist’s intentions. Last month, our Teacher Programs Coordinator Meagan Estep led a small group of visitors in discussion about Henri Matisse’s Studio, Quai Saint-Michel (1916), currently on view on the second floor of the Goh Annex.
Meagan began by asking about the group’s initial impressions of the painting. Visitors were largely struck by Matisse’s use of two-dimensional shapes (particularly the flattened table) alongside three-dimensional shapes (such as the two chairs that show perspective in the room). Aside from these technical aspects of his composition, visitors also remarked on the absence of the artist in the scene. A nude model reclines on a sofa and a canvas sits upon one chair, yet the chair directly across from the canvas (where the artist would sit) is conspicuously empty. The consensus among the group was that Matisse’s composition not only depicts a reclining nude but also documents his workspace and artistic process as it is unfolding.
Upon close inspection, the group also noticed an area of cracked paint just above the reclining nude. This subtle detail is visible in person but wouldn’t necessarily be apparent in a reproduction of the work online or in print (just another example of the new discoveries that are possible when visiting artworks in person). Meagan revealed that the Phillips conservators have studied this cracked area closely and discovered that Matisse reworked this area with additional layers of paint. The cracking occurred because one of the earlier layers did not dry completely before the artist painted over it with a faster drying paint. The cracks mirror the curves of the woman’s figure, suggesting she was originally placed slightly higher in the composition. It is thought that Matisse’s lack of effort to disguise this and other changes was intentional, to allow the evolution of the composition to be part of the experience of the work. Therefore, the conservators have left it as (perhaps) Matisse intended.
Elizabeth Kachavos, Marketing Intern
“Flame and Stone”–that’s how Duncan Phillips summed up The Repentant St. Peter by El Greco (1600-1605) and The Repentant St. Peter by Goya (1820-1824), respectively. Mr. Phillips loved comparing the two renderings of the saint, and their current side-by-side display in the Music Room (and in this Google Art Project comparison) reflects this tradition. As a graduate intern in the education department, I’ve led some of The Phillips Collection’s weekday noon spotlight talks. Having lived in Spain for a year and a half, I was immediately drawn to the work of Goya and El Greco, who lived and worked in Madrid and Toledo nearly 200 years apart. I thought their two versions of Saint Peter would make an excellent spotlight.
When giving a gallery talk on Goya’s The Repentant St. Peter, I often start by asking visitors to imagine the work as a movie poster and create a corresponding film title. I’ve received answers ranging from Dear God, Please Forgive Me! to Please Let Me Win the Lottery! Thinking about Goya’s canvas as a movie poster transforms this initially bleak and lackluster painting into an intensely-personal rendering of a man desperate for visitors. We discuss the way the dark, nondescript background and the modern cropping—similar to a close-up film shot—add to the poignancy of the image.
Visitors often shift the conversation to compare Goya’s painting with El Greco’s representation of the same subject without my prompting. Frequently, they remark on the icy quality of the light in El Greco’s canvas as well as the more “holy” and idealized appearance of his St. Peter. Goya’s St. Peter, they usually observe, looks more like a “grubby fisherman—a guy who works with his hands.” St. Peter’s hands are a recurring point of discussion. In comparison to the elegantly elongated fingers in El Greco’s painting, visitors note the stubby, tightly-clasped fingers of Goya’s St. Peter, stepping in for a closer look when they learn that Goya returned to the painting to shorten the fingers, a process which has left a visible trace. It’s wonderful to see how, so many years after Duncan Phillips first hung these paintings side by side, they continue to inspire conversations.
Kristin Enright, Graduate Intern for Programs and Lectures