He loved the smell of paint, small and heartfelt pictures, the painters who produced them, and color above all. If you list those men of art who have mattered most to Washington -- Pierre L'Enfant, Gilbert Stuart, Mathew Brady, Daniel Burnham, and then the Color Painters -- place Duncan Phillips high among them. He brought modern art to Washington. He influenced the painters here, the colorists especially. He inspired the collectors. Visit his museum now and you will understand again how much we're in his debt.
To mark his centennial, the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW, is this summer honoring its founder by devoting all its galleries to its permanent collection. Much remains in storage. He bought 2,000 paintings. Just 200 are on view in the show, which opened yesterday. Still the shade of Duncan Phillips seems to stalk among them. For the staff has tried, with some success, to recreate the oddly mixed, idiosyncratic picture installations he designed.
He was more than an art buyer. Though he painted only poorly, he was an artist, one who forged his masterwork of other people's pictures, of Bonnards, Braques and Rothkos, Marins, Doves and Tacks, Vuillards and Ce'zannes. He was too modest to admit it, but when he called his 1931 book of essays "The Artist Sees Differently," he was, by implication, speaking of himself.
Of all the tales told of him, none is more revealing than Phillips' Rosebud story, the one about the circus, his terror and the clown. That episode in Paris, which he recounted all his life, reminds us that the Phillips Collection, that most homelike and beloved of Washington's museums, grew out of his grief.
He was born 100 years ago, in Pittsburgh, on June 26, 1886. When he saw the clown in France, and flew into hysterics, he was a little boy of 4.
His parents, as a treat, had taken him to the circus. A clown there seized a boy-sized doll and threw it in the air. Little Duncan watched it rise, and then watched it fall. When it smashed into the sawdust he began to scream. Perhaps he thought the doll a child, or feared that he was next. Nothing could console him. His parents took him, screaming, back to the hotel. It was there he saw the small bouquet that brought him peace again.
He would all his life remember those flowers in the sunlight and the music of their colors -- the red of the red poppies, the bright blue of the bachelor buttons, the yellow of the buttercups. His widow, Marjorie, has written that "he could not let the bouquet out of his sight." He kept it by his side -- as a sort of charm -- until its flowers withered. Phillips always spoke of that occurrence as his "first real esthetic experience of color."
He would turn for peace to colors when he grieved again.
The deaths of two men whom he loved -- his father and his brother -- led him to his life's work. Duncan and his brother, Jim, though Jim was two years older, were exceptionally close. The boys were schooled together, and shared a room at Yale. The father they adored died in 1917 -- on the day Jim got married. Jim died in 1918, of Spanish influenza. Their deaths threw Duncan into shock. "What pulled him back," wrote Marjorie, "was the thought of creating a memorial." Incorporated in 1918, and opened to the public in 1921, it was the city's and the nation's first museum of modern art.
*"A defense against the outer world" was what Phillips had in mind.
It began as a few art-filled rooms in the Phillips' red-brick house. At first it offered visitors easy chairs and ashtrays. Eventually it grew to take over the whole building. "Again and again I have stressed," he wrote, "the unassuming simplicity and domestic comfort of the place." Its rooms are small and intimate. Its paintings, mostly small, fit that sweet domestic scale. More imposing art museums, especially the marble ones, attempt to trace the pageant of art's history, but the Phillips does not survey. Like the Gardner in Boston, and Manhattan's Frick, it is a sanctuary museum, a "haven," he explained, for "those who enjoy getting out of themselves into the land of artists' dreams."
Phillips, though not vastly rich, was a relatively wealthy man. His grandfather, James Laughlin, co-founded the Jones and Laughlin Steel Co. His father, Maj. Duncan Clinch Phillips, manufactured window glass. But Duncan -- who spent most of his inheritance on his small museum -- never cared particularly for the company of businessmen or entrepreneurs. He vastly preferred painters. Many of the pictures now on exhibition were painted by his friends.
Some were artists of the second rank (Marjorie, Lee Gatch and Karl Knaths, for example; Phillips bought some clunkers). Some were greatly gifted (John Marin, Arthur Dove, Pierre Bonnard, the Frenchman, and Augustus Vincent Tack, the Washington society portraitist and mystical abstractionist, all were Phillips' friends).
Nothing pleased him more than being among artists, young artists especially. He founded in his gallery one of Washington's first art schools. When struggling young painters showed up with their pictures, he looked at them, and bought. (Those that he liked least he happily consigned to his "encouragement" collection.) When they came to him for work, Phillips gave them jobs. For many years the guards -- he called them "museum assistants" -- were artists whom he hired. Painter Willem de Looper, now the Collection's curator, who in the 1950s was given such a job, still remembers seeing Kenneth Noland trudging up the stairs carrying his canvases to show Duncan Phillips his experimental work.
Paintings were for Phillips neither trophies nor investments, but realms of revelation. He would often stare at pictures as if painting them vicariously, studying each brush stroke and each decision made. He tried to think as painters think, and always pled for tolerance. Believing "artists detest national, racial and religious prejudices," he gladly bought the works of the black painters Jacob Lawrence and Horace Pippin. Antiliberal when young, he became a Stevenson Democrat. Walter Lippmann and Marquis Childs were among his closest friends.
