Great museums are living institutions. They grow by acquiring quality art consonant with their own (think of the Met in New York), or reshape themselves for greater access (think of the Louvre and I. M. Pei’s pyramid). Those that aspire to achieve greatness sometimes emphasize presentation at the risk of neglecting content (think of Richard Meier’s Getty or Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao).

In 1921, when Washington, D.C.’s, Duncan Phillips and his wife Marjorie Aker opened their 1897 Georgian-revival home as a museum dedicated to “modern art and its sources”-the first museum of modern art in America-it could scarcely have been considered great. Yet, in that “golden age of American collecting,” when, as Lawrence Gowing has written, “a considerable part of the fortunes like those of Morgan, Altman, and Frick were being invested in great masterpieces,” Phillips (1866-1966) was a serious collector of contemporary American painting and later of modern Europeans. After the deaths of his father in 1917 and his brother the following year, Phillips had the idea of a memorial gallery that would be “a beneficent force in the community where I live-a joy-giving, life-enhancing influence, assisting people to see beautifully as true artists see.”

Phillips envisioned “an American Prado” (that most national of museums), filled with “nothing but the best.” The enterprise was blessed by his remarkably independent vision and creative view that modernism did not break from the past but evolved from it. With some 240 paintings when it opened, the Phillips Collection grew rapidly through the next decade-on average, at least 40 new works a year-and by 1930 it held more than 600. The family then moved to a new address, so that the entire residence at 20th and Q Streets, NW, could be given over to the public.

To provide new and safer space for the art, in 1960 the Washington firm of Wyeth and King designed a reserved, stone-faced annex, with a glass bridge connecting it to the home-and on the façade a soaring bird by Georges Braque. After Phillips’s death, the institution expanded further, under the directorship of first his wife and then his son, Laughlin. Its board of trustees sought broader public support but, in Laughlin’s words, hoped to retain “the museum’s unique, intimate character.” In 1989, Arthur Cotton Moore designed the Goh Annex, with new exhibition galleries and a spirited interior stairwell that reprised the grand old wooden structure of 1897.

This spring, the collection’s expansion to the north was completed with the opening of a new wing, the Sant Building, named for its principal donors, Victoria and Roger Sant. Designed by David Cox (who had to work under the regrettable constraints of preserving the façade of an undistinguished apartment house next door and building his new wing behind it), the lone public entrance to the museum is now through the first floor of the Goh Annex, to which Cox has added a curved canopy and stone columns that wanly echo the portico of the original home.

An oval lobby opens into a single gallery with a museum shop and small café. Behind them is a welcome courtyard with lovely plantings and two fine bronzes, one by Barbara Hepworth, the other, specially commissioned for the site, from Ellsworth Kelly. To the left, there is awkward access to the old house, and to the right, down a few steps, you enter the first floor of the new Sant and a tall gallery meant for large-scale, post-1950s works. The second and third floors house more galleries, including a new Rothko Room. Over half the space in the new wing is below ground, with a handsome library and technology laboratory at Lower Level 1, and art program rooms and a classroom next to the practical 180-seat auditorium on Lower Level 2.

When the new wing opened, some sixty European paintings and sculptures that had been on tour in this country and abroad returned home. Visitors will want to take advantage not only of the new educational programs in the enlarged museum, but especially of the chance to see these familiar works again and to marvel at Duncan Phillips’s highly personal vision.

Phillips had an eye for both continuity and innovation. He prized expressive color and the play of light and shadow over formal inventiveness. So he bought El Greco, Chardin, Goya, and Manet, seeing them as forerunners of the full-fledged modernism he delighted in displaying beside them. He loved the satin hues and elegant line of Ingres’s classicism, but also the headlong rush and excitement of Delacroix’s romanticism. At first he called Cézanne “a fool,” but came to see him as the heir to El Greco and the father of Picasso. (Cézanne’s Self-Portrait of 1878-80 is one of the collection’s most famous icons, and the first painting by the artist to enter an American collection.) About a social satirist like Honoré Daumier, whose brush and pen were so agile, free, and expressive, Phillips could be almost gushy, once pronouncing Daumier “perhaps the greatest artist of the nineteenth century,” and describing Daumier’s The Uprising as “the greatest picture in the collection.”

Phillips’s taste was remarkably broad. Early on he recognized the genius of van Gogh and was also quick to buy choice canvases by Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, and Paul Klee. His natural preference, however, was for School of Paris painting, and the Collection’s most famous single work is indisputably Renoir’s The Luncheon of the Boating Party (1880-81).

Phillips first saw it in 1911, and he was immediately enthralled. Twelve years later, he sat with his wife in the dining room of Parisian art dealer Joseph Durand-Ruell, where the sunlit, ebullient painting of rowers lunching with friends after a morning on the Seine hung on the wall. Marjorie described it as “that fabulous, incredibly entrancing, utterly alive and beguiling Renoir masterpiece.” The couple paid the then princely sum of $125,000 for it and brought it back to Washington. Duncan said it was “the only Renoir I need.”

One of the most fondly reproduced of all Impressionist works, the brilliantly composed canvas shows the balcony of the Maison Fournaise on a sharp diagonal parallel to the river. The fifteen animated figures (almost all of them identifiable, including the artist’s fiancée, Aline Charigot, and the painter Gustave Caillebotte) surround one of the most beautiful still lifes in Western art. Celebrating modern life with individuality and immediacy, the painting communicates an unforgettable joie de vivre.

As for the twentieth-century debate over whether Picasso or Matisse was the greater artist, Phillips had no doubt. His collection has two of the finest Matisses, The Studio, quai Saint-Michel (1916-17), and Interior with Egyptian Curtain (1948). The former is archetypical Matisse of the period, a starkly simplified view of his model Lorette on a flowered red couch next to a window that opens to the Seine and the Île de la Cité. The latter, from the Vence period, is another window scene that demonstrates the aging, infirm artist’s mastery of startling color conveying not only pattern but perspective. Picasso’s 1934 Bullfight, though emblematic, does not hold a candle to either. For Duncan Phillips, expressive color, artistic continuity, and lyrical calm always took the palm.

The two other great stars in Phillips’s firmament were Georges Braque and Pierre Bonnard. The collection’s thirteen Braques cover thirty years of the artist’s productivity, including The Round Table (1929), a supreme example of his majestic, grave still-lifes. Phillips bought his first Bonnard in 1922 (the beloved Woman with Dog) and called the artist a “genius with color.” He gave Bonnard his first one-man museum exhibition in 1930.

Now the European art that traveled is being integrated once again into the rest of the collection, which includes American masterworks by Thomas Eakins, George Inness, Albert Pinkham Ryder, Arthur Dove, Stuart Davis, Georgia ¬O’Keeffe, Maurice Prendergast, and Marsden Hartley, among others. Over time, it will become clearer how the expansion of Phillips’s “experimental museum of modern art” has both gained and lost. You can no longer enter the Phillips home through the door Duncan Phillips so generously opened to the public eighty-five years ago, and, I think it, will take some time to get used to what has evolved into a much larger institution. Still, the prized familial collection is now more representative than ever and the new Sant wing offers much better facilities to serve children and students. Phillips would have been enchanted by the portraits after Matisse done by Washington grammar-school students that were on display in the building’s Lower Level 2 this summer. I stood before them, like a very minor Duncan Phillips, realizing how very much indeed I would like to own one!


Leo J. O’Donovan, SJ, is President Emeritus, Georgetown University, and Director of Mission, Jesuit Refugee Service USA. 

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Published in the 2006-11-03 issue: View Contents
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