Art immersion at the Phillips

A close look at the museum's permanent collection

LASTING IMPRESSION: Beyond the staged pretense of a bunch of friends out for a good time on the Seine in 1881 in "Luncheon of the Boating Party," remnants of red wine in their glasses leave an indelible imprint in the mind's eye.
LASTING IMPRESSION: Beyond the staged pretense of a bunch of friends out for a good time on the Seine in 1881 in "Luncheon of the Boating Party," remnants of red wine in their glasses leave an indelible imprint in the mind's eye. (The Phillips Collection)
By Blake Gopnik
Tuesday, December 29, 2009

For decades, the Phillips Collection in Washington has been known as one of the world's great places for the profound contemplation of art -- part of an exclusive club that includes such other "mansion museums" as the Frick Collection in New York, the Wallace Collection in London and the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris. In recent times, we may have lost sight of that side of the Phillips's identity. Several splashy expansions and a busy exhibition schedule have pulled us away from the kind of intense looking this museum was once all about. These days you can head to the museum's original galleries, in the 1897 mansion where the Phillips got its start, and stand a good chance of spending time alone with its masterpieces.

Not that that's a problem, exactly. A morning in a special exhibition is a fine thing, but it forces you to spread your affections among too many works. Better to spend that time on one room in a permanent collection. Or on one work. Or, best yet, on a tiny corner of one work. If the art is really good, there will be at least a morning's worth of looking in a few square inches of it.

Call it "extreme connoisseurship." It isn't how most of us look at pictures. It's not even how most critics or scholars get to look at art, most of the time. But give it a chance, and it's the best kind of looking there is.

I recently tested that idea at the Phillips Collection itself. Starting on a Tuesday when it opened for the week and continuing through Saturday, I chose a single detail, from a single picture, to dwell on each day. I've rarely had a more exhilarating time.

Today through Saturday, I'll be sharing what came out of this nose-length's viewing of art.


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