Plato advised his students about the dangers of forming strong opinions when they were still very young and inexperienced. One such young Washingtonian learned this life lesson and went on to be a great promoter of what he originally disparaged. The New York Armory show of 1913 was the first time the French Impressionists had a big showing on this side of the Atlantic, and young Duncan Phillips, then an art critic at Yale, attended the show and wrote about what he saw. Phillips, who had never before seen art like this, wrote that it was “stupefying in its vulgarity”. He said Cezanne was “an unbalanced fanatic”, Gauguin was “half savage,” the Cubists were ridiculous and Matisse was “poisonous”. He would live to take back his words a thousand times over by founding what is considered by many to be the first modern art museum in America, Washington’s own Phillips Collection.
Phillip’s passion for art was shared by his brother James, and the two siblings were very close. When James Philips died in the influenza epidemic of 1918, Duncan decided to make a monument in his memory. Phillip’s wife, the painter Marjorie Acker, further inspired him and with the money he inherited from his family’s Pittsburgh steel fortune, the couple traveled the world acquiring the art works that would be the basis for their collection. They displayed their acquisitions in the family home at the corner of 21st and Q Streets, and eventually turned the whole building into a museum and moved to Foxhall Road. The great coup of their collecting adventures was Renoir’s “The Luncheon of the Boating Party”, which Phillips bought for $125,000. This sounds ridiculously cheap today but it was a fortune in 1923. When his rival collector, Philadelphia multi-millionaire Dr Alfred Barnes, who bought paintings by the carload, heard about the purchase, he asked Phillips, “That’s the only Renoir you’ve got, isn’t it?” and Phillips answered, “It’s the only one I need.” He was right. The painting instantly became a big draw and attraction for the museum.
Phillips went on to sponsor and encourage a raft of artists who were ”cutting edge” at that time, including Georgia O’Keefe, Milton Avery, Gene Davis, Kenneth Noland and Arthur Dove. A special small room in the gallery is dedicated to Mark Rothko and the artist himself participated in planning the space, so it would reflect his paintings as “distillations of human experience”. The small room flooded with Rothko colors creates a emotional context for the viewer, or as Phillips himself said, Rothko’s paintings have the power to expose “old emotions disturbed or resolved.”
Phillips liked to move paintings around so the artists could “talk to each other.” And when you walk through the rooms, the varying visions of artists clash and coincide in a provocative way that fosters what Phillips wanted to teach, “the power to see beautifully”. We’re lucky that this man who grew to see so beautifully himself had the money to build a great collection and we’re also lucky that the young man to attended the 1913 Armory show changed his mind about “modern art”. Now we Washingtonians can enjoy the very personal experience of visiting his collections and communing with the artists as their paintings “talk to each other.”