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    The Man Who Left
    A Good Impressionist

    By Paul Richard
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, March 15, 1999; Page A1

    The Washington Post Century

    Duncan Phillips in 1921 (Photo courtesy of the Phillips Collection)
    It was during a delicious lunch in an art-filled Paris town house on a summer afternoon in 1923 that Duncan Phillips purchased Pierre Auguste Renoir's "Luncheon of the Boating Party." That sunny, breezy picture – of arty young Parisians, journalists and artists, millionaires and barmaids, partying together on an island in the Seine – more than any other made Washington a painting town. Phillips had to have it. It was not for sale when he entered, but he owned it when he left.

    He paid $125,000. In 1923, when a two-foot string of pearls cost $8.50 and seven-room homes in Georgetown sold for $6,500, that was a vast amount of money. No buyer anywhere had ever paid so much for a work of modern art.

    Phillips didn't hesitate. "People will travel thousands of miles to our house to see it," he exulted the next morning. He was right.

    When he chose the Renoir as the centerpiece of the tiny art museum he'd established in his house at 1600 21st St. NW, he struck a kind of spark. Though his museum was the city's, as well as the country's, first museum of modern art, it still was scarcely known. Incorporated in 1918 and opened for the first time in 1921, it was scarcely a museum, really, just two or three nice rooms that were available to the public three afternoons a week. It was the purchase of the Renoir, and the headlines that ensued, that made the Phillips famous.

    Art Collections and
    Their Benefactors
    The Corcoran Gallery of Art
    William Wilson Corcoran (1798-1888), whose money came from banking and whose taste was nationalistic (he bought landscapes of the West and portraits of the presidents), established his museum in 1869. Its present building, at 17th Street and New York Avenue NW, opened in 1897.

    The Phillips Collection
    Duncan Phillips (1886-1966) founded the country's first museum of modern art. Incorporated in 1918, it opened to the public -- in his house on 21st Street NW -- in 1921.

    The Freer Gallery of Art
    Charles Lang Freer (1854-1919), an industrialist passionately attracted to the art of China and Japan, and that of James McNeill Whistler, gave the country his collection, and a museum to house it, which opened on the Mall in 1923.

    The National Gallery of Art's West Building
    Andrew W. Mellon (1855-1937), thrice secretary of the Treasury, bought only a few paintings, 125 in all, but among them were a number of exceptional Old Masters. The West Building, which he paid for, opened at the foot of Capitol Hill in 1941.

    The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
    Joseph H. Hirshhorn (1899-1981), an immigrant and a school dropout who became a Wall Street millionaire at 25, collected sculptures as voraciously as he did paintings. He gave 11,500 objects to his round museum of modern art, which opened on the Mall in 1974.

    The National Gallery of Art's East Building
    Paul Mellon (1907-1999), who had supervised the construction of his father's West Building, did the same for the East Building, which he also helped to pay for, and to fill with art. It opened in 1978.

    The National Museum of African Art
    Warren Robbins (born 1923), a former foreign service officer, opened his Museum of African Art in a group of row houses on Capitol Hill in 1964. He later gave his mixed collection to the Smithsonian Institution. The federal museum, which his gift inspired, opened on the Mall in 1987.

    The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
    Arthur M. Sackler (1913-1987), a psychiatrist, did a favor for the Freer, which is not permitted to either lend or borrow, by opening a space next door in which to show loans of Asian art. He also gave the country his Chinese jades and bronzes. His museum opened in 1987.

    The National Museum of Women in the Arts
    Wilhelmina Cole Holladay (born 1922), who regarded female artists as unjustifiably neglected, restricted her collection to works of art by women. The museum that resulted occupies what once was a Masonic Temple at New York Avenue and 13th Street NW. It opened in 1987.

    The Kreeger Museum
    David Lloyd Kreeger (1909-1990), an insurance man, lived in the modern building on Foxhall Road NW, which now houses his art. Kreeger, who collected modern and contemporary paintings, left 180 objects to his small museum, which opened in 1994.

    "American Gallery Acquires Renoir's $150,000 Picture," announced the New York Herald (puffing up the price). "The Greatest of the Renoirs Acquired for America," pronounced the New York Times.

    And in turn it was that fame which helped inspire the Mellons, and the vogue for the impressionists, and the sort of modern-art collecting that brought Washington the Hirshhorn, and that mood of gracious giving with which this city's art museums still offer up their art.

    But why that one Renoir? Why that painting above others?

    Imagine that French dining room. The host is Joseph Durand-Ruel, scion of the well-known picture-dealing family. As Marjorie Phillips, Duncan's widow, later would recall, there are fine French paintings everywhere, in the living rooms, the bedrooms, even in the baths. Her husband in the dining room has eyes for only one.

    Duncan Phillips is 27, newly married, newly happy. His fortune (most of it from his grandfather's Pittsburgh steel mills) is considerable. His temperament is delicate, his appearance slightly foppish. Phillips, in the '20s, affects boldly colored tweeds (to show his originality) and (to stress his slenderness) always bears a cane.

    The meal has been served. In the room – as in the Renoir hanging on the wall – the table's in disorder, the company is mixed, and, as the sunlight lingers on crumplings of linen and glistenings of crystal, murmurings in French fill the summer air.

    Something in that setting stirred a recollection. The painting is a scene of ease, of threatlessness and shimmerings.

    Just that sort of peacefulness had rescued Phillips's spirit many years before.

