Social Isolation Viewed in Another Time : Notes on Richard Diebenkorn
April 22 is the birthday of a painter who populated his paintings sparsely — if at all. Diebenkorn’s frequent depictions of isolation makes his work newly relevant for a time of self-quarantine.
Richard Diebenkorn brings the viewers of his paintings into many quiet rooms.
Some of his works show women sitting alone. In others, the rooms are empty. Diebenkorn (1922–1993) often included large windows in his paintings of rooms. These windows draw our attention. Diebenkorn puts us inside of these rooms, but we’re looking out.
As we celebrate what would have been Diebenkorn’s 98th birthday on April 22, his studies of isolation as a theme make his paintings newly relevant.
The COVID-19 pandemic is keeping us inside. Many of us are facing this time alone. Many of us are doing so as couples. But no matter how many people may be with us in our homes, I’d bet we are all spending more time looking out of windows. And what do we see? Empty streets and unpeopled landscapes, just as Diebenkorn often painted.
Diebenkorn favored a mood of solitude in his paintings. He never included more than two figures in a canvas, wrote Grayson Harris Lane in his contribution to “The Eye of Duncan Phillips,” a book about an art collection that greatly inspired Diebenkorn.
Marine Who 'Feasted' on Art
A native Californian educated at Stanford University, Diebenkorn came to the East Coast through military service. He was a rare character, an art student serving in the Marines in the 1940s. Around 1944, Diebenkorn was stationed at Quantico, Virginia. He and his wife, Phyllis, used his free weekends to make pilgrimages to see modern paintings. They traveled to the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Closer still to Quantico is Washington, D.C.
The Diebenkorns “just feasted” on the museums of the capital, including the National Gallery of Art, the artist later told the Smithsonian Institution in a series of 1980s interviews about his career. (There’s a link at the end of this article to a bibliography that includes this interview and other sources for this article.)
The District of Columbia has the great fortune to have inherited impressive collections of paintings created by many wealthy Americans. We take it for granted, but the rise of industrial power in the late 19th and early 20th centuries transformed art ownership. Fortunes built on steel and coal let people who were little removed from farm life quickly amass collections of first-rate paintings.
Many kings of earlier centuries could only have imagined having the buying power, for example, of Andrew Mellon (1855–1937). With an aim of creating a U.S. version of the U.K.’s National Gallery, Mellon bought in one sale 21 works from the Hermitage collection founded by Russia’s Catherine the Great. In 1936, Mellon offered the United States the gift of his collection, which became the National Gallery in D.C. works by some of Europe’s most famous artists, such as Botticelli and Raphael and Rembrandt.
Andrew’s father, Thomas Mellon, was born on a farm in rural Northern Ireland. As a child, Thomas immigrated to the United States with his family. Through banking and investments started by Thomas, the Mellon family grew rich along with its clients in the steel and coal industries. Andrew Mellon not only donated his paintings to the United States, but also paid for a museum to house them.
Built to Mellon’s taste, the National Gallery is a neoclassical building that incorporates within it a copy of Rome’s Pantheon. In the winter, the fountain of this Pantheon-like section of the National Gallery is surrounded by flowers. These displays have brightened many a cold day for visitors to the National Gallery of Art.
Mellon was not the first to make such a gift to the United States. In 1906, a Detroit industrialist arranged to donate this art collection to the Smithsonian Institution. Charles Lang Freer (1854–1919) was a self-made man. He left school in upstate New York around age 14 to work in a cement factory and later made a fortune in the railcars industry.
Freer’s bequest to the United States government included money for the construction of a museum to house his collection. The design chosen for the Freer Gallery of Art likely reflected his happy memories of time spent in Italy. The finished building recalls the setting of this painting by John Singer Sargent, “Breakfast in the Loggia” c. 1910.
The Freer’s courtyard to this day is one of the most charming spots in D.C. to sit and read.
But visiting the National Gallery of Art or the Freer is a far different experience than seeing a major art collection in the house in which it first emerged. And Diebenkorn clearly fell in love with the home that Duncan Phillips (1886–1966) created for his collection.
