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Friday, December 5, 2014

Painting Washington D.C.

Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington D.C. a century ago, a watercolor dated 1908.                          

A couple weeks ago I wrote about the artists who, over the years, have been inspired to paint the White House. In researching such works I found a number of similar paintings featuring the Capital city of the United States of America itself. Here I'm not talking about the painters of Washington, D. C., but their paintings. Their artists are often anonymous or quite obscure. Very often such work becomes a treasured part of our nations art heritage simply because of the subject, the artist's name bane being little more than a marginal note which eventually get's marginalized into anonymity. The same is often the case with the exact dates in which the work was created, leaving us frequently guessing even as to the decade from which work derived. In selecting these artists' impressions, I've consciously avoided standard tourist images in favor of works literally inspired by the city and its landmarks. Although the city has several world-class museums of art, I've taken to looking outside such vaulted institutions for art of the city, rather than art in the city.
Aerial Construction View, Washington, D.C.--art inspired by the city planners.
Today, Washington D.C., despite some areas of urban blight, is one of the most beautiful capital cities in the world. There are two major factors contributing to such urban loveliness--Pierre Charles L'Enfant, and the vibrant, ever-growing wealth and importance of the nation this city represents. Decorating L'Enfant's master plan of the city have been a number of classically inspired or trained architects such as James Hoban (the White House), William Thornton (the U.S. Capitol), Robert Mills (the Washington Monument), John Russell Pope (the Jefferson Monument). and Henry Bacon the Lincoln Memorial). Without these men and a few others, Washington would be just another city full of snarled freeways and soaring high-rise towers--Chicago on the Potomac--so to speak.
Washington, D.C. Skyline, Michael Tompsett
A Beautiful Girl Painting the
Jefferson Monument
As it is, the city of Washington, D.C. is rivaled in its beauty only by the capital cities of Paris and perhaps Brasilia, both of which, bear the mark of modern day city planning (if you consider Baron Haussmann's revitalization of Paris in the 1850s to be modern day). These cities, unlike most, did not grow haphazardly to accommodate their populations but were guided by city planning "artists" with an eye toward making them, in effect, works of art themselves. Other cities of the world, derive their beauty more as the result of accidental "charm" or geography rather than design. Thus, inasmuch as art inspires art, subsequent artists have taken note of the results and attempted to depict such beauty from the ground level. Today, as seen in the painting at right, the city has so many "paintable" vistas artists often choose a camera rather than canvas with which to capture its essence.
A View of the Capitol of Washington, 1802 watercolor, William Birch
The United States Capitol at
sunset (detail), M. Bleichner
As with any unfinished masterpiece, Washington, D.C. was not always a thing of beauty. The city's earliest artist were inspired as much by its virgin landscape and potential as by what they saw in traversing Pennsylvania Avenue on horseback or dust-raising carriages. If Washington, D.C. today is a quagmire of political intrigue, in 1802 when the city officially began its life, it was quite literally a quagmire, so swampy in some areas as to be branded unhealthy. The headquarters of the present day State Department was such an area, long called "Foggy Bottom." During the Civil War era, as the present capitol dome rose in defiance of secession, the city could easily have been termed downright ugly. Tiber Creek, running just a block or two behind the White House (south side) was little more than an open sewer. Before the days of air-conditioning Presidents, Congressmen, and prostitutes alike fled the city to escape the humid hell of August. Actually, a vestige of that tradition continues today when, during that month, the entire U.S. government appears to leave on vacation en-masse.

A Washington, D.C. wall mural depicting some of the city's most distinguished
residents from the past. I have no idea who the lady in the middle might be.
Not all the art of Washington, D.C. appears on canvas. Like all cities today, this nation's capital is a city of walls, in a country which values freedom of expression. In so many countries, this very often manifests itself in an excruciating display of blatant vandalism--graffiti. Athens and Cairo are both overrun by such blight to the point of desecration. In this country, such personal expression, though not necessarily absent, often rises to the level of art with a growing number of sometimes wildly creative, larger than life images on historic, social protest, and entertainment themes. It's not all great art...or even good art...but it passes the test of embodying creative communication. The best of it survives through community efforts at preservation. The rest, after a short time, succumbs to the decomposition brought on by the city's brutal winters and blazing summers. While some Washington artists paint on walls, others have been inspired by walls, most prominent of which is the relatively recent addition to the city's numerous landmarks, the Vietnamese War Memorial, designed by Maya Lin. From it came perhaps the most iconic painting ever inspired by the city, Reflections (below) from 1988, by Lee Teter.

Reflections, 1988, Lee Teter.


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