The Phillips Collection

Washington D.C.

(202) 387-2151


Renoir to Rothko: The Eye of Duncan Phillips


Duncan Phillips (1886-1966), Summer, 1921, The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.

A landmark exhibition of 19th and 20th century masterpieces will appear at The Phillips Collection, the nation's first museum of modern art, from September 25, 1999 through January 23, 2000. Featuring some 250 works from the Phillips' renowned permanent collection, Renoir to Rothko: The Eye of Duncan Phillips is the most comprehensive and ambitious exhibition in the history of the museum, presenting some of the greatest and best-loved masterpieces of modern art, and exploring the development of founder Duncan Phillips as a visionary collector who championed the introduction of modern art to America.

In addition to impressionist works by Renoir, Monet, and Degas, the exhibition includes European modern artists such as Bonnard, Matisse, Picasso, Braque, and Klee, and American masters such as Georgia O'Keeffe, Lawrence, Diebenkorn, and Rothko. The installation includes a variety of chronological and thematic groupings revealing different aspects of Phillips' collecting, as well as cases on every floor containing archival material such as travel journals, letters, ledgers, and invoices.

Renoir to Rothko: The Eye of Duncan Phillips will be shown only at The Phillips Collection, and will involve an extensive refurbishing of the museum's interior, allowing visitors to experience some of the world's finest paintings of this century in the unique and intimate setting of the collector's 1897 Georgian Revival home. The exhibition is organized by Eliza Rathbone, Chief Curator of The Phillips Collection, and Elizabeth Hutton Turner, Ph.D., Curator of The Phillips Collection.

"Duncan Phillips was passionate about the art of his time and devoted himself to sharing its beauty with a wide audience. He cared deeply about the personal experience of engaging with a work of art - an experience that has a transforming effect on people," says Jay Gates, Director of The Phillips Collection. "At the close of the twentieth century, this exhibition gives us the opportunity to look back on the art of the modern age through the eyes of one of the century's preeminent collectors."

Renoir to Rothko: The Eye of Duncan Phillips includes master works by European artists including Vincent van Gogh, Honoré Daumier, Piet Mondrian, and Wassily Kandinksy, and modern American masters such as Edward Hopper, Milton Avery, Maurice Prendergast, Winslow Homer, Arthur B. Davies, Arthur Dove, Thomas Eakins, and Albert Pinkham Ryder.

Highlights of the exhibition include O'Keeffe's My Shanty, Lake George (1922), the first O'Keeffe acquired by any museum; Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series (1940-41), which Phillips competed with Alfred Barr and the Museum of Modem Art in New York to acquire in 1942; and the Rothko Room, the first such presentation of Rothko's work by any museum, which the artist used to visit frequently on trips to see his brother in Washington, D.C.

Works are displayed in chronological and thematic groupings to illustrate Phillips' evolving taste, his relationships with key artists and contemporaries, and his innovative approach to continuously re-hanging his collection to produce juxtapositions and "dialogues" between different works, time periods, and artists. Phillips saw modernism not as a break with the past, but as a continuation. He was interested in the sources of modern art, and hung 20th century works alongside works by earlier artists he felt anticipated modernism, such as Delacroix, Ingres, El Greco, or Chardin.

In addition to showcasing some of the world's finest works of modern art, Renoir to Rothko: The Eye of Duncan Phillips explores the role and impact of Duncan Phillips as a collector, patron, and critic from the 1920s until his death in the 1960s. Archival cases within the galleries display Phillips' correspondence, journals, manuscripts, and ledgers, along with historical photographs and exhibition reviews to support the historical context.

In particular, the exhibition explores the history and significance of the collection in relation to the establishment of the modern art canon in America. Over five decades, Phillips gathered and preserved more than 2,400 works of art, establishing himself not only as a collector, but as one of the primary interpreters of modernism in the United States. He was active in a group of influential critics, collectors, and museum directors such as Katherine S. Dreier, Alfred Stieglitz, Alfred H. Ham, and Albert C. Barnes, and his relationships and friendly rivalries with these contemporaries is revealed in the exhibition.

The exhibition also examines Phillips' particular approach to art and the experience of viewing art. For Phillips, the aesthetic experience was primary. His mission was not to establish an encyclopedic collection, but rather to bring together works that moved him, and to make them accessible to the public. He favored independent artists, not movements; he was guided not by dealers but by personal conviction. He chose works because of the personal impact they made on him and he opened his home to visitors to experience his collection in a comfortable and personal setting.

From the start an advocate of American art, Phillips was years ahead of his contemporaries in his appreciation and understanding of numerous artists now considered American masters. The Phillips Collection was the first museum to purchase and present the work of Georgia O'Keeffe, Milton Avery, Arthur Dove, and others. Phillips nurtured lasting relationships with artists such as Arthur Dove, Arthur Bowen Davies, and Jacob Lawrence. Through his relationships and patronage, Phillips shaped the lives of numerous artists whose work was acquired and exhibited for the first time in his museum.

The exhibition also explores the personal aesthetic that shaped the choices Phillips made. He favored Bonnard over Matisse; Braque over Picasso; Klee over Kandinsky. The collection has particularly deep holdings of Klee, Bonnard, Dove, Daumier, Braque, Avery, and Marin. Equally interesting are the artists and styles that Phillips did not collect. He was not interested in surrealism, Dada, or mechanistic cubism, for example, preferring styles that built on the past over those that mandated a radical departure.

"Although Duncan Phillips was arguably one of the major figures in the early advocacy and interpretation of modernism in the United States, his role in the context of other major collectors, writers, and museum directors has not been adequately addressed," says Eliza Rathbone, Chief Curator of The Phillips Collection and co-organizer of the exhibition. "Through his patronage of living artists, Phillips disseminated and evangelized modernism to a not-always-receptive American audience. This exhibition offers an unprecedented opportunity to examine Phillips in context, as reflected through his writings and installations, in addition to his collection."

Images from top to bottom: Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), Miss Amelia Van Buren (ca. 1891), Oil on canvas, Acq. 1927, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.; Edward Hopper(1882-1967), Sunday (1926), Oil on canvas, Acq. 1926, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.; Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986), Ranchos Church (1929), Oil on canvas, Acq. 1930, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.; Jacob Lawrence (b. 1917), The Migration Series, Panel No. I, "During World War I there was a great migration north by southern African Americans" (1940-41), Casein tempera on hardboard panel, Acq. 1942, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

Read more in Resource Library about the Phillips Collection.

For further biographical information on selected artists cited in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

rev. 10/18/10

Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

Copyright 2010 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.