Finding old friends at the Corcoran


The glass dress is "Reclining Dress Impression With Drapery" (2009), by Karen LaMonte, on display at the Renwick Gallery. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
John Kelly
Columnist December 12, 2012

I went straight for the naked woman. She was the reason I was at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, after all.

I’m still not exactly sure what all that recent fuss was about — the Corcoran is moving; the Corcoran isn’t moving — but I knew it had been a while since I’d been to the museum. I felt like a feckless nephew who hadn’t visited an elderly relative in ages. It seemed like a good time to pay my respects.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

“Is ‘The Greek Slave’ still in that upstairs room?” I asked the woman at the front desk after paying my $10 admission.

“No,” she answered. “She’s right there.”

And there she was, at the base of the stairs, Hiram Powers’s The Greek Slave,” for a while around 150 years ago the most famous, most scandalous, work of art in the United States.

She’d been moved since my last visit five (six? longer?) years ago.

Frankly, I didn’t like her new home, out in the open, so exposed, and just one of a half-dozen sculptures on the staircase. Her flawless white marble head tilted down as if to look at a plexiglas donation box holding $30.47 and a red paper clip.

Such is the way of art galleries. Artwork gets moved around, the permanent collection sifted and sorted.

I quickly found another of my favorites, the massive 1822 painting of the House of Representatives. Black-clad politicians sat at desks, bent over their papers, conversated in groups. Though it was painted 40 years before the Civil War, it could have been a scene from “Lincoln.”

The artist considered the work a failure. Not as many people as he’d hoped paid to see it. Just as well, as Samuel F.B. Morse hung up his paintbrushes and invented the telegraph instead.

Nearby was Albert Bierstadt’s Mount Corcoran,” a jagged, snow-covered peak in the Sierra Madre framed against roiling cumulonimbi. How nice, I thought, to have a mountain named after you, as museum benefactor William Wilson Corcoran did.

Or maybe did. Apparently Bierstadt originally called the painting “Mountain Lake,” then changed the name in the hopes the millionaire would buy it. There is no Mount Corcoran in the Sierra Madre.

I sat for five minutes looking at “The Veiled Nun,” a masterful sculpture by Giuseppe Croff. He carved a hunk of white marble in such a way that it looks as if a gauzy caul is stretched across a woman’s face. It reminded me of something I’d seen before. . . .

It was then that I realized works of art don’t just talk to us. They talk to each other — across rooms and across museums. Artistic conversations are going on all across Washington. Just listen, and you can hear them.

I left the building and hurried to the original Corcoran, today’s Renwick Gallery, three blocks away. There it was, on the second floor: Wendell Castle’s Ghost Clock.” What looks like a grandfather clock shrouded in a white sheet is in fact a single laminated block of carved mahogany.

Before returning to the Corcoran I went into the octagonal room in the Renwick where Powers’s “Greek Slave” once had pride of place. There I found “Reclining Dress Impression With Drapery” by Karen LaMonte. It’s a life-size ball gown cast in glass, Cinderella’s slipper writ large.

Perhaps the naked slave girl could slip it on.

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For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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