In an oral history of his career compiled in the 1980s by the Smithsonian Institution, Diebenkorn recalled his visits as a young Marine to what was then called the Phillips Memorial Gallery. By the time of the Smithsonian interviews, the renamed Phillips Collection had undergone a major expansion.
“But then it was simply a big — I guess one would call it a mansion — big old house, furnished, and somehow survived the public trooping through all the time,” Diebenkorn recalled. “There were the original rugs on the floor, the original furniture, and one was made to, the hospitality was extended, especially to servicemen, and… one could smoke and sit in the rooms and talk and look.”
Phillips, the grandson of a banker who helped found a steel company, was born in Pittsburgh. But the Phillips family moved to Washington in 1895. Phillips lost his father and a brother as a young adult, and he channeled his grief into collecting art. He opened what he at first called the Phillips Memorial Gallery in his handsome Greek Revival home around 1921. Within about a decade, the collection consumed the home in D.C.’s elegant Dupont Circle neighborhood and the Phillips family moved to a new house nearby.
Visiting the Phillips was “a refuge” and a “sanctuary,” Diebenkorn recalled in an 1982 interview kept in the collection’s archives.
“ I just absorbed everything on those walls,” Diebenkorn said.
Janet Bishop of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art included these comments from Diebernkorn in an essay she wrote about the relationship of his work to that of French artist Henri Matisse (1869–1954). Bishop was a co-curator of a major 2016–2017 traveling exhibition, Matisse/Diebenkorn. It was one of the best art shows I’ve seen in years. How good was it? The Matisse/Diebenkorn show returned me to a state of optimism. I traveled to Baltimore to see it on Jan. 21, 2017. On that day, D.C., where I live, was consumed by a presidential inauguration.
Many of Diebenkorn’s most famous paintings are abstract works, in which it is easy to see the influence of Matisse. There are even some similarities with Diebenkorn’s fairly realistic depictions of interiors and landscape.
It interests me to compare Diebenkorn’s interiors with those of another French painter whose work is featured at the Phillips, Pierre Bonnard. (1867–1947)
Consider these two paintings from the Phillips . Both are beautiful works with vibrant colors, but they evoke very different responses, at least for me. In Open Window (1927), Bonnard’s world is warm, sensual. We’re forced to choose between enjoying views of cozy rooms or peering through window to lush gardens. Bonnard’s female subject plays with a cat, while Diebenkorn’s has a mute plant for company.
In Diebenkorn’s paintings of people and rooms, we see the strong influence a fellow American painter had on him. Like Edward Hopper (1882–1967), Diebenkorn pulls us into contemplative scenes, in which we may at times read a certain sadness.
Compare the choices made by Hopper in depicting his late-night diner patrons in his famous Nighthawks painting (1942) and those of Sargent in the painting of the ladies dining together outdoors.
Even when paired or in a group scene, as in Nighthawks, Hopper’s people are socially distant. Hopper has given us people who seem tired, who seem resigned. Sargent’s women are enjoying their time together. They are relaxed and at ease. Sargent’s women are sheltered, shaded by the loggia, but still seem to be warmed by dappled sun. Hoppers’ three diner patrons and the employee are overexposed to harsh overhead light.
Early on in his career, Diebenkorn embraced Hopper. In the Smithsonian interview, he recalled the impact of seeing Hopper’s “use of light and shade and the atmosphere, that kind of drenched, saturated with mood, and its kind of austerity, it was the kind of work that just seemed made for me.”
Some people see one of Hopper’s masterpieces, Early Sunday Morning (1930), as being peaceful, showing the time before the street will spring to life. Many of us find it disquieting. With such strong light already making itself known on a city street, we feel there should be somebody out there.
For me, the same is true of Diebenkorn’s street scenes, such as this one. They are beautiful and a little unsettling with their lack of human presence.
For details on the sources I used in writing this essay, go to my bibliography on American artists. The web site of the Diebenkorn Foundation has the artist’s work on view. It’s a great place to spend time, especially if you are looking for a nice distraction.
UPDATE: Thanks to the Richard Diebenkorn Foundation for the images used in this version of this essay. And thanks as well to the Phillips Collection, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Smithsonian Institution for their earlier assistance.
Follow Instagram posts by the Diebenkorn Foundation to see more of the artist’s work.