Art offers two great gifts of emotion — the emotion of recognition and the emotion of escape.

Both take us out of the boundaries of self.

 – Duncan Phillips, The Phillips Collection

Recently, I went on a field trip to the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. I went to see A Modern Vision: European Masters from the Phillips Collection. It was the next to the last day of the exhibition and featured paintings by Degas, Van Gogh, Monet, Cezanne and others I have heard of and ones I have not. The styles ranged from impressionism, post-impressionism, expressionism and cubism, collected by Duncan Phillips. It was an incredible experience with unexpected “consequences.”

This visit to the museum was initially intended as a way to do something different, to get out of the house on a cold, winter’s day and to open my eyes and mind to another art form, painting. More than once I’ve heard that as visual artists we should take in, learn about and expose ourselves to different mediums and genres (painting, drawing, sculpting, photography, poetry, etc.). In doing so, we add to our “reference points” of inspiration as we step out of the comfort zone of what we know and do. One thing I learned from this exhibition and in visiting the rest of the museum is that I need to do more “art exploring.” I need to keep filling the well and look for inspiration to bubble up in unexpected ways as I work and grow in my own photography.

Detail from Monet’s Waves at the Manneporte, circa 1885


For the road trip, I packed a small bag with my camera and several lenses, knowing that a quick turn in the arboretum was on deck, even though the current season is mostly full of bare trees, dried flowers and a few surprises. For the museum visit, I decided not to bring my camera inside. I wanted to be a bit less encumbered. I brought my phone with its own camera, but had no particular plan for what images I would make while there. No theme or pattern was pre-determined. I was there to see some of my favorite painters – Van Gogh, Monet, Degas, Cezanne – and to learn about those I know nothing or far less about. Turns out, I know far less about my favorites than I anticipated. In general, I had no plan but an open mind to whatever unexpected turns presented themselves.

Early in this visit, there was a twist. I thought I would take pictures of the artwork as whole pieces and move along – in a way, “hit and run.” Almost immediately, I was drawn in by the masters’ brush strokes, the colors, textures and patterns and by how those small details came together collectively to create the larger vision and emotions of the artist on canvas. My first frame was “Woman with Green Hat” by Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881-1973). The museum label describes succinctly his personal and artistic struggles at that time (1939). I made sure to document the artwork and the museum labels from that point on. This provided additional insight on the artists and the works.

Woman with Green Hat by Picasso was the first of many phone shots.

Informative museum labels were incredibly helpful in identifying artists and learning more about them.


It took very little time for my game plan to evolve and expand. The longer I stood in front of a painting, the more enthralled I was with the brush strokes. I would take an image of the painting as a whole, then several detail shots that showed the colors, textures and strokes, and ended with a frame of the museum label. I didn’t document every piece, only those that were intriguing and fascinating to me.

This pattern began with Oskar Kokoschka, an Austrian painter (1886-1980) and his Courmayeur et les Dents des Geants, made while in Northern Italy. Then came Georgio Morandi, an Italian artist (1890-1964) and his Still Life. Unknown to me, these two artists inspired me to look closer at each piece and to photograph the strokes. Their styles and approaches, within the exhibit, are very different, yet each held my attention longer and made me appreciate the effort and intentions that each painter reflected.

Courmayeur et les Dents des Geants by Oskar Kokoschka, Austrian painter (1886-1980)

Detail of Oskar Kokoschka brush strokes that began my study of the artists’ brush strokes in the exhibits

Then, came Claude Monet (French, 1840-1926), someone familiar to me, with an unfamiliar work, Val-Saint-Nicolas Near Dieppe (Morning), 1897. It is one of more than fifty cliff views he produced within 1896-1897. As noted in the label, “Duncan Phillips considered this painting to be a representative example of Monet’s work and one of the most beautiful Monet paintings he had ever seen.” Me? I didn’t even recognize it as a Monet, but was drawn in by the colors, textures and strokes. I was amazed at the intricacies and vision displayed.

Another surprise came from Vincent Van Gogh (Dutch, 1853-1890) with a painting inspired by a scene he witnessed while staying in a mental hospital in Saint-Remy. He made two versions of The Road Menders (1889), and the one on display was the more finished one. He wrote to his brother Theo, “The last study I have done is a view of the village, where they are working under enormous plane trees repairing the pavement. So there are heaps of sand, stones and gigantic trunks – the leaves are yellowing.” I had never seen this painting before, but Duncan Phillips ranked it “among the best Van Goghs.” I remember reading the letters of Van Gogh and Theo in college and how moving they were. (This painting, in particular, serves as a reminder to expand my horizons in the art world. It makes me want to know more about the work of artists with whom I thought I was familiar.) Sadly, this amazing, but troubled artist shot himself in the stomach and died two days later, seeing himself as a failure. Imagine what more Van Gogh might have created.

Van Gogh’s The Road Menders (1889)

Detail from The Road Menders

Detail from The Road Menders