Art in Embassies

Philip Koch, Recollection, oil on canvas, 36 x 72", 2000

Every few years Sarah Tanguy, Curator of the Art in Embassies Program of the U.S. State Department, asks to borrow some of my paintings to hang in one of their Embassies somewhere around the world. Three more large oils just headed off for the Embassy in Guyana in South America. 

I like the three selections Ambassador Brent Hardt and his wife Saskia made- they hang together beautifully as a thematic group. About  fifteen years ago my paintings began to shift away from reporting on actual places towards a more imaginative stance.  I began visualizing the earth as it might have existed long before we humans left our mark on her. In many ways this was my personal version of the theme of the "new Eden" that was a weighty symbol in 19th century American landscape from Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School on. 

To the eyes of the arriving European colonists, the America's seemed a vast unspoiled wilderness. Largely ignoring the native populations that were already here, landscape artists thrilled to depict this new expanse of what they imagined to be untouched nature. The paintings they produced are a remarkable celebration. Their paintings of wilderness conveyed a surging optimism, almost a crystallized vision of nature's awesome powers of expansiveness and creativity. Few other periods in painting convey the sense of our planet as a fertile, living thing the way the 19th century Americans did. Cole, Kensett, Gifford, Inness, and the others at their best are show stoppers.

My work takes a second look at this tradition of paintings of the vast natural world. In our time the enduring power of nature seems more fragile that it did for our 19th century painters, and perhaps because of that it takes on an added urgency. 

To me these aren't simply literal places but rather landscapes evoking a state of mind. My hope is they re-kindle our intuitive creative sides. Inventiveness, insight, wholeness, energy, promise are all words I'd use to describe what I'm after with this work. It owes a great debt to my artist forefathers. The themes that so fascinated them need to be re-visited by contemporary eyes. 

Philip Koch, Yellow Arcadia, oil on panel, 30 x 40"

Arcadia was a word that comes to us from ancient Greece. It was a mountainous region considered to be the most beautiful landscape, and the term has come to mean an ideal landscape. I love posing the question- what would the perfect land look like? Yellow Arcadia is one answer.

Philip Koch, The Voyage, oil on canvas, 38 x 38", 2000

This painting is the cousin of the similar composition The Voyage of Memory that is included in my eight museum traveling exhibition Unbroken Thread: The Art of Philip Koch. This one came first and used a sloop (with two sails) to make the perilous journey through these too narrow passages. The image is indebted to Thomas Cole's famous four painting series The Voyage of Life, now in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. The painting is actually highly autobiographical and I made a second version using a cat boat (single sail) instead as it more accurately reflected my boyhood experiences. The narrow passage was suggest to me by the high banks of the Irondequoit Bay just off of Lake Ontario about a mile from my home in upstate New York. I rely heavily on memory as well as imagination to make these paintings.


  1. Phil,

    I have been following your blog and admiring your work (from a distance)for a while now. This explanation of your thinking, your intent, clarifies my understanding of the work and helps to appreciate it. Thanks.

  2. Steve,

    Thanks for your kind words. Much appreciated.

  3. Hi Philip,

    I'm a MICA graduate (very familiar with your work) and now I'm going to Georgetown with my spouse who will work with the Government for the next couple of years. Will you be going to Guyana to visit the work soon?

    Congratulations on the selection!

  4. Hi Sandra,

    No, the Art in Embassies just wants my paintings, not me, which is fine. Hope your tine in Guyana is good!

  5. Well that is probably a good thing, I am scheduled to take 10 vaccinations prior to departure. I'll make sure to check out the paintings and report back. :D

  6. Sandra,

    Ouch, ouch, ouch, (repeat ten times)...


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