Phillips Collection’s ‘Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection’

Amy Henderson
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Jan Brueghel the Younger, ‘The Five Senses: Sight,’ (detail) c. 1625. Oil on panel, 27 5/8 x 44 5/8 in. Paul G. Allen Family Collection.

This spring, the Phillips Collection, a private museum in Washington, D.C. calling itself “America’s first museum of Modern art,” presents 39 masterworks of European and American landscape painting from the collection of philanthropist and entrepreneur, Paul G. Allen. Seeing Nature is a traveling national exhibition that is co-organized by the Portland Art Museum, the Seattle Art Museum, and the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. xxxxxxxxxx

The exhibition showcasing “landscape” spans five centuries and begins with a room devoted to Jan Brueghel the Younger’s 17th century paintings depicting “The Five Senses”—“Sight, Hearing, Smell, Touch, and Taste.”  Dr. Klaus Ottmann, the Phillips Collection Deputy Director for Curatorial and Academic Affairs, stressed to me as we walked through the exhibit how extraordinary it was that these five works still existed as an ensemble. When asked why Paul Allen included them in his “landscape” collection, Ottmann pointed out how the beginning of landscape painting is evident in each canvas:  while the “senses” are portrayed in the fore-and-middle-distances, “landscape” announces itself the far-distance, either through a window or simply as extended background.

Right: Jan Brueghel the Younger, The Five Senses: Smell, c. 1625. Oil on panel, 27 5/8 x 44 5/8 in. Paul G. Allen Family Collection.

Why is Allen interested in collecting “landscape”?  It seems that his collecting philosophy parallels his fascination with a wider commitment to exploring life’s great mysteries. In 1996 Allen and his sister Jody created Vulcan, Inc., to “find smart solutions for some of the world’s biggest challenges.”  Named after the Roman god of fire who forged works no one else thought were possible, Vulcan focuses in part on understanding the landscape of the brain so that “we can pave the way towards understanding diseases like Alzheimer’s.” ( website) Klaus Ottmann www.artesmagazine.comdraws a further connection between Allen’s interest in brain science and his collecting landscape paintings, noting that Allen believes that the brain is particularly wired to perceive landscape.

Left: Giovanni Antonio Canal, known as Canaletto, The Grand Canal, Venice, Looking Southeast from San Stae to the Fabbriche Nuove di Rialto, c. 1738. Oil on canvas, 18 1/2 x 30 5/8″. Paul G. Allen Family Collection.

From the 17th century Brueghels, the exhibition moves on to paintings that convey the popularity of sites spotlighted by “Grand Tours” of the 18th century. One, Pierre-Jacques Volaire’s “Eruption of Mount Vesuvius with the Ponte della Maddalena in the Distance” (c. 1770), reflects the Enlightenment’s fascination with the Sublime—notably with witnessing a dangerous landscape from a safe distance. Thomas Jefferson wrote about his reaction to Virginia’s “Natural Bridge” in his 1785 Notes on the State of Virginia, describing it as “the most sublime of Nature’s works.” The bridge’ impact was so striking that it gave him migraines.

Right: Édouard Manet, View in Venice -The Grand Canal, 1874. Oil on canvas, 22 9/16 x 18 3/4″. Paul G. Allen Family Collection.

Several paintings evoke Venice, a city that Allen loves. There are remarkable canvases in the show documenting this city from the 18th to the early 20th century by Canaletto, J.M.W. Turner, Edouard Manet, Thomas Moran, Claude Monet, Henri-Edmond Cross, and Henri Le Sidaner. Another favorite Allen site is the Grand Canyon, and the exhibition showcases eye-popping depictions of this natural wonder by Thomas Moran, Arthur Wesley Dow, and David Hockney. Other works in Seeing Nature are more sui generous but no less stunning, and include canvases by John Singer Sargent, Edward Hopper, Thomas Hart Benton, Maxfield Parrish, Max Ernst, Georgia O’Keeffe, Milton Avery, Rene Magritte, Gerhard Richter, April Gornik, and Ed Ruscha.

