The Phillips Collection and Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party ~ 40 Years Later!

Almost 40 years ago I visited the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, with my Mom.  I have vague memories of doing so, such as a feeling of visiting someone’s home/estate filled with art.  It isn’t a large museum like the National Gallery of Art, but something more intimate.  Our visit was before I knew I wanted to become an artist, but it left a lasting impression on me as a place I’d love to go back to someday.

Over this last weekend, while Jen was having a mini-reunion with high school girlfriends, a few of which she hadn’t seen in 40 years, I decided to have my own reunion with the Phillips Collection after 40 years.  

I almost gave up on it, having driven around the block ten times looking for a parking spot!  As luck would have it, on my last attempt before giving up I found a spot right in front of the museum.  It was meant to be I thought to myself.  There was a reason a voice inside me was saying “Go visit the Phillips Collection.”  

After enjoying three floors of a large collection of American Art (the special exhibit) I entered the older building, which triggered my memories of my previous visit.  I was inside the home of the wealthy art collector Duncan Phillips, viewing his personal collection of American and European art.  He loved to support and discover living artists of his day.  He would become friends with many of the artists whom he collected and with every purchase he had a real connection to each piece.  

As I walked up the steps to another level, in a large room, I spotted a large Renoir I remembered as The Boating Party.  It turned out to be the piece I was most drawn to in the entire museum.  I wasn’t sure why, but I kept looking back at it as I thought of walking away.  I went back several times and pushed the boundaries of being within the two feet allowed for viewing.

Luncheon of the Boating Party by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Luncheon of the Boating Party by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

The large scale of the painting, the brighter colors, and a level of detail I hadn’t seen in many other Renoirs all surprised me.  I thought this must be considered one of Renoir’s masterpieces!

It piqued my curiosity and I knew I had to read up on the painting and its background.  Here is a little of what I discovered:  

Renoir painted the painting in 1875.  It was at a time when critics of Impressionism were accusing the French Impressionists of doing “sloppy work” and of being lazy.  The well-known art critic Emile Zola wrote about the Impressionists work as being “incomplete, illogical, and exaggerated”.  

Many believe that Luncheon of the Boat Party was Renoir’s answer to Zola’s criticism of him and his contemporaries.  Renoir wanted to prove the critics wrong and thus created a painting that showed signs of moving away from Impressionism and toward realism.  It was in 1883, only 8 years after this painting that Renoir gave up Impressionism completely for a more realistic style.  

It is also believed that this painting was the result of Renoir wanting to establish himself as one of the Impressionist Movement’s greatest painters. Renoir spent six months painting Luncheon of the Boating Party.

All of this explains why I was so drawn to the painting.  Renoir was pushing himself to a new level, answering his critics.  The painting has a complex composition, strong lighting, a fluidity in the brushwork, strong use of color, etc...  He went with a wonderful balance of Impressionism and Realism.  I love that combination.  He created a “painterly” painting that shows off his creative side while at the same time proving he was a serious painter.  I could tell by looking at it that the artist put his heart and soul into it.

Obviously, Duncan Phillips saw something special in this masterpiece by Renoir.  He purchased it in 1923 for $125,000 and made it a focal piece in his home.  He realized that many would feel just like I felt upon seeing the painting, and thus the painting holds a prominent location in the museum where one can view it from a distance or study it up close.  

I love the quote by the actor Edward G. Robinson, “For over thirty years I made periodic visits to Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boat Party in a Washington museum, and stood before that magnificent masterpiece hour after hour, day after day, plotting ways to steal it.”  

Now, I too have made periodic trips (every 40 years) to a Washington museum to stand before Renoir’s masterpiece.  It most likely was an inspiration to me when I first saw it, and it most definitely was this time!

I’m so glad I made the effort to visit the Phillips Collection.  Inspiration to an artist is all-important, and I find it whenever I visit fine art museums. 

The Phillips Collection is filled with masterpieces and is well worth the visit.  You can visit the website at

One of the joys of being an artist is having the freedom to follow my passion...
— William R. Beebe
What's next?  Drawing by William R. Beebe

What's next?

Drawing by William R. Beebe

Fifty Shades of “Pink” ~ Looking at the Dark Side of Portraiture!

I’ve been taking some time to further explore the art of portraiture, analyzing different styles and techniques.  I’ve even been experimenting with going to the dark side of portraiture!  That is, developing stronger shadows by using darker darks, transitional mid-tones and stronger highlights.

Portraiture runs the gamut from Renoir to Rembrandt as far as lights and darks on a face.  Some portraits are soft and subtle like many of Renoir’s. I love this painting by Renoir of Jeanne Samary-La Reverie painted in 1877.

Other portraits have strong lighting with deep shadows like many of Rembrandt’s. Rembrandt painted 90 self-portraits from 1620-1669.  I find it fascinating how artists all see and paint faces differently.

A portrait painter, along with shading, sometimes struggles with coloring. The human face on a Caucasian isn’t just pink or flesh color in a tube but it can be fifty shades of “pink” and numerous other colors. Blues and greens help create cooler tones on a face.  Alizarin crimson, cadmium red and yellow ocher all help to create warmer skin tones.  

