“Sunrise: April”; Dwight William Tryon; United States, 1897–99; oil on wood panel; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1906.79a–b
In the summer of 2009, I moved to Washington with a freshly minted bachelor’s degree in illustration and, maybe not surprisingly, spent most days stocking the milk fridge at a Trader Joe’s. Squatting inside the bluish hull of the icebox, my skin chilled to a uniform 35 degrees by the roaring fan, I could peer out from behind the glass doors and watch the vague, broken outline of shoppers moving between the milk cartons. Of course, they could see me, too, but I felt the same sense of hidden stillness in the back of that fridge as I felt perched in the high branches of a pine tree as a kid, staring intently but aimlessly at the people below. There’s a sort of focused calm to looking around from a solitary vantage, a feeling of everything and nothing, which perfectly suits the naïve self-absorption of a child and the melodramatic career turmoil of a recent college graduate.
On days off, I would ride out to the National Mall to visit the art museums. It felt good to keep my head in the game: To keep thinking about art, you have to keep looking. Invariably, I would go to the National Gallery for Turner, Cézanne, and Rothko, or wind my way around the Hirshhorn looking for the de Koonings. (Sometimes I think that the answers to all of life’s problems lie hidden in a great painting, and that I’m just not looking hard enough.)
One morning, I came out of the Metro and walked up the steps of the Freer. It was new to me, for I had yet to be keyed in to the secret wonder of its American art collection. The Whistler galleries were, of course, beautiful, and I figured that they were a serendipitous and worthy discovery to sate me of my painterly cravings.
But then I entered a different gallery, anchored by a gorgeous double-panel painting by Thomas Dewing. I turned to face the opposite wall and was struck silent by a canvas that seemed entirely transparent. It was simple and reductive, stripped down to the barest mechanisms of composition and value. It had almost no shape, and the more I looked, the more it seemed to lack even color. It was a landscape painting, I supposed, with a broadly impressionistic sense of atmosphere, but it employed none of the flourish or willful distortion that I’d known from the work of Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, or Van Gogh.
I had never seen a painting like this. There was no barn silhouetted against the horizon, no fence, no nameless farmhand or rusted chisel plow punctuating the stillness. Just a row of trees on the cusp of budding, with the sun barely peeking over the distant horizon.
The painting enveloped me completely. It captured that rare feeling of a perfect moment in nature, a hazy awe that is impossible to fully absorb. It was that same feeling I had in the milk fridge and the pine tree, of everything and nothing, hidden peacefully within my world while staring back into it without reason or expectation.
Without having ever thought about it, I’d never imagined that feeling could be captured. I still can’t understand how it was painted. The label read, “Dwight Tryon. Sunrise: April.” I had to leave, for I had stopped seeing.
Four years later, I got to see the painting again. This time, I was working at the Freer for the curator of American art. Sunrise: April was in collections storage. I cannot wait until it is brought out again.