Arts Everyday Living: Beyond the Tunnel, Inside the Phillips Collection, From Renoir to Bonnard

First Installment, April 12, 2023

Beyond the Tunnel: the Arts and Aging in America was published some thirty years ago, based on my experiences bringing art appreciation and the cultural resources of the art museum to older adults in the Washington, D.C. community through my non-profit organization Museum One, Inc. The world has changed since then, sometimes for the better, other times not so positively.

The concept of the tunnel was based on an actual nursing home I visited frequently in the 1980s. The facility still exists although it has been turned into an assisted living facility that I hope has been modernized.  Yet, the tunnel is  a state of mind, representing the ageism that continues to permeate our society. Ultimately, Beyond the Tunnel is simply a story—human and I hope, enduring—as well as a reflection of  our society and ourselves.

This next chapters are about another tunnel and a special person I will never forget.



The Museum

Chapter 6, Part II

(Google, Renoir, Luncheon of the Boating Party, 1880, The Phillips Collection)

(Google Bonnard, The Open Window, 1921, The Phillips Collection)

A different Duncan Phillips awaited me, the revolutionary supporter of the roll call of twentieth century “isms:” Fauvism, Cubism, Expressionism, Abstract Expressionism—art movements still not comprehended by many contemporary Americans. This designer of the interlocking galleries of three levels created pristine expanses, no longer reflections of his family’s lifestyle. Here there are white, open areas, clean in line with a minimum of decoration—a stray chair or couch here and there, meant for only brief rests.

Vestiges of the previous century could still be found: a Monet sea cliff, a Van Gogh park, a Courbet winterscape, and the Impressionist icon, Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party, undeniably the showpiece of the museum. The painting is a big, stunning, sweeping, quasi-cinematic display of the painter’s friends and associates merrily entertaining themselves in an outdoor cafe. His fiancee and her dog, fellow artists, collectors, models and boaters laugh and talk away a long ago summer day, incandescent with radiant light and color. Everything—from the golden, sun-splattered air of the terrace, the pink and rose flesh tones of the participants, and even the sparkling silver glasses on the snow white tablecloth—is unequaled in the richness and resonance of Renoir’s extraordinary palette.

The Renoir was a great and constant love of Phillips, purchased early in the collection’s history, but perhaps a temptation as well, economically and aesthetically. How many times in his life had he been offered astronomical sums for the Luncheon which he stubbornly and consistently refused? And did he ever begrudge the presence of this breathtaking canvas, ironically overshadowing all future acquisitions of what he had planned to be “a gallery of the finest modern painting,” not merely the backdrop for an Impressionist masterpiece?

Yet, Phillips persevered in his goal, conscientiously building over the years his “units,” entire rooms dedicated to the creation of a single artist: Klee of the Germany of the 1920s and 1930s; Rothko of post-World War II New York City; O’Keeffe of a timeless New Mexico—individuals he often knew personally, corresponded with on a regular basis, even sometimes invited to his home.

I like to think of them as rectangular islands, independent, self-sustaining, through which I could browse at my own pace. In one gallery, I could confront Mark Rothko, the iconoclast, the destroyer of comprehensive subject matter. In his paintings, no places, faces, or any other identifiable object existed—rather, massive fields of pulsating hues, reverberating, limitless, with inscrutable titles: Ochre and Red on Red, or Green and Tangerine on Red.

Or I might stroll into the quizzical terrain of Paul Klee, whose modestly scaled puzzles of hieroglyphics and markings, like Tree Nursery or Picture Album, were founded on a natural order both visible and unseen. Flowers, arrows, crosses, and sticklike figures pervaded his works wrapped in unlikely mixtures of burlap and paste, cardboard and chalk. O’Keeffe, too, beckoned me with her flowing, rhythmic patterns and smooth zones of color, magnified and oversized, whether the autumnal leaves and rolling hills of the East, or the tall canyons and adobe churches of the West.

But on this day in early August, I forsook my normal itinerary in the new wing, having dawdled too much in the older section of the museum. Time was growing shorter, and I had to reach the Pierre Bonnard before 1:00, compelled not so much by my own desire to experience his works again, but by the indelible image of Sarah and the other residents locked in their nursing home. If they could not be brought physically here (in this era of non accessibility before the special wheelchair entrance and air conditioning of the next decades), then I would memorize the beauty of the paintings for my class, capsulizing my sensations and reactions, freezing and preserving them in my mind.

A window was open when I hurried in. Through its portal, a warm breeze rustled very softly against gossamer curtains, almost like a whisper calling me over. Outside, partially veiled through the crisscross web of the screen, I could just see the tops of green, dusty trees and fragmented rooftops—seeming far and faded in the urban sun.

Yet, inside, hanging so close to me was another window—Bonnard’s creation of violet and fuchsia, chartreuse and tangerine. A glassless vista with no barriers or panes, double-sided, simultaneously revealing an outdoors of verdant foliage and lavender heavens and an indoors of eclectic striped wallpaper, roseate and purple chairs, and the artist’s wife and cat, tinged with burnt orange, squeezed rather absent-mindedly into the right edge of the canvas.

I tried to guess where Bonnard created The Open Window. Dated 1921, it might have been executed in Vernon, in the Seine Valley near Paris, or perhaps in the south of France, along the legendary Riviera. But did it really matter, I thought as I swirled around to absorb the dozen or so landscapes and portraits in the remainder of the room.

What a paradise awaited me: La Cote d’AzurThe Palm, The Terrace, among so many others. A miraculous mosaic of endless variations and patterns of extraordinary hues and tones. Golds, lemons, aquamarines, ivories, rubies, turquoises, pearls, maroons, and violets, all pulsating, moving in and out from the walls, still full of the infinite paintbrush of the artist.

It was so beautiful and yet so frustrating to me! Why weren’t the residents able to view what I could effortlessly enjoy because of my youth and mobility. It didn’t seem fair that just a flight or two of stairs could prove to be such an obstacle. The museum did have elevators but it would be so difficult to transport the wheelchair residents as well as the frail participants up and down, back and forth, through a building with so many sections and levels.

I suddenly realized that it was past 1:00, and I still hadn’t gone to the museum shop to look for Sarah’s favorite Matisse and some slides and prints I wanted to buy for the next session. In fact, I had planned to include Interior with an Egyptian Curtain on my tour but now it was too late. I sped down the stairs to the ground level of the new wing, to the tiny museum shop located just off the entrance.

I easily found slides of the Bonnard paintings, The Open Window, The Terrace, and La Cote d’Azur and a few others, although I was disappointed in the small number of reproductions available of the Bonnard collection overall. Why couldn’t the museum offer more, and details too? My class members with their declining eyesight would greatly need and appreciate any magnification of a work of art.

I next searched rather frantically through the prints I could  afford to purchase. They seemed so expensive—Klee, more Bonnards, Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party, and O’Keeffe, but where (and why did I delay so long upstairs) was Sarah’s Matisse? Maybe it wasn’t there after all, and yet I had been able to find the slide of it.

I was just about to call over to the cashier for assistance when I discovered it—the only one—pressed in between a Picasso and Monet. Rather small in scale and dimension compared to the majority of the prints, though it was a well-produced copy, sufficiently capturing the colors and forms of the original. Sarah, I knew, would be pleased.




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