The late Duncan Phillips, whose emotions led him elsewhere, did not care much for sculpture and even less for prints. Anyone who visits the museum that he founded, the Phillips Collection, can see he was a man who loved colors most of all. But Phillips' tastes were catholic. And every now and then even he discovered that he could not resist moving, light-filled drawings done in black and white.
He displayed them only rarely. Most he left in storage. But a few dozen of the finest have now been brought to light.
"French Drawings From the Phillips Collection," now on exhibition, includes pictures by Degas, Seurat, van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso and other well-loved masters. The exhibit is not large, but it is a treat.
The finest sheets on view are strong enough to hold the wall as if they were paintings. Seurat's mysterious circus scene, a little black-chalk study for the painting "La Parade," which entered the collection in 1939, is the darkest work on view. But it glows with its own light. The van Gogh (bought in 1953) is comparably powerful. It is a sketch of the exterior of the Moulin de La Galette, the famous Parisian dance hall, whose steep stairs are depicted by pencil strokes applied with such assurance that one can almost hear the artist hammering them in place. Henri Fantin-Latour's 1861 self-portrait, acquired in 1922, glares out of dark shadows; as soon as he is glimpsed, from far across the room, his black, suspicious eyes grab yours and will not let them go.
Of all the drawings on display, none is more impressive than "For the Defense," the dramatic Daumier courtroom scene Phillips purchased in 1937. Its shadows are so bold, its drawing is so free, that the flowing robes of the impassioned lawyer almost seem to move. In these and other pictures -- three by Matisse, for example -- colors, although absent, are almost magically implied.
Though one gathers from his writings that Phillips was a man of high purpose and high seriousness, now and then one glimpses his mild sense of humor. It is particularly apparent in the four drawings he acquired in 1937 from his friend Pierre Bonnard. Cows loll under trees, grasshoppers devour plants, caged canaries sing. Of these, the most amusing portrays a train of ink-black ants.
Though not a prude exactly, Phillips had a prissy side. He rarely purchased nudes. But there are a half-dozen here -- by Amedeo Modigliani, Charles Despiau, Jules Pascin and Roger de La Fresnaye. Their sexiness surprises -- until one learns from their labels that Phillips did not buy them. They came from someone else.
His name was Jean Goriany. Not much is known about him. Phillips' son, Laughlin, remembers that Goriany was a young dealer in New York who often sold to Phillips until he left the country to fight in World War II. Just before departing he deposited with Phillips a portfolio of drawings, for "safekeeping," he said. After that he vanished. Perhaps he fell in battle. No one heard from him again.
But his drawings are still here, on "Indefinite Loan From Jean Goriany," as their labels put it. He clearly was a connoisseur. Look for instance at his haunting picture of a patient in a hospital by Andre' Dunoyer de Segonzac or at the other Segonzacs of Isadora Duncan dancing. Though Phillips was not often moved by such slight and airy pictures, they much enhance this show.
So, too, does the Degas here, a portrait on pink paper of a man playing a violin. The late June P. Carey of Washington bequeathed it to the Phillips in 1983.
A few years ago the Phillips received a $15,000 grant for four exhibitions of its works of graphic art. The first two of these -- one of collages, the other of American drawings -- were held at the museum in 1983. This one is the third. The last, a show of watercolors, is now being planned. "French Drawings From the Phillips Collection" is accompanied by a little catalogue by adjunct curator Sasha M. Newman. The show closes Jan. 12.