But his tolerance went just so far. His passion brought him blind spots. He was distrustful of the polished and suspicious of the chic. Sculpture moved him little. Unrestrained expressionism apparently offended him (though he did admire Kokoschka), and, despite his friendship with Marcel Duchamp, conceptualism left him cold. "Having no trustees to consult," he wrote, "I need not worry about making mistakes." He rarely accepted gifts (with one notable exception: in the early 1950s the Phillips, through Duchamp, received a Brancusi and a Braque, a fine collage by Kurt Schwitters, and a dozen other objects from the estate of Katherine Drier, the collector who had founded the Socie'te' Anonyme).
Tall, polite and slim, he was all his life a frail man. Many connoisseurs of painting like food as much as art, but Phillips, when he dined at the fanciest French restaurants, say the Tour d'Argent in Paris, "shocked the waiters often," Marjorie remembered, "by ordering two plain poached eggs and a small portion of bread pudding." Phillips fed himself on art. Nothing pleased him more than watching how his paintings spoke to one another, and moving them about.
He died in 1966. Even in his last years, when too weak to leave his bed, he would sometimes call the gallery to ask curator Jim McLaughlin to hang that Corot by that Ce'zanne; later -- having seen the hanging only in his mind's eye -- he would telephone to say no, he'd reconsidered, the Corot didn't look quite right, try a Courbet there instead.
Renoir's "Luncheon of the Boating Party" -- for which Phillips paid the then unheard of price of $125,000 in 1924 -- is now hanging in the Renoir room where it was displayed for years. A little Ingres hangs nearby. Next door is a gallery housing 10 Bonnards. Degas' "Dancers at the Bar," which hangs above the mantelpiece where Phillips often placed it, now confronts most tellingly Manet's "Ballet Espagnol." The Music Room is filled with abstract pictures by his friend Augustus Vincent Tack, the man who may have been the first Washington Color Painter. Phillips installed his art in groups. The word he used was "units." The dozen Klees he purchased are now on view together, as are all his Rothkos, and groups of pictures painted by Marjorie (as was his wish), John Marin and the Prendergasts, O'Keeffe, Daumier and Dove.
"It was like shuffling a deck of cards, and playing many hands," says Eliza Rathbone, the associate curator who has supervised the present placing of his pictures.
Because records from the early days are incomplete or imprecise, and because he tried so many mixings, there is no way that Rathbone could have recreated all of Phillips' installations. Those she has recovered cannot help but make us miss many other groupings viewed there in the past.
Vuillard's "Woman Sweeping," one of the Collection's most endearing oils, was frequently installed just inside the doorway of Phillips' big brick house, and somehow seemed to signal there all the subtlety and hominess of the galleries to come.
Ce'zanne's great self-portrait -- the picture Phillips said he would rescue first if his gallery caught fire -- frequently confronted his little "Seated Woman in Blue," so that noticing his probing glance, and her pose of boredom, one could dream about the sitting that brought her into life. (She is the same stern woman, wearing the same dress, who appears in the large portrait in the Russian exhibition at the National Gallery of Art. Some say she's Ce'zanne's wife.)
The Klees once hung together in a little room, a sort of bewitched cul-de-sac, but that tiny gallery has lately been transformed into an elevator lobby, and the Klees have all been moved.
The room they now occupy contained for many years what seemed to me the oddest, and perhaps most revealing, of the founder's installations. Though Phillips loved bold colors, all the paintings here were dark. Albert Pinkham Ryder's "Moonlit Cove" was one of them, a work so deeply shadowed that one had to squint to see the dinghy on the beach. Winslow Homer's "To the Rescue," another gray-green seascape, was on a facing wall, as were "Miss Lillian Woakes" by Whistler, and "Hide and Seek," a stranger oil just as dark by William Meritt Chase. These canvases have presence, but one vastly more imposing -- Thomas Eakins' awesome portrait of brooding "Miss Van Buren" -- seemed to rule that little room.
A pedant might insist that 19th-century American painting was the subject there surveyed, but the real theme was brown and black and gray. Miss Van Buren's chair was dark brown wood, its upholstery brown velvet. Amid all those somber colors, the bright pink of her jacket burned like some strange flame.
One suspects -- or no, one knows -- that Phillips bought those pictures because he loved the subtle ways their colors worked together. He might have picked another Homer or another Eakins, but that's why he bought these.
"One of my methods," he explained, "is to have sent on approval quite a number of canvases by a painter who interests me . . . and then to hold several long and silent sessions of observation and reflection while waiting for each to speak . . . It helps decision to shift paintings around from room to room, from one light to another, to see them all together and to test how socially adaptable they are."
Phillips, by such choosings, taught us to feel colors. Years before he started buying art in earnest he already was experiencing the powers of tuned hues. In 1911, while visiting the Louvre, he bypassed far more famous works to pause for many minutes before a small Chardin oil portraying a musician. "The interest," he wrote, "is less psychological than esthetic. Against a coat of exquisite grayish green velvet a rich toned flame tinted violin sounds a delicate color chord."
