If you’ve ever wanted to see nature through the eyes of a tech billionaire art collector, the latest exhibition at the Phillips Collection delivers — and it does so beautifully.
“Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection” boasts an impressive array of 39 landscape paintings spanning five centuries. The show offers Washingtonians the chance to explore a small group of paintings on loan from Allen, a philanthropist and entrepreneur best known as the co-founder of Microsoft, along with Bill Gates, and as the owner of the Seattle Seahawks. This exhibition gives a rare glimpse into Allen’s massive private art collection as it traces the evolution of European and American landscape painting.
“There’s a wonderful dialogue between European and American art in this exhibition, and a nice dialogue between older and younger artists,” said Klaus Ottmann, the Phillips’s deputy director for curatorial and academic affairs and the exhibition’s coordinating curator. “There’s an internationalism to this exhibition that plays well with our museum’s mission to be an international museum, and our commitment to cultural diplomacy.”
Walking into the exhibition, visitors are greeted with a stunning, moody vision of Venice dotted with brilliant lights dancing across the water in Henri Le Sidaner’s “The Serenade, Venice.” It’s just one of the many paintings that depict Venice in the show, a recurring theme that could either enchant or lull viewers, depending on their take on the city.
But there’s more than just the beauty of the Italian city on display, and for a change of scenery exhibition-goers can merely step inside another room. Jan Brueghel the Younger’s “The Five Senses” is staged magnificently, with the sumptuous images set against blazing red walls that highlight the dark, romantic vibrancy of each piece. The next room over, meanwhile, showcases not the sensuousness of the natural world, but its terror, as the bursts of light and fire in Chevalier Volaire’s “Eruption of Mount Vesuvius with the Ponte della Maddalena in the Distance” control the space.
Overall, serenity reigns in “Seeing Nature.” But the moments of chaos make for a stark reminder that painting landscapes demands not just capturing beautiful, idyllic scenes, but the wild and terrible sights of our natural world as well.
From Europe, viewers then travel to the American West, as showcased in the epic vistas of Thomas Moran’s “Grand Canyon of Arizona at Sunset” and Arthur Wesley Dow’s “Cosmic Cities, Grand Canyon of Arizona.” This corner is a particular highlight of the show, as Dow and Moran’s ambitious takes on one of America’s most impressive natural sights hang brilliantly alongside Paul Cézanne’s “Mont Sainte‐Victoire,” a vibrant depiction of the massive limestone ridge that obsessed the French artist.
Nearby, one of the most delicately beautiful paintings of the show sits in the area playing videos that detail the process behind mounting the exhibition — a slight distraction, certainly, but not enough of an annoyance to detract from Claude Monet’s “En Paysage dans I’île Saint-Martin,” an exercise in envisioning the world only in strokes of vivid color.
More overtly fantastical landscapes follow. Max Ernst’s nightmarish apparition in “Landscape with Lake and Chimeras” recalls the demonic horrors of war. Meanwhile, René Magritte’s “The Voice of Blood” revels in strange imaginings of what the natural world can hold as it portrays a massive tree with three separate compartments that hold a miniature house, a sphere and the next compartment, unknown, merely left slightly ajar.
“It’s a very international exhibition, and that’s another thing that was very interesting to us,” Ottmann told The Washington Diplomat. “Duncan Phillips, when he opened this museum, he was very untraditional — he made no distinctions between European and American art, old art and young art, as a collector.
“All of this seemed like really a great match for us, and as we are based on a private collection ourselves, we saw a lot of parallels with Paul Allen’s collecting and our collection,” he added.
There’s also a family-friendly science component to the show aimed at exploring the connections between art and the brain — a feature of the exhibition Ottmann said was “very compelling” to the Phillips Collection.
The final room of art features April Gornik’s vast, steely “Lake Light,” casting a wall of rain over a bucolic green landscape of three trees, and Ed Ruscha’s “Untitled” grayscale of the iconic Standard gas station, hinting at the world of film noir. These two works are subtle stunners next to the neon theatricality of David Hockney’s “The Grand Canyon.”
“Seeing Nature” stunningly showcases the grandeur inherent in painting the natural world, as seemingly small sights like a layered, delicate Georgia O’Keeffe iris or Gustav Klimt’s quiet “Birch Forest” contrast and weave together effortlessly with the monstrous enormity of Mount Vesuvius and the Grand Canyon.
Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection
through May 8
1600 21st St., NW
(202) 387-2151 | www.phillipscollection.org
About the Author
Mackenzie Weinger (@mweinger) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.