French-born architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant designed much of the DC we see today, which explains why the city’s tree-lined avenues, grid-designed street system, white-washed brick row houses, and abundance of tiny grassy squares feel so reminiscent of typical European charm. It’s also not that surprising that in certain areas of DC, you’ll feel instantly transported to Paris the minute you step outside the metro – Dupont Circle is one of these neighborhoods (as it happens to be one of the areas in DC that L’Enfant designed), and the Phillips Collection, a private art museum right off the Dupont roundabout, is the icing sur le gateau.*
I was thrilled to be invited to the pre-opening private press tour of the new Renoir and Friends exhibit at the Phillips Collection, featuring one of my lifelong favorite artists – you guessed it – Pierre-Auguste Renoir. And while I expected beautiful art and a world-class tour by curator Eliza Rathbone, I was pleasantly surprised at how much more the exhibit offered.
In my not-at-all-an-art-critic opinion,** this was less a tribute to Renoir’s paintings and more a tribute to the man Renoir himself. Which I actually loved. The exhibit told the story of a man who surrounded himself with diverse and fascinating friends, whose success was made possible by friends, and who returned this generosity in kind by supporting his friends to the greatest extent possible despite his lifelong poverty. He painted his friends and painted with his friends and loved his friends’ paintings.
Eliza Rathbone did a beautiful job capturing this, perhaps the most defining aspect of Renoir’s life, throughout the exhibit, with touches such as a piece Renoir painted alongside his friend, Claude Monet, and other artwork painted by and of Renoir’s friends such as Bonnat and Ephrussi, all wrapped in charming little anecdotes illuminating the lightness and humanity and diversity and, dare I say scandal (for example, new x-ray technology shows us which models were removed from Renoir’s paintings after getting on his nerves), of these artists and their communities.
In addition to the friendships, the exhibit also included unexpected details celebrating the other typical characteristic of Renoir’s artwork – France. French film, food, furry pets, and fashion (all my favorite F-words), including beautifully designed hats from the late 1800s reminiscent of those decorating Renoir’s paintings, were scattered throughout the exhibit and emphasized in certain works of art. This all had the effect of elevating the exhibit from a collection of distant and isolated paintings to a space that transported its visitors to 1800s Paris, drinking wine along the Seine and gossiping aimlessly with friends. Even after emerging from the Phillips Collection, you’ll find bits of Paris right outside in the lovely Dupont Circle DC, brought to you by the one and only Pierre L’Enfant.
If you’re in DC in the near future, I’d encourage you to go check out the Renoir and Friends exhibit at the PhillipsCollection, open until January 7, 2018. It’s a private collection in a stunning but modest old red building and is a really special addition to days of wandering through packed Smithsonians and monuments. If you’re a DC resident who’s itching for an escape, I’d encourage you to visit the Renoir and Friends exhibit and let it transport you straight to Paris for the day. In fact, maybe make a whole French day of it (recommendations below).
And even if you aren’t an art connoisseur (I sure as heck am not), I’d still encourage you to give this exhibit a shot. I think you’ll find so much more than a bunch of paintings – you’ll find stories, friendships, some fashion & black-and-white film, a touch of social drama and scandal, and an appreciation for a man who really loved his friends and celebrated the littlest joys of life with them, from dancing to puppies to an iconic lunch party by the water.
Nearby (for a day of French-inspired leisure):
a morning pastry at Un je ne sais Quoi, a new-ish but highly reviewed French patisserie on Dupont Circle NW and Connecticut
lunch at Bistrot du Coin (try the steak & frites or a bucket of mussels!)
peruse the dusty old & rare books and vintage maps at Second Story Books (is it just me or do used book stores always seem so very parisienne?)
* Cover photo by Obi Okolo of gō.designcollective in Washington, DC.
** As a second disclaimer: I am not an art critic. So this perspective is coming from a lay-person like yourself, unless of course you are an art critic, in which case you will also love this exhibit. Either way, just go see it.