Aside from being the Smithsonian Institution's crafts showcase, the Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C., is a delightfully overwrought Victorian fantasy. Everything one might want is there -- the Charles Addams mansard roof, a "grand salon" with floor-to-ceiling paintings, cascades of curtains a la Beverly Semmes, chunky, anthropomorphic cornices and architectural details, and wince-inducing, vomitose wall colors.
And right now, providing relief from crafts if that's not particularly your thing (and it isn't mine), the Renwick has installed a sensational group of 19th century paintings in a small octagonal room.
After I entered this cozy space, my mind traveled back to the early 1970s, when a professor with the unlikely name of Alfred Frankenstein somewhat defensively argued that the American painter, Winslow Homer, invented Impressionism. We all know that the movement started in Paris, and yet there I was, at the Renwick, knowing exactly what Dr. Frankenstein meant.
On the wall, way up high, was Homer's tiny The Butterfly, painted in 1872 -- the same year as Claude Monet's pivotal Impression: Sunrise. It portrays a languid Yankee woman (Homer's love interest, Helena de Kay) on a sun-dappled lawn in pure greens, sharp yellows, pinks, whites and other colors, deftly placed by an artist who knew how to record the optical, rather than linear or volumetric, realities of nature. Here at least, Homer was as Impressionist as they come. About 20 more Homers on two walls (on loan from the Cooper-Hewitt in New York) complete the group, none as striking as The Butterfly but all instructive regarding northeast America's light.
On a third wall, amid a potpourri of works by mostly genteel Edwardians (Thomas Wilmer Dewing in particular), is one of the best Peaceable Kingdoms ever painted by Edward Hicks, the early 19th-century Quaker-limner who pursued this subject again and again. To the point of tedium some would say. Not this time. The animals are audaciously cute, the vegetation is effortlessly surreal, the text rigid and cryptic, and William Penn and his Native peace-makers are dignified, toylike and diplomatic all at once. But what makes this particular Hicks superior is the child hugging the lion, and the lion's smile in response. In a word, wow.
A range of Albert Pinkham Ryders, all characteristically odd, are on the fourth wall. The lava lamp here, however, is his killingly strong Moonlight (1887), with its silver-black marbling of worked-over paint depicting a boat with ripped sail and stormy sea and sky in tortuous abstract terms, setting the mind wandering about time, death, fate and perhaps a Wagner opera (the artist was a fan). For this writer at least, Marsden Hartley's late landscapes, on view as part of the traveling retrospective recently seen at the Phillips Collection, pale by comparison.
After these epiphanies, the Grand Salon's re-creation of George Catlin's overpacked, overwhelming 333-painting Indian Gallery of the mid-19th century (through Jan. 4, 2004) is perhaps best saved for another visit. Contemporary crafts have ample space at the Renwick, but for fans of a certain kind of yesteryear, its Victorian epicenter is hard to beat.