Renoir’s painting is probably the most famous in the Phillips Collection in Washington.
The Impressionists and the Phillips were on my mind, because a friend from Washington had recently visited Paris, and she seen there another Impressionist painting from the Phillips Collection. “The Palm” was featured in the Bonnard exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay. My friend had always pitied “The Palm” because, in the Phillips Collection, it was overshadowed by “The Luncheon of the Boating Party.”
I am going now to develop some personal associations, which lead me to quote some moving accounts of the power of art, even Renoir’s art. The original purpose of this article was simply to transcribe those quotations.
Art and myself
My personal connection to the Phillips Collection goes back to my art teacher in high school. Dean Stambaugh told a story of being shown three paintings by Laughlin Phillips. Mr Phillips was going to purchase one of the paintings for his parents’ museum. Mr Stambaugh suggested one of them, but Mr Phillips said he had not been thinking too seriously about that one. Apparently he thought again, purchased the painting, and thanked Mr Stambaugh for his advice—at least according to the words of Mr Stambaugh, as I remember them.
I had conflicts with Mr Stambaugh, over what I painted and over the music that was played in the art studio. The custom was to play classical music four days a week, and jazz on Fridays; but “jazz” meant whatever the boys (it was a boys’ school) wanted to bring in. Thus somebody played Pink Floyd’s album The Wall when it came out, in my freshman year of high school (1979–80). Two years later, I put on a record, which I do not now remember. Mr Stambaugh turned it off. He had not cared for my music. I was affronted, and I argued with Mr Stambaugh, but he argued back. He was organizing the end-of-year student art show, and he ought to have an assistant for this work, but he didn’t, and therefore, as far as he was concerned, this ended the discussion right there. He turned and walked away.
I often painted non-representationally, with water colors. I once filled a piece of paper with horizontal strips of color. Mr Stambaugh disapproved. He showed me a recent announcement that a certain art dealer was no longer going to deal in nonrepresentational art, because such art did not seem to be going anywhere any more.
I did like Mr Stambaugh. In my sophomore year, I was not enrolled in his art course, but still I painted on my own, and I brought my work to show Mr Stambaugh. Sometimes he did me the honor of tacking it on the wall of the studio. I returned to the studio officially in my junior year, though I offended another teacher by doing so. I had dropped art in the previous year in order to take Latin, though like everybody else I had already been studying another language (in my case, French) since the year before high school. The Latin teacher knew me from his ancient Greek history course in my freshman year. George Constantinople proposed that I could do the work of the first two years of Latin in my sophomore year, and he met me after school to help me accomplish this. I thought he enjoyed just chatting with me too, as I did with him. At the end of the year, he told me I could now sign up for Latin III; but I told him I wanted to go back to painting instead. I said I could continue to meet him after school to work on Latin; but he said it would not be convenient for him.
I wonder what happened to Mr Constantinople. He lived on campus with his wife, who was also a classicist. I met him sometimes in an office where photographs of Roman coins were on display: coins featuring a particular Emperor, whose name I do not recall. For Mr Constantinople was finishing up a doctoral dissertation on how the reign of that emperor was reflected in how he was portrayed on coins. He did earn the doctorate; but then, when my class graduated in 1983, he went off to study sea admiralty law. One web page says he has been licensed to practice law in Washington since 1987, but there is no further information.
I know what happened to Mr Stambaugh. The student art show at the end of my junior year would be his last, because he was retiring—or was being retired, because of his age. He might have been happy to keep teaching. As it was, he died four years later, and the “Style” section of the Washington Post printed a tribute by a former colleague called Howard Means. Though I met him once, I did not know Mr Means. His tribute does describe the man I remember:
Dean was catholic in his tastes and intolerant of anything or anyone beyond them. The Day-Glo period of American art did not exist in his life except as one more tawdry instance of cultural depravity well beneath even a sniff of contempt. His own such sniff roared—the paradox of a man of all-consuming gentleness.
At his last art show, some of Mr Stambaugh’s own works were on display. As I recall, they were landscapes, one with a cow featured prominently. I appreciated that we students had never seen our teacher’s work before. At least one student had encouraged him to show us his own work; but he had declined. I assume Mr Stambaugh did not want us to copy him, but to find our own way, with the minimal guidance that he gave us as he wandered around the studio, looking at what we were doing. Students new to the art studio were asked to draw something, so that Mr Stambaugh could see how they did that; then they were let free.
