The Phillips Collection

Washington D.C.



Twentieth-Century Still-Life Paintings from The Phillips Collection


Following on the success of two major shows celebrating our 75th Anniversary, The Phillips Collection will feature an exhibition drawn from the museum's strong holdings of "modern art and its sources." Twentieth-Century Still-Life Paintings from The Phillips Collection brings together modern American and European still-lifes that were purchased by Duncan and Marjorie Phillips over a period of more than forty years. Unlike portrait painting, which involves a living model who moves and shifts, or landscape painting, in which the larger environment is constantly in flux, still-life painting represents a stable world view. At its essence a still-life painting is a depiction of objects, either natural or artificial. The things an artist chooses for a composition are designed for use, manipulation, and enjoyment, and often have personal value or importance. The arrangement is of great significance, because in placing the objects the artist exerts full control over their position.

Although traditional still-lifes do not depict a human presence, they imply human action and involvement. The elements are arranged by the human hand, and their very existence stems from human needs. The paintings in this exhibition reflect more than a half century of changing attributes toward style and subject, and they offer a rich melange of visual interpretations of the objects that fill our lives. The exhibition includes approximately 70 paintings by 467 artists, including many works that are rarely seen by the public.

In the early years of their collecting, Duncan and Marjorie Phillips showed a preference for romantic and representational examples of still-life, setting the tone with the acquisition of a classic eighteenth-century work by the French artist Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin and two late-nineteenth-century paintings by American artist J. Alden Weir. As they came to admire Modernism and appreciate abstraction, their aesthetic sensitivities broadened, as did the scope of their acquisitions.

In still-life paintings, Duncan Phillips looked especially to artists whose work shared an independent spirit and a rich palette. He referred to color as "the direct instrument of painting" and believed that it should not be merely applied but "identical with form." He also favored works that were lyrical and poetic, focusing more on emotional expression than on purely intellectual content.

Visitors to the exhibition will see how the nineteenth-century tradition evolves in twentieth-century still-life paintings by artists such as Pierre Bonnard, Rufino Tamayo, Man Ray (Emanuel Rudnitsky), Walt Kuhn and Walter Sickert. Also represented in the exhibition is a broad spectrum of still-life paintings in a Cubist idiom, including works by Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, Stuart Davis, Karl Knaths, Bradley Walker Tomlin and John Graham. By mid-century, the modernist vocabulary had taken root and can be seen in a wide range of still lifes by Georges Rouault,Milton Avery, Morris Graves, Ben Shahn, Giorgio Morandi and Ben Nicholson.

In acquiring still-lifes the Phillips couple formed a highly personal selection. Some artists were collected in depth over a period of years while others artists' work was collected only briefly. As early as 1931, Duncan Phillips wrote: "Often I wonder what I will think of my decisions of today ten years from now. I can only live and think and act according to the degree of sound judgment and aesthetic sensitiveness given to me from day to day."

The touring schedule for the exhibition is:

Please Note: RLM does not endorse sites behind external links. We offer them for your additional research; external links were chosen on the basis of being the most informative online source at the time of our search

Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

This page was originally published in 1997 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.

Copyright 2012 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.