I usually tend to paint my portraits on the softer side.  I shy away from dark shadows on a face.  My colors tend to be lighter.  I’ve been using very little black when mixing colors.  To create darker skin tones I might mix in a little bit of green, brown, red, or blue to make the pinkish color darker. 

An advantage of working with darker shadows is that there can be more of a range of colors and shades.  Highlights pop more if they are played off darks, like the shine on the end of a nose or the twinkle in an eye.  Fine lines like wrinkles in the face can stand out more.  That can be good or bad, depending on whether you are the artist or the subject.  :-)  Not everyone wants their wrinkles to show. 

For the last few weeks I’ve been working on several portraits, painting in darker darks, adding more mid-tones and stronger highlights than I usually do.  Placing dark colors on a face is somewhat unnatural to me.  If you can believe it, a strong shadow on the dark side of one’s face might actually be a mixture of burnt umber, viridian green, black, alizarin crimson and a little dab of a neutral lighter color (or any combination of those colors).  It is actually a very dark color, not pink at all.

Having darker darks makes your lights darker too.  For instance, if the overall face is dark in tone, then the “whites of the eyes” are way too white if you paint them white.  The “whites of the eyes” have to be toned way down and are actually shades of grey.

Every artist is different.  There are many methods and styles to painting a portrait.  Here are a few examples of portraits that I find interesting and that exemplify a masterful ability by the artist to capture a personality on canvas.


Draft Age by arguably the most famous contemporary American artist Jamie Wyeth, has ultimate lights and darks.  It’s very realistic, creative, and makes a statement not only about the subject but about the times.  I viewed this portrait at the National Gallery of Art many years ago and was awestruck by it.  I also saw Jamie Wyeth’s painting of President John F. Kennedy that he painted when he was only 21!  Amazing!

Check out this painting of Shorty by Jamie!


The Girl with the Pearl Earring painted by Johannes Vermeer in 1665!  This painting is copied by many artists as a study in light and dark.  Vermeer’s ability to use strong lighting on a face without losing the soft feminine skin tones is masterful.

Monet’s Self-Portrait With a Beret I find marvelous in it’s simplicity and intriguing because I , like I imagine most people, don’t often associate Monet with portraiture.

I love this painting of the writer Thomas Wolfe done by the contemporary painter Everett Raymond Kinstler.  It’s a very large, painting (44” X 56”) that caught my eye one day while wandering the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC.  The white background is so unusual in professional portraiture but it is striking, combined with the light suit.  Rich skin tones, beautiful highlights, reflected light, and a unique and captivating pose all help make this painting exceptional.

Darkness in ones face can not only help develop a three dimensional quality but also can create mystery and intrigue into the personality of the subject. The question the portrait painter has to ask himself/herself is, do I show every bag and wrinkle or do I use artistic license and flatter someone?  A plastic surgeon is paid to take out the bags and wrinkles but sometimes a portrait painter is lauded for painting them in.  When painting one’s portrait one thing’s for sure, it’s all a delicate balance.

The bottom-line is that Portraiture is not only an art form but a science that can be analyzed and studied.  Masterpieces can range from simple in appearance like say Monet’s self-portrait above, to very complex like Jamie Wyeth’s intense photo-realistic Shorty.

 It’s time to get back to painting and studying the art and science of portraiture.  Venturing over into the dark side can be kind of scary but in order to see the light it helps to experience the dark!

Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche or Paint Flowers! Or Do They?

Look what I’ve become!  I love quiche.  My only problem with ordering it is that the portion size is always too small and it usually comes with a side salad.  I would prefer a manly size piece along with a pint of ale.  I also love to paint flowers but don’t tell anyone. :-)

When we bought our nearly 200 year old house in downtown Camden, ME, along with it came my own little Giverny.  Like Monet (but on a much smaller scale) I found myself surrounded by beautiful gardens and blooming trees.  I would look out the front window (my studio) and see the daffodils in the spring along with pink and white peonies standing tall against our white picket fence.  The peonies were so beautiful, one time I looked out and a lady that lived up the street felt the urge to cut an entire bouquet for herself to take home and enjoy!  It was premeditated as she had her scissors in hand.

Occasionally, I would take a coffee break from painting and wander downstairs into our living room to gaze through the picture window.  It was one of my favorite views in the house.  Colorful tall Hollyhocks would catch my peripheral vision as I took in the annual beds on either side of the old stone steps that lead down to our greenhouse and our perennial beds.  Beyond were two church steeples that for me made the view serene. 

On some of these occasions, I would see our 6 foot tall gardener and friend Anna in the middle of the perennial bed with her arms in motion and seemingly talking to herself.  I would always laugh when I realized that she was talking to my 5 foot tall wife Jen, who couldn’t be seen among the phlox.

Other times, I would see tourists meandering down our driveway to take pictures of the perennial flowers in bloom, continuing on into the yard like they lived there. 

