Today I was reunited with a first love. We met in 1969, on a worn plush bench at The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. To the disgust of my artistic and hip mother, dragging me to galleries on spring break to ‘widen my horizon,’ I walked into one of the many parlor rooms, took one look at Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party (1881), and could not be budged. She glided off to meditate in the Rothko room, and I spent the next hour imagining and spinning tales, as only an eleven-year old can do, about the beautiful women and men caught laughing and eating on the larger-than-life canvas suspended on the wall.
Duncan Phillips (1866-1966) began amassing an astonishing collection of art as a young man, that he proceded to hang throughout his elegant Georgetown home. He believed that mixing all valuable art together, non-chronologically and non-traditionally — on walls and tables and cases — would demonstrate the ‘universality of art.’ Tea was taken under Klee and Buddhist tapestries. He read under Predergast hung with Miro. He walked the panelled hallways with Matisse looking over his shoulder, and Man Ray in the alcoves. And in 1923, the raucous and historic Boating Party found a home in the front parlor.
The house became a bonifide musuem in the 1920’s, purposefully retaining the trappings of a home amongst the art. When I scuffed my Keds through the door in 1969, there was no fee. We just walked through the front door and drifted through the house, still sparsely furnished with sofa’s and settees, and winessed the Duncans’ passion for collecting and memorializing paint, wax, metal, wood, canvas, ceramic, fabric. Art.
Impressionism impressed the romantic little girl in me. In the lower front left corner of Boating Party, a woman in a sprigged hat kisses a dog, elbows on the table, inches from a sumptious platter of fruit. A man sits backwards on a chair, admiring her. A straw boater tips towards a striped awning, the white t-shirt bright, a small red beard. A top hat moves in the background towards the rear. The water sparkles and the light deepens in the corner, suggesting lunchtime is long gone, the party is relaxed and no one is in a hurry to leave.
Today, I paid $12.00, clipped a pin on my collar, and pushed through glass and chrome doors to the now three wings of The Phillips Collection. I found my Renoir, in a similar room complete with a reproduction fireplace and a cushioned bench awaiting me in the center. I sat alone, and downloaded the Phillips Collection app for information on the painting. In the recording, the director of the collection explained the brush strokes, the models — all friends and colleagues of the artist — Caillebotte sits in the chair, Aline Charigot holds the terrier and later marries Renoir, Charles Ephrussi the art dealer wears the formal attire. And the list goes on.
We are not in 1969 anymore. Does the app take away the magic? Do the new galleries, built over the last forty years for the expansive collections, change the sense of living amongst Duncan Phillips’ art? Well, most probably I will forget the details in time, and I can now access the information whenever I want to, online, anytime. They galleries are still small, and the original house is mostly accessible, with a smattering of old and modern art sprinkled together, like old times. And all the floors are still wooden and still creak.
I went through the building top to bottom, enjoying a room made from wax and yes, the Rothko room. When I passed the Renoir one last time, I peeked into the room to say ‘goodbye.’ I am pleased to report Luncheon of the Boating Party has lost none of it’s magic. Not a cellphone in sight, just two little girls falling in love.