Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

A Lesson in Moonlight I Learned to Look out from Small Places, and See

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

A Lesson in Moonlight I Learned to Look out from Small Places, and See

Article excerpt

Learning is a strange process. It so often happens when we aren't looking for it and don't even welcome it.

I was 21 when I moved from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C., to take my first real job. I was scared and confused. It was the late 1960s; my identity, like that of the country, was in flux. Violence seemed to be everywhere -- from the streets to the highest offices of government. Color television showed images of bright orange explosions in a bright green Asian landscape.

The job was with a government intelligence agency. It was a spectacularly bad fit for me. I'd taken it because I didn't want to go to graduate school and because the application, full of puzzles and codes and ciphers, was fascinating and fun, and I'd done well on it.

I never did get my full security clearance. I found another job, then another. I wanted to stay in Washington, an old Southern town just then on the cusp of becoming a cosmopolitan city.

My sister and I shared an apartment near Dupont Circle. We explored and ate delicious Southern food at a famous old drug store, a tea room, a department store. We visited the National Gallery and, near where we lived, the Phillips Collection.

On these outings to lunch and museum, we shed the new, tougher and hipper identities we were trying on and reverted to being the young ladies we'd been raised to be, young ladies who respected art, learning and unpretentious good manners.

At that time, the Phillips was small, consisting of the original Phillips house and the 1960 addition. It was America's first museum of modern art, established in 1918. Renoir's monumental "Luncheon of the Boating Party," purchased by Duncan Phillips in the 1920s, has been sufficient to bring moderate crowds to the museum's intimate spaces ever since.

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We fell in love with the Phillips, not only with its paintings but with the rooms of the museum itself. There was something magical about looking at pictures in the rooms of a house rather than in blank gallery spaces. We began to feel that we belonged at the Phillips, that the paintings were ours to know and enjoy. Unconsciously, we were allowing ourselves to be educated instead of impressed.

It was in that open and relaxed frame of mind that I approached a very small painting by an artist I'd never heard of, Albert Pinkham Ryder. It was called "Seacoast in Moonlight" and it was dark, so dark I'd walked by it without noticing it on previous visits. Under cracked varnish the colors shaded from washed-out yellow to dark green to black. And yet ...

I stepped back a foot or two and concentrated on the dim moon shining over the dark water. The longer I looked, the more golden the light seemed to be and the more it could be seen to suffuse the entire scene. I was caught in that light, standing on damp sand, feeling the salt mist on my skin and looking up through it at that moon. …

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