In 2012, I published an article in the De Morgan Journal about St John’s College and my four years there. I spent my freshman year in Annapolis, where an artist called Margarida Kendall gave an extracurricular painting class. I recall her saying that all of the great paintings of the world were not worth the life of a cat. She was also disdainful of “The Luncheon of the Boating Party.” It is easy to be so.
Renoir’s paintings are like cotton candy. And yet it would seem that they can bring happiness to people who are desperate for it. Here I turn to an essay in a book that I bought in the National Gallery of Art in Washington during the winter break of my senior year in college. The book is Sherman E. Lee (ed.), On Understanding Art Museums (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1975), and I bought it on January 6, 1987, probably from a bargain bin. The last essay in the book is called “The Art Museum and the Pressures of Society.” Author Robert Coles was a psychiatrist working with poor children in Boston, and he had got to know something about their families. One boy’s grandmother worked for a woman who gave her a print of Renoir’s “Bal à Bougival,” which was at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
I would visit Boston in the summer of 1987 to see friends from college, and we would visit the Museum of Fine Arts. I do not remember looking at Renoir’s painting. I do not know if it would have impressed me, except as a painting I had already seen reproductions of. But it impressed the parents of the boy whose grandmother brought home the print. Here is the boy’s mother, as reported by Coles:
I saw you looking at them, dancing. I stop every day, once or twice, and look at the two of them, and somehow I feel better. Don’t ask me why. I’ll be tired and I’ll be sitting on a chair with my head down nearly to the ﬂoor, and suddenly I’ll look up and they’ll still be there, holding each other and looking happy, and so I feel a little happy myself. I don’t do any dancing myself; no time or money for that. My husband locks himself in the closet when the welfare lady comes, never mind dance with me, or he slips out before she’s able to catch him. She warns us that she’s coming “unannounced.” It’s too bad, because he’d like to work, and he’s tried to get a job. I wish that welfare lady and her supervisor would have this picture in their office; maybe then they would be in a better mood. My girl, the oldest, asks me if they’re in love, in the picture. I tell her I don’t know, but probably.
You need to stop every once in a while. You can’t just be driving yourself. I tell my children please to quiet down and let me pray. I have to talk with Jesus, and ask Him to give me strength. Then I’ll begin to feel stronger; so I look at the picture, and I tell myself that maybe that woman, she had a lot of trouble in her life. But she still could go dancing. And the man, he could have been all upset about something. You wouldn’t know it, though, by the way he is there; and the artist, he could have been poor, like some artists are, but he painted a happy picture. Of course, he must have made a lot of money, or his children did, because look how they’ve made this copy of his picture, and there probably are thousands and thousands of copies, just like it. I saw on television a man who wrote a book, and he said he’d made a lot of money, because thousands of copies of his book were sold. I thought of the painter whose picture we have, and I told my husband: I hope the artist got the money, and not some crook who took it away from him.
You can’t be careful enough in this world. My mother comes back with stories of the white people, the rich ones, and I don’t know if I should believe her or not. They aren’t spending their time looking at pictures, I’ll tell you. The man, he gets tips on the stock market. Then he buys stocks. Then he sells. He’s a millionaire. His wife, she drinks a lot, and tells my mother about all the dirty linen, and then my mother comes home and tells me. I told my mother to tell her to go look at this picture she sent us, and maybe she’d feel better. One day, the missus was real upset, and she was drinking a lot of tomato juice, and it was only nine or ten in the morning, and she’d put some liquor in it. And she was talking and talking, and my mother got all upset, because the missus started crying and all; so, my mother got desperate and she did tell the missus to go look at the “dancing couple,” we call the picture. Well, the lady wasn’t sure what my mother was saying, but finally my mother explained, and the missus, she suddenly began to laugh and laugh, after all that crying; and she didn’t talk, just kept it up, her laughing.
My mother got scared, and she thought the poor missus was taking leave of herself, and she almost was going to call up the husband. But the missus finally stopped, and she told my mother that she and her husband, they had a lot of pictures, real paintings, not copies like ours, and they were high up in the museum, her husband was, and she took people through the place, and served tea or something; but neither she nor her husband stared at pictures the way my mother told her we did. That’s what she said. And she said “it goes to show you.” I asked my mother what “it goes to show,” and she wasn’t sure herself, but she said she thought the missus didn’t understand how that “dancing couple” could lift my spirits the way it does, and my mother’s spirits—and there she was, with more pictures than I have hands and feet, and you can throw in my husband’s too, even if he’s not supposed to be living here with us! When I told him what my mother had gone through, with her missus lady, he said “that’s the truth,” and he said if you own something, it doesn’t mean it’s going to bring you the happiness you want, and if you have a copy like we do, you can still put your mind to it, and your spirits can get a lift, no matter how bad things are for you. And don’t you think that’s what the painter would like to know—that he could affect you, something like that?
