Greatest Art Collectors Series:
Duncan Phillips

Biography of American Collector of Modern Art.



Duncan Phillips.

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Duncan Phillips (1886–1966)

Duncan Phillips, heir to a steel and glass fortune, was an American art collector and critic who played an influential role in introducing America to modern artists, due to his founding of The Phillips Memorial Gallery and latet the Phillips Collection. The latter was America's first permanent museum of modern art, and included masterpieces by Romantic artists such as Francisco Goya and Eugene Delacroix; Impressionist paintings by Paul Cezanne, Paul Gauguin, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Pierre Bonnard; works by Expressionist painters including Paul Klee, Van Gogh and Modigliani; and examples of Cubism by Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso; as well as a range of American art by the likes of Albert Pinkham Ryder, Thomas Eakins and Mark Rothko.

The Washington DC Phillips Collection ranks with London's Courtauld Gallery as one of the finest bijou galleries in the world, and is arguably one of the best art museums in America.

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Foundation of The Phillips Memorial Gallery

Born in Pittsburgh, the grandson of James H. Laughlin, co-founder of the Jones and Laughlin Steel Company and the second son of Duncan Clinch Phillips (1838–1917) a millionaire glass industrialist, he moved to Washington DC with his family, in 1895. Following the sudden deaths of both his father (in 1917) and his elder brother James Laughlin Phillips (in 1918), he and his mother founded The Phillips Memorial Gallery, based around the modest family collection of paintings, augmented by new purchases of mainly late-19th century and early-20th century paintings. The gallery was housed in a purpose-built space above the north wing of the family Georgian Revival home at 21st Street Washington DC, and in 1921 it opened its doors to the public for three afternoons a week. Although the American public had already had a taste of avant-garde art thanks to the Armory Show (1913), The Phillips Memorial Gallery represented the first permanent museum of modernist art in America.

 

In 1921, Phillips married the painter Marjorie Acker. Relying on her guidance, as well as his own knowledge of the history of art, he became an active and enthusiastic collector. By 1930, the popularity and size of the collection (now more than 600 works), resulted in the museum taking over the whole house.

The Phillips Collection: Highlights

Phillips acquired a number of exceptional masterpieces including: Luncheon of the Boating Party (1880–81) by Renoir; The Repentant St. Peter (c.1600–5) by El Greco (the first passionate expressionist); St. Peter Repentant (1823) by Goya (the bridge between the Old Masters and moderns such as Cezanne); Portrait of Paganini (1832) by Eugene Delacroix; The Uprising (1848) by Honore Daumier; Mont Sainte-Victoire with Large Pine (1886-7) by Cezanne; Wheat Field at Auvers with House (1890) by Van Gogh; Portrait of Elena Pavlowski (1917) by Modigliani; and the large-scale still-life called The Round Table (1929) by Georges Braque. He also purchased works by the great still-life and genre-painter Jean Chardin, the leader of the French Realists Gustave Courbet, the 19th century modernist Edouard Manet (an important link in a chain between Goya and Matisse), the Impressionist leader Claude Monet (peerless painter of light), the great figurative artist Edgar Degas, and the great colourist Henri Matisse. In addition, he bought watercolors by John Marin as well as works by Winslow Homer, Whistler, Peter Ilsted and Edouard Vuillard.

 

Arranged By Creative Themes

Phillips constantly sought to illustrate the continuous tradition of art, and show how 20th century painters were influenced by their predecessors. To emphasize these connections between certain artists and paintings, he arranged the art collection in clusters, according to themes, rather than the usual chronological order.

Emerging Talent

His patronage of less well known artists embraced such talents as Milton Avery, Arthur Dove, Georgia O'Keeffe, Richard Diebenkorn, Nicolas de Stael, Gene Davis, Kenneth Noland and Augustus Vincent Tack. He was assisted in his acquisition of works by these and other modernists by Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), husband of O'Keeffe and owner of "291" and The Intimate Gallery. In addition, The Phillips Museum was one of the first art venues to set aside an exclusive gallery for typically luminous canvases by the abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, allowing the artist maximum colour expression.

Legacy

When Duncan Phillips died in 1966, just one month short of his 80th birthday, he was succeeded as museum director by his wife Marjorie. His son, Laughlin, took over in 1972, and oversaw a major expansion and modernization program. Today, the Phillips Collection contains nearly 3,000 works by American and European artists, and has maintained its reputation for its stimulating and intimate atmosphere. It remains very much the brainchild of its founder Duncan Phillips.

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