Thursday, Jan. 22
500 17th St. N.W.
Corcoran Gallery of Art
I was in a bad mood. I had survived my first semester and wasn’t sure if I could do it again. I was homesick, and it didn’t help that I was being assaulted by frigid temperatures, making me want to give the finger to everyone driving by me in a warm car. “You can do it, Alex,” I told myself as I stumbled blindly against the wind toward 17th Street, where the Corcoran Gallery was waiting for me.
There’s more to museum life than gift shops and “do not touch” signs, and it’s often up to the docents to bring the museum to life. Docents are more than tour guides; they are storytellers. At least Holly Tank, my docent for the afternoon, was. I was fortunate to be paired up with one of the most intellectually stimulating people I had ever met. Tank not only knew her material; she was obviously inspired by the art she presented, and even more motivated by instilling an appreciation for art in others. I could see it in the sparkle of her eyes. So after checking my coat, already feeling the swankyness of the elite museum, I was ready to dive deep into the Corcoran.
We started off in the atrium, an open hall with skylights filtering in every bit of light from the overcast sky. Massive columns were bearing the weight of the building and the immense prestige that accompanies it as well. I was excited about my tour, as I am a neophyte to the Corcoran. I got the general introduction to the museum and the unusual twist of history that accompanies it. And this building also has an extraordinary man behind it – William Wilson Corcoran.
Born in 1798, Corcoran played his hand at many professions, ranging from broker to philanthropist. The Gallery’s permanent collection, which began as his private collection of some of the greatest art of our nation’s life span, makes this museum a treasure. Not stopping at building an impressive collection to share with the public, Corcoran decided that education was the key to preserving art, which is why underneath the cold floor upon which I treaded were the classrooms of the Corcoran School of Art.
Soon Tank and I made our way to the American Impressionism wing. What amazed me about the museum was that each room was unique, not just distinctive by the works of art that were carefully hung on the walls. The sounds our feet made on each slightly different wood parquet floor varied, and the colors of the walls ranged from powder blue to vivid sea green. At first I was irritated with myself for paying as much attention to the architecture as I was to the paintings but then realized that was one of the Corcoran’s many extras. Without the enclosure of a splendid mixture of elegance, the paintings would seem out of place.
Thanks to Tank, it soon became easy to recognize different styles of Impressionist artists. I was amazed at how beautiful the paintings were – art books simply do not do justice to witnessing the magnetic pull of the art firsthand. I had to keep reminding myself that I wasn’t allowed to run my fingers over the brilliantly placed paint splotches. The highlight of the Impressionist wing was seeing a painting by one of my favorite artists. I don’t think Tank planned on stopping at Degas’ “Ecole de danse,” but she took pity when she saw my eyes light up when they fell upon the canvas. Portrayed was a dress rehearsal with dancers’ of all ages pink toe shoes strewn casually on a bench. Degas made me yearn for the time in my life when I took dance and loathe myself for quitting.
Soon after we finished our Impressionism trip, which included a visit to Marie Antoinette’s clock (still chiming every 15 minutes), we found ourselves in the permanent collection, where artwork ranges from landscapes to sculptures, my favorite being the colossal painting of Frederic Church’s “Niagara.” I’ve never been to the falls, but after viewing the painting I could practically feel the mist from the rushing water on my face. This is definitely a must-see at the Corcoran. Through the rest of the collection, Tank and I conversed about different aspects of each painting. My tour ended with a chilling trip through the exhibit Atomic Time, depicting the Manhattan project. As my docent and I said our goodbyes, I glanced at my watch, amazed at how the past two hours had flown by.
My experience at the Corcoran was habit-forming, instilling an addiction in me that won’t be cured any time soon. The mission statement of the museum is “to encourage the American genius,” so go during your GW term and see what inspiration there is for the genius in you.