In its latest exhibit, The Phillips Collection – a gallery best known for its impressionistic and post-impressionistic works – adds a bit of political satire to its usual works of art.
The exhibit at the collection features the works of French artist Honor? Daumier, who is considered to be a major influence in impressionism. He is, literally, a painter of the people. During Daumier’s 50-year career, he worked in a variety of media, producing thousands of lithographs and hundreds of drawings, paintings and woodcuts. The Phillips Collection exhibits less than 250 of Daumier’s works, but they are among his best.
Walking through the exhibit, Daumier’s maturity as an artist becomes clear. In the first small room, his lithographs are displayed against the deep autumn tones of the gallery’s walls. The stark contrast between the walls and the lithographs is striking – Daumier’s works are only in black and white. The living room-like atmosphere of the building is perfect for these works, none of which are bigger than a magazine.
Daumier is known best for his lithographs of political satire. In some cases his criticism of the French government got him in trouble – ridicule of the king earned Daumier a six-month prison sentence.
He was first published in French newspapers for his jabs at the king, but his later satire focused on lawyers and the French middle class. For instance, in one of his lithographs, a defense attorney is pictured whispering into his client’s ear. The caption reads, Don’t worry if they say bad things about you.
Walking into the second room of the exhibit, it is evident Daumier’s work changes. The room displays more of his paintings and shows his great sense of color. Daumier’s influence can be seen in the works of Manet, Monet, Renoir and Degas. And walking though the exhibit is proof Daumier was ahead of his time.
Most of his paintings depict intimate scenes of one or two people. Daumier would catch people in an intimate moment – friends whispering secrets, lovers exchanging looks. As viewers notice his short brush strokes, which give an impression of a moment in time, it must be remembered that the Impressionist movement did not gain momentum until nearly a decade after Daumier’s death.
Daumier’s influence is noticeable in many of the works in the gallery’s permanent collection. Edgar Degas’ 1917 work, Before the Bath, is an intimate picture of women bathing. Just like Daumier’s work, Degas paints a little, private moment in life. Degas is said to have owned more than 1,800 of Daumier’s lithographs.
Viewing the works of the late-18th century painters is a unique experience at The Phillips Collection. Climbing the stairs up to the second floor of the museum, you feel as if you’ve been invited on a tour by Duncan Phillips, the museum’s founder. The stairs gently creek, and a faint smell of coffee can be detected. It seems like a contradiction in terms at first, but The Phillips Collection is known as one of the nation’s oldest modern art museums. The Phillips Collection creates an intimate atmosphere that enhances the viewing of the work.
Yet, that’s the appeal of The Phillips Collection, experiencing great works of art on a close and personal level.
Honor? Daumier continues at The Phillips Collection (located at 1600 21 St., NW) through May 14.