    Twenty-four years earlier, on another trip to Paris, little Duncan Phillips, then a boy of 4, had been taken to the circus, where he had gone half mad with fright.

    A crazily dressed clown kept spinning a rag doll, baby-size, no, Duncan-size, high into the air. Sometimes the clown would catch it; more often he would not. As the clown came closer the nervous little boy was overwhelmed by fear.

    He screamed. He kept on screaming. He was screaming when his parents took him from the circus, and screaming when they finally reached their hotel, and still screaming when the doctor came to administer a sedative.

    Phillips all his life recalled the joy of the relief he felt when, waking up untroubled, he found himself entranced by the summer sunlight twinkling on a small bouquet of flowers – red poppies, yellow buttercups, blue bachelor's buttons – in a vase beside his bed.

    "He later remembered," wrote his widow, "how he could not let the bouquet out of his sight. [He] always thought it was his first real aesthetic experience of color."

    Phillips was no radical. After visiting the 1913 Armory Show in New York as a haughty 17-year-old, he'd dismissed its modern art as "quite stupefying in its vulgarity." Gauguin, he decided, had "returned altogether to savagery." Cezanne and van Gogh were "unbalanced fanatics." "Such extremists," declared Phillips, "are anarchists, not artists." But he was ravished by the Renoir. Renoir, Phillips wrote in "A Collection in the Making" (1924), is a painter of "epicurean joyousness" who lets "one hue pass into another with rapturous evanescence, even as our unforeseen pleasures mingle and merge." Phillips, who'd been buying oil paintings in the $500 range, had never spent so much before, and would never spend so much again, for a single work of modern art.

    "The Luncheon of the Boating Party," a dappled scene of attractive, sportif Parisians hanging out at the Restaurant Fournaise in 1881, is, fittingly enough, a picture about pleasure and nonexclusive luxuries and leisured afternoons.

    Nine million times last year, someone made a trip to a Washington art museum just to see the pictures hanging on the walls. No city on the planet has more generous museums. Before Phillips bought the Renoir, most works of art in Washington – the statues scattered in the parks, Gilbert Stuart's portraits of the presidents, the allegorical frescoes in the Capitol – were nationalistic, political, heroic. The welcoming spirit with which this city's museums serve up their works of art was set by the Renoir.

    Phillips loved its colors. In his museum, unlike most, the paintings were grouped by color instead of chronology. He also was delighted by the Renoir's democratic spirit. "Renoir's art," he wrote, "is of the people and for the people." And he chose it for its mood of easy, happy drifting. Mingling in that painting were all the reassuring comforts he most sought in works of art.

    Three years earlier, when the two men he admired most, his brother and his father, died during World War I, Phillips had been overcome by anguish. He'd had a sort of breakdown. "Sorrow all but overwhelmed me," he wrote later. "Then I turned to my love of painting for the will to live."

    "So in 1918," he wrote, "I incorporated the Phillips Memorial Gallery, first to occupy my mind with a large constructive social purpose and then to create a Memorial worthy of the virile spirits of my lost leaders."

    "Why not open the doors to all who would come and pass through the portals and share the welcome of art at home, art in its own environment of favorable isolation and intimate contentment?"

    "I saw a chance," he added, "to create a beneficent force in the community where I live – a joy-giving, life-enhancing influence, assisting people to see beautifully as true artists see."

    So the Phillipses kept buying. And their gallery kept growing. By the time they moved their family to a home on Foxhall Road, leaving 21st Street entirely to art, their domestic color-tuned creation – with its Vuillards and Bonnards, its Cezannes and van Goghs, its sofas and its ashtrays, its Ryders and its Klees, Rothkos and Picassos – had become one of the nation's best-loved museums of art.

    Long before he died in 1966, Phillips was revered. When Manhattan's Museum of Modern Art opened to the public in 1929, Phillips, a Washingtonian, was a member of the board, a post he retained until he was appointed "honorary trustee for life." He was also a founding trustee of the National Gallery of Art, which opened on the Mall in 1941.

    Boating Party
    Renoir's "Luncheon of the Boating Party" (Photo courtesy of the Phillips Collection)
    His Francophilic taste changed Washington's painting. Phillips's sense of color contributed to the development of the Washington Color School. He is remembered, too, for his kindness to the public, especially to painters. No chilly theories guided him. Phillips judged pictures by the way they made him feel.

    He was not, of course, the first wealthy Washingtonian to buy paintings for the public. William Wilson Corcoran (1798-1888) established his rather impersonal museum here in 1869. But Phillips and his confidence in the significance of paintings helped ignite in Washington an art museum industry. Since the establishment more than 90 years ago of the Phillips Memorial Gallery, now the Phillips Collection, nearly a dozen other art museums have opened in this city. Most are picture galleries, as was the one he founded, and almost every one of them, to some degree or other, is in Duncan Phillips's debt.

    The late Paul Mellon, the philanthropist-collector, was in some ways his disciple. Both men were Pennsylvanians who moved here, and both were Yale men, and both were grand collectors who strove to share with all of us the art that moved them most.

    Mellon knew presidents and princes, T.S. Eliot, Joseph Campbell, Vladimir Nabokov and Carl Jung. Queen Elizabeth II used to come for lunch. Not long before he died, the philanthropist was asked which of all these figures had best guided him in choosing how to live his life. Mellon didn't hesitate. "Duncan Phillips," he replied.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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