Art as Relief From Reality
An Essay by NPR's Susan Stamberg

audio Listen to Susan Stamberg's essay on a visit to the exhibition.

video View a photo gallery from the Impressionist Still Life exhibition.

Sept. 20, 2001 -- Some of New York's art museums opened their doors free of charge last week, to offer what their directors called "sanctuaries of respite and contemplation." This weekend, in Washington, the Phillips Collection will open Impressionist Still Life, an exhibition of French paintings. NPR Special Correspondent Susan Stamberg says that show has been affected by last week's attacks:

Jar of Peaches

Claude Monet, Jar of Peaches, 1866
Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Gemäldegalerie Neu Meister, Dresden

View a photo gallery from the Impressionist Still Life exhibition.

The signature work of this show -- the one that's on the catalogue cover, Monet's Jar of Peaches -- hadn't gotten in from Dresden when I went for a preview on Tuesday. Instead, there was a reproduction on the wall, with a small sign: "Due to the tragic events of September 11th, the arrival of this painting has been temporarily delayed." And airport delays also meant two other paintings hadn't arrived from Europe. Yesterday a Fantin-Latour got in, late, from Chicago. The Phillips is confident all 82 still lifes will eventually hang on its walls.

What is on display is a cornucopia of 19th-century beauty -- and, yes, comfort. Paintings from museums and collectors in Paris, Orleans, Amsterdam, Boston, St. Louis, Denver -- so many places. Paintings by the French masters -- bruised pears and an exuberance of flowers by Courbet, two white Manet peonies in close-up that swirl like satin ballgowns. Van Gogh is there: Tahitian oranges that look as if Gauguin painted them with sunset; and moonlight colors some Cezanne apples. Simple objects we all know -- plums, onions, a paring knife, shoes -- celebrated in oil paint by artists who were making revolution with their quick brush strokes. Seeing them now is a reminder of the ordinary things that make up and pleasure our lives -- and, through art, last.

Art, and grief, helped open the doors of this small Washington museum. Duncan Phillips loved art, and collected some major works. When his beloved father and brother died in 1918, he decided to make his passion their memorial. The Phillips Collection opened to the public three years later. Phillips hoped his museum would be "joy-giving and life-enhancing." Outside, a few miles from the museum, terrorism has scarred our landscape -- and our hearts. Inside, these vivid creations of color and shapes are indeed a respite.

Susan Stamberg is special correspondent for National Public Radio.

Other Resources

The Phillips Collection