And here is the boy’s father:
Maybe it’s a silly picture for us to like. We’ll never meet people like them, I know that. I don’t know who those people are, except that they’re white, and the lady, by her clothes, seems pretty well-off I’d say. The guy, he’s cool. Then you see those people sitting at the tables. They’re relaxing, man—having a good time ﬁor themselves, a glass of beer. It’s nice to be able to relax, and not feel yourself slipping into sadness. That’s the trouble with having no money, and having no job—you have to relax, but when you do, you go down, down, down in your mind. It’s no good. I drink the beer, and I know I don’t have the right to be buying it, never mind drinking it. But there is something inside me that says I’ve got to—or else I’ll be locked up in a hospital. I’ll walk down the street and I’ll see these store-owners, and the landlords coming in to collect their rent, and I’m ready to go buy a gun, I admit. But I don’t, of course. If I went around with my ﬁnger on a trigger it wouldn’t be long before I’d be dead or locked up injail for life. I only wish the world would change. Sometimes I think of that picture we talked about—I think to myself: wouldn’t it be nice my wife and I could dance like that. Now I’ll tell you: you look at that picture real close, you’ll see that those two are not only having a good time for themselves dancing, but they’re feeling good. That’s important; you feel bad about the life you’re living, you’re in trouble. That’s why I’ll be walking down the street, and I’ll see two people who look real happy, and I say to myself: if they’re really happy, they deserve an artist to come over and paint them—you know, paint them walking down the street, with someone like me staring at them, something like that.
I’d go to a museum, yes, if I could see a lot of pictures like the one we have. I’m a little worried, though. There’d be too much to see. On television they can try to push so much on you, that you forget half of what you see. I watched the news last night, and there were so many reporters coming at you from so many different cities, that I gave up and turned the set off. You need to have time to rest your mind every once in a while. Maybe I could go to see a lot of pictures in the museum, like my boy did. Maybe I’d want to keep coming back: look at a picture on each visit. But there’s no use going there. It’s not the place for me, I know that.
Finally, Coles quotes an accountant, whose brother teaches music:
It’s been a long, hard road for me, and I’m just 34. I’m the first in my family to graduate from college. I hope my son and daughter both do. I used to think colleges are only for boys, unless you really have money. But these days, you get nowhere fast, especially with inflation, if you don’t have a degree. And women have to be more independent. My wife likes to paint. She’s an amateur. I encourage her, even if they cost plenty, the “art supplies” she’s always putting down in our check book. My brother says the kids should take music lessons. He’s right, but how much money is there? Not enough for everything; so, you have to choose. I’d like to take the kids to the Symphony. I’d like to go myself. I’d like to take my kids to the museum; I mean more than once every ﬁve years.
Once I stopped in at the Museum of Fine Arts myself just on a lark. I was driving by, and I felt like breaking out of the rat-race for a half an hour. So, I pulled over—I almost got in an accident, because I did it so suddenly. And I walked in, and I just moved along, from picture to picture. It was like being in another world. I couldn’t believe it. All the worries left me. I felt like I was becoming—well, you know, a philosopher. I got some distance on my life. I came home and told my wife that it was better than beer, better even than a good movie; because you could be alone with yourself, standing there. Then she reminded me of something: I’d gone there in the middle of the week, late in the morning, when just about everyone else was at work or at school. No wonder it was so nice and quiet. What a mob of people was there, pushing at me, and stepping on my feet, and filling the air with their breathing and their noise?
I had to leave after an hour; I began to get nervous, and I knew I was way behind schedule, because of what I’d done. When I walked out of that place, I was looking to the right and the left: was anyone looking who might recognize me? Crazy! You see what it’s like: you get in a rut, and that’s it! By the afternoon I was asking myself why I’d bothered to take that hour off. To tell the truth, I was ashamed to tell my wife what I’d done. She might begin to think I was cracking up. Maybe I was worried that I was cracking up. But a guy like me, he can’t afford to crack up—and I guess he can’t afford, either, to take an hour off on a work day and look at pictures. Sometimes I wish I had another life; but then the phone rings, and you can’t spend your time day-dreaming.
Around the corner from the Istanbul cafe decorated with a Renoir print was a street (Kazım Orbay Caddesi) decorated by trees, almost in full leaf now at the end of spring.