Baseball is beginning again -- even in Washington, for one month only. This is not a cruel joke but neither is it the real thing.
It is an exhibition of baseball paintings by Lance Richbourg, a 44-year-old artist who has not forgotten the well-drilled moves he learned playing second base in high school nearly three decades ago. Nor has he forgotten those long afternoons in the pastures of the family cattle farm in northwestern Florida, sunny days spent shagging flies batted out with authority by his father.
Richbourg just may be the only painter whose dad was a bona fide big league star. Lance Richbourg Sr. was a good-hitting outfielder (career batting average .308) for the Boston Braves in the 1920s and 1930s. Richbourg Jr. passed many a boyhood springtime in Grapefruit League dugouts absorbing baseball lore from his father, who like many a retiree from the game could not let it go completely, and from such eminent managers as Leo Durocher and Charlie Dressen.
Baseball may be the most beautiful sport, but it has not by and large attracted painters as a subject. This may have to do with the pace of the game, or the complexity of its choreography or its perfect self-containment--qualities that appeal to writers but painters find hard to handle. Exceptions come to mind: Thomas Eakins painted a baseball picture or two, and then in Washington lovers both of art and of the game have long treasured Marjorie Phillips' "Night Baseball" in the Phillips Collection.
Maybe the absence of serious baseball paintings results more from a simple statistic: Few painters have been players. For Richbourg, though, the subject was a natural, once he got down to it. His paintings, on view through the month at the downtown branch of the Middendorf/Lane Gallery, 404 Seventh St. NW, are suffused with a soft glow that speaks of his love for the game and his knowledge of it.
The paintings depict the major league game at moments both heroic and mundane. "Winning Side," for instance, shows Al Simmons of the Philadelphia Athletics scoring the winning run in the ninth inning of the deciding game of the 1929 World Series against the Chicago Cubs. "Stealing," on the other hand, shows a runner getting the jump off first base just as the right-handed pitcher begins his motion toward the plate.
Fans more knowledgeable than I will recognize the players in this picture. Richbourg recalls only that the painting, adapted from a photograph, depicts a regular-season contest between the Yankees and the Senators sometime during the 1950s. The mood of the painting is undeniably authentic. It is a tense, quiet painting and the moves, though stilled, are right.
Like many kids who played high-school ball, Richbourg forgot the sport upon graduating to higher, or at least more pressing, things. He went to Los Angeles with vague ideas of becoming a musician and became a painter, with bachelor's and master's degrees in art from UCLA. "I guess part of it was just being put off by the whole thing," he says. "My father and my uncles (two of whom were professional players, too, although not big-leaguers) told endless baseball stories and cited statistics endlessly. And then there was the farm. I was the first Richbourg boy who didn't return there."
He returned to baseball by happenstance about a decade ago, when a friend proposed collaboration on a gimmicky bit of commerce, caricatured political heads upon baseball bodies, to be sold in sets, like baseball cards. Fortunately this idea died quietly, but it got Richbourg thinking of the game again. He raided his father's treasure trove of clippings and photographs and began collecting old baseball magazines, and he began making the drawings of individual stars and the larger, group paintings that make up his Washington show.
In many ways it is a father-and-son story, and fittingly, the best paintings combine sentiment and precise observation. The technique is unusual. Richbourg builds up the surface and scrapes or sands it away, then paints the surface over and over again with flickering marks. The gestures of the players and fans are true to the sport, the colors are softly brilliant and the light is dryly luminiscent: a haze of remembrance. Richbourg now lives, paints, teaches and plays softball in Vermont.