For those who can hear color chords, the Phillips is a symphony. Small passages from paintings there linger in the memory like tunes one can't get rid of -- that small bold orange circle in the 1950 Clyfford Still abstraction, the bright blue cloudless sky behind O'Keeffe's "Ranchos Church," the yellow of the garden walk in van Gogh's "Public Garden at Arles," or (my special favorite) the red ear in "The Newspaper" by Vuillard. (The woman in that wondrous work is reading by a window; sunlight from behind turns her translucent ear blood-red.)
Phillips' taste, at first, was on the whole conventional, but as he bought he learned. His was one of the first American museums to purchase, in the '50s, the abstractions of Mark Rothko. It was not their newness that intrigued him, but something ineffable, harder to describe.
"There is an enveloping magic," Phillips wrote, "which conveys to receptive observers a sense of being in the midst of greatness. It is the color of course . . . In Rothko there is no pictorial reference at all to remembered experience. What we recall are not memories but old emotions disturbed or resolved -- some sense of well being suddenly shadowed by a cloud -- yellow ochres strangely suffused with a drift of gray prevailing over an ambience of rose or the fire diminishing into a glow of embers, or the light when the night descends."
The tear-stained boy in Paris staring at the flowers in the sunlight in the sitting room lives in that description. Emotions tied to colors stirred him all his life.
Phillips was the paragon of the "retinal" collector. Art that speaks not to the eye, but rather to the mind, tended to distress him. Phillips had small sympathy for Surrealism, Dada, or for conceptual art in general. "There is no need to write," he wrote dismissively in 1931, "of Futurism, Dadaism, Vorticism. They are gone and almost forgotten."
Phillips much preferred Braque and Bonnard to Picasso and Matisse. "Picasso," he complained, "tries so hard to be cerebral that he remains an acrobat." Matisse was just as suspect. Phillips thought Matisse "doctrinaire" and "decorative," and warned, in 1931, that "his facility and popularity are distinct dangers in his path to future progress."
True, he bought both masters, but his doubts were not assuaged. He once traded a Matisse -- few would dare to do so now -- for an oil by Rouault.
Rouault, Braque and Bonnard, Prendergast and Dove, Sam Francis, Philip Guston, Still, Vuillard and de Stae l, share an honest, rough-hewn touch. It is as if Phillips valued them for their refusal of the sleek.
He liked pictures that looked freshly made. He loved the viscosity of oil paint, and the way washes soak into white paper, and the marks left by the brush.
His taste has left its mark on the painting of this town.
Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Howard Mehring, Thomas Downing, Gene Davis and later Sam Gilliam learned much in his gallery. Its pictures showed them color and color's possibilities. And that "roughness" helped lead them to wholehearted experiments with painterly technology. In the daubs of Braque and Bonnard -- daubs that do not hide themselves but declare themselves as brush strokes -- one can see foretold the poured rivulets of Louis and Davis's taped stripes.
The Washington Color Painters took their strict geometries from L'Enfant's triangles and circles, and the scale of their pictures from the paintings of Manhattan, but they owe a major debt to Duncan Phillips, too.
So do generations of Washington collectors. Gilbert Kinney and the Kogods and David Lloyd Kreeger all have formed collections he would have approved.
So, too, has Paul Mellon. Both men went to Yale, and it was there, in 1907, that Phillips expressed a wish Mellon would fulfil. "A thing that strikes the outsider as strange in our college curriculum here," Phillips wrote, "is that so many splendid courses with celebrated instructors should be offered to the dilettante in literature -- while the sister art of painting now receives no attention." More than half a century would pass before Mellon's grand collection of British art, which he gave his university, would help to fill that gap.
Mellon and Phillips also worked together at the National Gallery of Art. Phillips was urging the creation of just such a museum as early as 1924, and when at last it opened, in 1941, he became a charter trustee and a member of the acquisitions committee, positions he retained for the next 23 years. (He also gave some pictures, two of them Tack portraits, and one of them a Daumier, which that painter had presented to his friend Corot).
Phillips' intimate museum floundered for a while following his death. But now, under the direction of his son, Laughlin, it is healthier than ever. Its plant has been refurbished, and plans are under way for additional expansions. Its spirit, too, is strong. Its recent temporary shows -- of late Braque and Howard Hodgkin, Susan Rothenberg and Guston, Dove, John Walker and Franz Kline -- have rightly been in keeping with Duncan Phillips' legacy. He would have liked them all.
Phillips had a vision. He wrote of it poetically in 1931:
"As I write the spring of the year is at its old business of making the world over, with balmy air, vibrant light, odors of earth and growing things, movement of young leaves. There is a restless whimsical tug at the vaguely troubled heart and the mind is uneasy. At such a time it seems hardly sensible to be so much concerned, so gravely occupied, with knowing beauty for what it is. One could find it for oneself in any flowery meadow or, for that matter, wherever the spring makes gay the corner of the street . . . Yet for once as part of one's education in art, beauty should be known . . . "