Surrounded by hostas, daylilies, beds of impatiens, rose bushes, extensive perennial beds, purple lilac trees etc… I guess it was only a matter of time before I started painting flowers.  One day we were at a good friend’s house and I noticed a beautiful floral still life print on her wall.  When I examined it closer I was surprised to see that it was a Renoir!

I wasn’t aware of Renoir’s magnificent floral still-lifes.   Renoir must have been inspired on his frequent visits to his good friend Claude Monet’s house, Giverny, for he produced some of the most spectacular florals that I’ve ever seen.   I was so inspired that I called up Anna and asked her to put her creative genius to work to create a floral arrangement for me to paint. 

Next thing I knew I was painting flowers!  Being a very slow painter, I quickly realized I had a limited time before all of the flowers shriveled up.  I chose a 30” by 40” inch board to give the piece some grandeur.  Between the short lived life of cut flowers and the sizeable scale of the board, it created an hour glass effect.  I took photos for backup but I sketched and painted as fast as I could in order to work from real life three-dimensional flowers and not two dimensional photographs. 

Still Life with Plates.jpg

It was my first floral still-life.  It was inspired by Renoir, created by Anna and a joy to paint.  We ended up buying a print of Auguste-Pierre Renoir’s floral entitled, Spring Bouquet, and it hangs in our guest bedroom.  Seeing his masterpiece daily, makes me want to try again for even though I’m happy with the painting, I know I can do better!

So if you must, call me a quiche eating artist who paints flowers.  It sounds like a great way to spend a day!

The Delicate Balance of Portraiture

Blythe portrait.jpg

There is something very personal about portraiture.  As an artist, I always try to enhance my subject through my realistic interpretation, softened by touches of impressionism.  I start with a grid to create an accurate underdrawing, guaranteeing a fairly accurate outline and likeness from the beginning.  From there, it becomes a painting process of coloring, blending, shading and painterly touches to bring the subject to life. 

My tendency in portraiture is to lean more in the direction of what I would term a Renoir style rather than say a Thomas Eakins’ style.  Renoir’s faces in his portraits for the most part are very soft and blended, where Eakins had a more linear and defined style.  In this portrait my clients requested a few changes after their first viewing.  Their personal preference is to have a more defined face, showing more character.

I saw the request as a new challenge and worked to achieve the changes without sacrificing my own interpretation.  My overall goal in portraiture is not photographic realism but to create a flattering impression to the viewer while maintaining a likeness. 

I liken the process of a commissioned portrait to that of a home builder building a spec home versus a custom home for a client.    On a spec home the builder will have the natural inclination to build a home that suits his/her personal taste.  On a custom build a builder has to work with the client and build what suits the client’s personal taste.  A client might even throw in a change order to tweak something last minute.  In the end the builder wants the client to be happy even though the change order may complicate and lengthen the process. 

At this point in my career, I’m enjoying mixing up my subject matter, including accepting more commissioned work.  Whether it’s a portrait, a landscape, a private home, a maritime scene or even a still life, having someone excited about having me paint something for them is very gratifying.  In this case, when Blythe asked me if I would be interested in painting her and her niece, I knew it was exactly the kind of challenging and rewarding project that I would enjoy. 

The relationship between Blythe and her only niece was very important to consider in the composition of this painting.   Blythe has high hopes for her, a junior at Harvard, and sees her as representing the next generation of highly successful professional business women.  The setting is one of the function rooms at Harvard.  High ceilings, a large granite fireplace, old textured plaster walls with rich, dark red paint all helped to create an appropriate setting for these two accomplished women to pose.

After working together for several hours, rearranging furniture and lighting, trying a variety of poses and getting a good idea of what my client was looking for, I ended up with several hundred photos.  I narrowed it down to a select number of poses that I thought would create a nice composition and Blythe made the final pick.

I volunteered early in our discussions, if we felt the composition was lacking in any area, I could enhance the background by substituting whatever we felt would be more meaningful.  The client’s home bookcase was added to the composition to symbolize the intellectual pursuit and academic achievement of both women.  On the shelf shoulder high to Blythe, are two books that she has authored entitled Shaking the Globe and Fit in Stand Out, along with two books written by her husband.  The elephant bookend symbolizes strength.  The porcelain antique pottery was added as an artist’s touch.  I felt its oriental look in a small way represents Blythe’s world travels and at the same time ties in the bookcase with the Oriental rug.   The Oriental rug and the bookcase both took an inordinate amount of time, but add a richness and interest to the portrait. 

I hope you enjoy seeing the finished painting.  I enjoyed the entire process, from the beginning Boston photo shoot (Please Come to Boston, The Rest of the Story, and Night at the Museum) and all the laughs over glamour poses to finally signing my name.  I thank Blythe for this wonderful opportunity and for the journey.

To learn more about the inimitable Blythe McGarvie you can visit her website at

I would love to hear from those interested in portraiture what your favorite portrait is or hear who your favorite portrait artist is.  It would be hard for me to choose as I love many different styles.  I like John Singer Sargent’s grandeur in his large portraits….. Van Gogh’s brushwork and colors…. Renoir’s softness…  Norman Rockwell’s painterly quality, Frans Hal’s strength and boldness etc…