Below: David Hockney, The Grand Canyon, 1998. Oil on 21 canvases, 48 1/2 x 169 1/2″. overall. © David Hockney. Paul G. Allen Family Collection.

One particularly riveting painting is Gustav Klimt’s “Birch Forest” (1903), which is very unlike his “Lady in Gold” work of the same period: here, Klimt depicts a birch landscape near Attersee Lake outside of Salzburg. At first the landscape appears flat, but because Klimt used a telescope or opera glasses to collapse the middle distance, the resulting close-up perspective gives the canvas an www.artesmagazine.comalmost tapestry-like appearance that, as the label suggests, conveys a “hushed reverence.”

Left: Gustav Klimt, Birch Forest, 1903. Oil on canvas, 42 1/4 x 42 1/4″. Paul G. Allen Family Collection.

In the exhibition catalogue, Paul Allen explains how his parents instilled his interest in art by taking him to museums and encouraging him “to try to create my own art.” He became interested in collecting when he was financially able and began to imagine what it would be like to “live with amazing pieces in your own living spaces.” His first major purchase was Monet’s “The Water-Lily Pond” in 1992, which is included in this exhibition. He believes collecting today is driven either by the hope of financial appreciation or, in his case, “because you love the works and want to live with them.”  (Seeing Nature catalogue, 13, 14)

His taste is “spontaneous.” He likes certain artists, but also buys when there are “unusual opportunities,” as when the Klimt “Birch Forest” was restituted to a family that then auctioned it off. Sometimes “You have two of something and say ‘I’ve got two of these. I’d rather trade one for some other works.’” Other times, he’ll chase a particular work for years, as he did to acquire O’Keeffe’s “Black Iris VI,” also included in this exhibition.

Right: Georgia O’Keeffe, Black Iris VI, 1936. Oil on canvas, 36 x 24″. Paul G. Allen Family Collection. © 2015 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Allen’s collecting embraces a wide range of artistic movements. He is particularly fond of impressionism and modern art, and is exploring “the challenge of contemporary art,” which he compares to music today: “how can you be fresh and express a new way of looking?” He is not drawn to “really dark or hard-edge or bleak things,” but looks for “something that has some positive aspect of different perspective.” Mainly he asks—“Does it resonate with me? Is it something I want to keep looking at again and again?” Because of his background in computers, he is attracted to “pointillism or a Jasper Johns ‘numbers’ work because they come out of breaking something down into its components—like bytes or numbers, but in a different kind of language.”  (catalogue, 17)

Drawing a direct parallel between his interest in brain science and the landscape painting featured in Seeing Nature, Allen explains that “our brains are wired to see landscapes, to look at landscapes and to see what’s going on in them….It’s as if they are windows onto different realities….When you look at a painting, www.artesmagazine.comyou are looking into a different country, into someone else’s imagination….”  (18).

Left: Thomas Moran, Grand Canyon of Arizona at Sunset, 1909. Oil on canvas, 30 x 40 in. Paul G. Allen Family Collection.

Allen’s collection of landscape paintings is wonderfully arranged at the Phillips. Klaus Ottmann told me that he placed the art so that a “conversation” would connect the various works in each gallery. In addition, Ottmann has selected rich wall colors that set the paintings off sumptuously.

The exhibition includes art from thirteen of Paul Allen’s residences. Because they are works that he enjoys living with, how is he faring in their absence? In the catalogue, he exclaims, “I miss them all already! In particular, though, I will miss Klimt’s “Birch Forest,” the Hopper “Clamdigger,” and Hockney’s “The Grand Canyon.”

By Amy Henderson, Contributing Writer

Swww.artesmagazine.comeeing Nature will be at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., until May 8, 2016; it travels to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (July 10-September 18, 2016), the New Orleans Museum of Art (October 14, 2016—January 15, 2017) and the Seattle Art Museum (February 16—May 21, 2017).  The catalogue, Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection, is available at

Amy Henderson is Historian Emerita at the National Portrait Gallery

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