“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
As the galleries are closed to the public today, curator Elsa Smithgall took the opportunity to bring out the Phillips’s monumental The Terrace (1918) by Pierre Bonnard alongside other paintings by the artist in our permanent collection. Bonnard’s work is presented in conversation with this dreamy painting by Marc Chagall. You can visit them beginning tomorrow, but for now here’s an off-the-wall preview.
Stay tuned for a series of spotlight talks about Chagall’s painting at noon every Thursday in January. The spotlights anticipate a theater program here at the Phillips on January 31, which will preview the world premiere of a play created by Double Edge Theatre that is inspired by Chagall’s work—The Grand Parade (of the Twentieth Century)—on stage at Arena February 6–10.
(clockwise from top) Marc Chagall’s The Dream (1939) and Pierre Bonnard’s The Terrace (1918) take their positions and wait to be hung. Bonnard’s The Open Window (1921) and The Checkered Tablecloth (c. 1925) will soon hang side by side. Bonnard’s Interior With Boy (1910) and Bowl of Cherries (1920) await placement.
Morris Graves, Eagle, c.1942. Gouache on paper, 21 x 36 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1942.
As this week is the first of my internship at the Phillips, I felt that it would be in my best interest to familiarize myself with the galleries, the collection, and the many ways to come and go throughout the museum. While strolling through the museum, I quickly discovered how easy it is to become captivated by a particular work of art, artist, collection, or all of the above at once–there is something new and intriguing at every turn.
The museum goes one step further by offering brief discussions with gallery educators around a specific artist or artwork, encouraging visitors to discover a deeper, “behind-the-scenes” understanding of the objects on display. I stumbled upon one of these weekday noon Spotlight Talks led by Volunteer Coordinator Lisa Leinberger on the work of Morris Graves, an American expressionist painter whose work conveys nature from a different point of view. Leinberger explained that Graves intended to portray great emotion in his work, detailing nature’s struggles and triumphs through his manipulation of light and dark. Specifically, we looked at several of Graves’s paintings of birds, most of which appear to be sad or injured. In Eagle (c. 1942), a bird that holds much symbolism and majesty for Americans is painted dark and hunched over, hardly the national emblem we’ve grown to recognize. Graves’s paintings of birds might not be the happiest, but they certainly portray the artist’s understanding of these animals’ struggles, suggesting that he felt at one with nature as he created them.
Elizabeth Dowdle, Marketing Intern