Rediscovering Honoré Daumier in the intimate Phillips Collection

(Marvin Joseph/twp – The Washington Post)

By Blake Gopnik

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Third of five articles in which the Post’s art critic chooses a single detail from a single painting to dwell on.

Every complete work of art is also a detail. It is a detail of the larger setting it’s encountered in, and this includes, at very least, the wall it is shown on, how it is lighted, the furniture around it, the other people viewing it and all the art nearby. Where and how a work is looked at is a big part of what it becomes.

Honoré Daumier’s „Two Sculptors“ would mean much less if seen somewhere other than the Phillips. The real subject of Daumier’s little painting, of a pair of artists looking at their work, is just the kind of precious, intense, connoisseurial looking that happens better at the Phillips than almost anywhere else. Sitting in one of the quietly domestic spaces of the museum’s original wing, say on a Thursday morning in December, you can spend hours almost alone with your masterpiece of choice. It’s not that you’re physically closer to the art than in a grander institution; it’s that you feel more intimately, more physically connected with it.

So I sat and looked long and hard at Daumier’s two sculptors, watching them peer closely at the figures they’ve created, which you could almost imagine peering back at them and launching a round-robin of looking.

The sculptors are studying the coarsely pinched clay of their figures — how it renders reality and captures the liveliness of flesh. Anyone staring at Daumier’s painted artists is doing much the same. Daumier’s paintbrush has given his two sculptors almost the same coarse treatment that their fingers have given their clay, and that yields a lovely symmetry between their actions as lookers and ours as we look. That’s true even in terms of scale: The size of the two sculpted figures is to their creators as those painted sculptors are to us as we stand before them at the Phillips. The Phillips provides a domestic space that helps us feel the size of our own bodies, and that lets us relate to Daumier’s painted ones.

The canvas’s setting at the Phillips, where it sits in one of the drawing rooms of the genteel old mansion where the museum started life in 1921, encourages the kind of close contemplation that the artist probably imagined for this work. In the room where the painting now lives, you can take a pew on an antique armchair and practice just the kind of mannerly art appreciation that this Daumier’s first owners — or its sculptors‘ imaginary patrons — might have practiced in their day. The painting hangs on a tidy patch of wall between a gracious fireplace and an elegantly draped window, while just below it a marble-and-bronze vase in distinctly French taste sits on an antique side table. Daumier’s image becomes another precious object added to the mix. It needs to be that to be fully understood. Place this painting in the clean white cube of a modern art museum — in one of the Phillips’s new wings, for instance, where visitors are now likely to spend most of their time — and the sterilization could kill it.

This painting, even more than some others, needs to be kept alive and lively. Daumier’s day job was as a caricaturist, so there’s satire in his scene of art appreciation. Look long and hard at his painting, with its romantic lights and darks and its poetically inspired creators, and you realize that it’s about a kind of connoisseurship that verges on self-important status-seeking. It’s the kind of connoisseurship that would always value grand-manner painting and sculpture, or even a marble-and-bronze vase, more highly than the lowly art of the caricaturist. Look even longer and harder at this precious painting, and at yourself as you look so long and hard, and you realize you might just come across as the same kind of precious, self-important fool Daumier is skewering.

You only hope you haven’t been sighing and stroking your chin.