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.
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.
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.
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