"This show is kind of a family thing," said Arthur Hill Smith, associate professor of painting at George Washington University, at last night's opening of the James McLaughlin retrospective exhibition at the Phillips Collection. McLaughlin was associated with the Phillips Collection for nearly 50 years, and was curator from 1975 until his death at age 73 in January. Several hundred friends and artists sipped wine and reminisced about McLaughlin in the halls of the old Phillips mansion.

"Jim was a curator in what the original sense meant--someone who cares for . . . " said Smith. "He's in the woodwork here--literally," Smith said, gesturing to McLaughlin's oil painting "Tools," which showed the Phillips' toolshed. Smith said McLaughlin made many frames for the collection's paintings with the tools in the painting. "We knew he was a painter, too, but he was modest. You never saw much of his work, so you forgot sometimes. He was working with other artists all the time--it's like an obstetrician: you forget that he has children, too."

"I never knew Jim as a painter, so I could only judge him as a man who spent 47 years of his life caring for art and artists," said Abram Lerner, director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. "He handled those young artists with the kind of love only another artist could give. He was very modest about his painting. Here I was, head of a museum, and he never once pushed his work on me," said Lerner, adding that McLaughlin's work was "authentic and sincere, not engulfed in stylistic tricks."

Jane Godfrey, McLaughlin's companion for the three years before his death, wandered among the art with Laurie Ward, one of McLaughlin's six children, and Ward's husband, John, who wore McLaughlin's favorite necktie, a Western string tie with a silver and turquoise Indian clasp. "Jim had a certain season for painting," remembered Godfrey, "early in the spring, after the football season and before he put in his garden."

A posthumous show of gouaches by Harold Weston, colorful variations on a group of 14 stones, opened simultaneously on the top floor of the Phillips Collection. "Jim really liked Weston's work a lot," Godfrey said. "In fact, Jim really loved stones--he had an amazing collection of stones and shells all over his office."

Marjorie Phillips, director emeritus of the Phillips Collection, walked through both shows on the arm of her son, director Laughlin Phillips. "Mr. McLaughlin was a very independent spirit, an integral part of the gallery," she said. "He was always here to talk to young artists and to bring their work to our attention. I think there was a great understanding and depth of feeling between my husband and Mr. McLaughlin."

"He gave real heart to our art," said gallery owner Franz Bader. "When I came here from Vienna in '39, he was practically the only employe here. And then, while he was in the South Pacific during the war, he did probably the nicest thing I have ever heard. He planted vegetables wherever he was, to leave something creative after the horror of war, even though he knew he would never see the results. And he built his own house, you know, with those enormous, beautiful hands."