The Corcoran’s best-known works stop you in your tracks. That lofty tribute to democracy, Samuel Finley Breese Morse’s enormous “The House of Representatives,” practically shouts for your attention. So, too, does “Niagara,” by Frederic Edwin Church, so masterfully painted that you can almost hear the rushing water. And one can’t help but marvel over Giuseppe Croff’s “The Veiled Nun,” carved to make stone look like silk. But the weight of the museum’s most famous works is balanced by many quieter pieces, and with only three months left to see them, it’s about time they were paid their due. Here, the museum’s chief curator, Philip Brookman, and its manager of curatorial affairs, Lisa Strong, selected a few notable works that have helped made the Corcoran the institution it is today.
This early-American painting isn’t on most visitors’ must-see lists. But in light of the Corcoran’s recent struggles, the trompe l’oeil panel feels unexpectedly poignant. The still life, which Charles Bird King painted while a poor artist in Philadelphia, depicts a cabinet of items belonging to an artist, each symbolic: simple bread and water for sustenance; tattered books titled “Advantages of Poverty” and “Pleasures of Hope”; and a notice for a bankruptcy sale of the artist’s belongings, among other things.
“He’s giving you the different pieces,” Strong says, “and you can put together the story yourself — of the poor and struggling artist who had great ambitions but has fallen to the point where he has to auction off his things.” Sound familiar?
King rose out of poverty and moved to Washington, becoming an important figure in the city’s art scene and running a gallery from 1824 to 1861, where “Poor Artist’s Cupboard” was probably one of the earliest works on display. His gallery also hosted traveling artists and their works.
“This role of sort of promoting American artists and that recognition that getting support for the arts is a struggle, I think, is a poignant reminder to us today . . . of small individuals or institutions like the Corcoran championing American arts, but at the same time, not [being] able to make it because there’s not enough money,” Strong says. “I see this as sort of emblematic of the Corcoran itself, and of the arts in Washington.”
The Corcoran has long prided itself on its legacy of collecting and displaying works by African American artists, and this painting by Harlem Renaissance painter Aaron Douglas is one of the museum’s gems, Brookman says. The painting depicts slaves being led away in chains toward waiting ships, all under the watchful eye of the North Star.
When the painting was acquired in 1996, Brookman says, “I still remember it as a kind of a moment of important collecting for the Corcoran.” It is one panel of a mural, and the museum was given the opportunity to purchase both panels. “And, of course, we couldn’t afford both,” Brookman adds.
Most of the museum’s works are gifts; this is one of the rare works that was purchased. (It was also acquired through a partial gift from local collector Thurlow Evans Tibbs Jr.)
“This was this moment where [the Corcoran found] everything we could scrape together to acquire the one painting,” Brookman says.
This late Medieval/early Renaissance altarpiece is easy to overlook: It’s tucked away in a corner and there’s nothing else quite like it in the Corcoran’s collection. But pass it by and you’ll miss one of the museum’s masterworks.
“It’s probably the finest existing work by this painter,” Brookman says. Which is why, despite its seemingly odd fit in a museum that doesn’t collect Medieval or Renaissance art, it has remained in the collection. The painting, which depicts vignettes from the Passion of the Christ, also benefits the students at the College of Art and Design.
“I love the idea that we could teach about narrative strategies with a painting made in the 1380s,” Brookman says, “and that might be of interest to a documentary film student who has to figure out how to tell a story with film.”
The triptych came to the Corcoran in a very Washington way — a gift from the collection of Sen. William A. Clark, whose approximately 800-work collection earned him an eponymous wing in the museum.
Brookman calls this early J.M.W. Turner painting, a dramatic scene of sailors ferrying anchors out to a tall ship in a stormy sea, a rare gem.
“It’s a little outside of Turner’s typical work and, to me, an especially fine painting,” he says. The landscape painter was known for how he captured the qualities of light, and his later works were more atmospheric.
“This is a very early painting,” the curator says. “It’s rarely been shown at the Corcoran.”
Brookman points to an adjacent painting, Benjamin West’s “Telemachus and Calypso,” as an example of how curatorial juxtaposition can further a visitor’s understanding of art history. Turner’s “Boats” is typical of the Romantic period, whereas West’s painting, a scene from the “Odyssey,” is from the Neoclassical period.
“If you want to learn about the difference between classicism and romanticism, which follows the former in European art, you just need these two paintings and you can see the difference,” Brookman says. “You still have the storm and the lightning and the shipwreck. This is a much more serene, allegorical scene.”
In the center of the museum’s Salon Doré, a gilded 1770 French drawing room designed by Jean-François-Thérèse Chalgrin, is a contemporary work the museum acquired specifically to display in this spot. Yinka Shonibare’s “Girl on Globe 2” is a politically charged sculpture of a headless African girl wearing a Victorian costume of Dutch wax fabric, which was manufactured in the Netherlands but intended for a colonial market. She is balanced on a globe that maps the effects of global warming.
“I just love the context of the Salon Doré for it,” Brookman says. “I’ve always been interested in this juxtaposition of contemporary art with history. . . . It asks you to ask more questions about the work than you would otherwise.”
As for the Salon Doré — another gift from Clark that Brookman calls “one of the finest period rooms in the country” — the room will remain in place in the Corcoran after the merger as it is part of the building’s architecture.
Another area in which the Corcoran excels is its devotion to local artists, especially those of the Washington Color School, an art movement that began in the late 1950s and explored the relationship between color and shape, producing such artists as Sam Gilliam, Morris Louis and Gene Davis. Anne Truitt, one of the few female members of the school, got her first big break at the Corcoran, which presented a retrospective of her work in 1974.
“From what I know of that time,” Brookman says, “the Washington art world was very dominated by men, and it was kind of a macho place, and it would have been hard for her to fully function in that kind of environment with everyone else. She worked a little bit more on her own. It’s wonderful that she was given an opportunity at the Corcoran so many years ago.”
“Insurrection” — an eight-foot wood panel on a platform, divided lengthwise by two shades of red — is both painting and sculpture, making it particularly striking.
The curator adds, “I think it’s a really important work in our collection, and it shows the inventiveness of Washington artists during the 1960s.”