The Phillips Collection is an art museum founded by Duncan Phillips in 1921 as the Phillips Memorial Gallery located in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Phillips was the grandson of James Laughlin, a banker and co-founder of the Jones and Laughlin Steel Company.
The Phillips Collection, opened in 1921, is America’s first museum of modern art. Featuring a renowned permanent collection of nearly 2,500 works by American and European impressionist and modern artists, the Phillips is internationally recognized for both its incomparable art and its intimate atmosphere. It is housed in founder Duncan Phillips’ 1897 Georgian Revival home and two similarly scaled additions in Washington, D.C.’s Dupont Circle neighborhood.
Duncan Phillips (1886–1966) played a seminal role in introducing America to modern art. Born in Pittsburgh—the grandson of James Laughlin, a banker and co-founder of the Jones and Laughlin Steel Company — Phillips and his family moved to Washington, D.C. in 1895. He, along with his mother, established The Phillips Memorial Gallery after the sudden, untimely deaths of his father, Duncan Clinch Phillips (1838 – 1917), a Pittsburgh window glass millionaire and member of the fabled South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club of Johnstown Flood fame, and his brother, James Laughlin Phillips (May 30, 1884 - 1918).
Beginning with a small family collection of paintings, Phillips, a published art critic, expanded the collection dramatically. A specially built room over the north wing of the family home provided a public gallery space. With the collection exceeding 600 works and facing public demand, the Phillips family moved to a new home in 1930, turning the entire 21st Street residence into an art museum. From the beginning Phillips conceived of his museum as "a memorial…a beneficent force in the community where I live—a joy-giving, life-enhancing influence, assisting people to see beautifully as true artists see."
Duncan Phillips married painter Marjorie Acker in 1921. With her assistance and advice, Phillips developed his collection "as a museum of modern art and its sources," believing strongly in the continuum of artists influencing their successors through the centuries. His focus on the continuous tradition of art was revolutionary at a time when America was largely critical of modernism, which was seen as a break with the past. Phillips collected works by masters such as El Greco, calling him the "first impassioned expressionist"; Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin because he was "the first modern painter"; Francisco Goya because he was "the stepping stone between the Old Masters and the Great Moderns like Cézanne"; and Edouard Manet, a "significant link in a chain which began with Goya and which [led] to Gauguin and Matisse."
The museum is noted for its broad representation of both impressionist and modern paintings, with works by European masters such as Gustave Courbet, Pierre Bonnard, Georges Braque, Jacques Villon, Paul Cézanne, Honoré Daumier, Edgar Degas, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Klee, Manuel Robbe, Henri Matisse, Claude Monet, and Pablo Picasso. In 1923, Phillips purchased Pierre-Auguste Renoir's impressionist painting, Luncheon of the Boating Party (1880–81), the museum’s best-known work.
From the 1920s to the 1960s, Phillips would re-hang his galleries in installations that were non-chronological and non-traditional, reflecting the relationships he saw between various artistic expressions. He presented visual connections—between past and present, between classical form and romantic expression—as dialogues on the walls of the museum. Giving equal focus to American and European artists, Phillips juxtaposed works by Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, Maurice Prendergast, James Abbot McNeill Whistler, and Albert Pinkham Ryder with canvases by Pierre Bonnard, Peter Ilsted and Edouard Vuillard. He exhibited watercolors by John Marin with paintings by Cézanne, and works by van Gogh with El Greco’s The Repentant St. Peter (circa 1600–05). Phillips’ vision brought together "congenial spirits among the artists," and his ideas still guide the museum today.
The Phillips Collection is also known for its groups of works by artists who Phillips particularly favored. For example, he was overwhelmed by Bonnard’s expressive use of color, acquiring 17 paintings by the artist. Cubist pioneer Braque is represented by 13 paintings, including the monumental still-life The Round Table (1929). The collection has an equal number of works by Klee, such as Arab Song (1932) and Picture Album (1937), as well as seven pieces by abstract expressionist artist Mark Rothko. The Rothko Room, the first public space dedicated solely to the artist’s work, was designed by Phillips in keeping with Rothko’s expressed preference for exhibiting his large, luminous paintings in a small, intimate space, saturating the room with color and sensation.
Throughout his lifetime, Phillips had the prescience and courage to acquire paintings by many artists who were not fully recognized at the time, among them Marin, Georgia O'Keeffe, Arthur Dove, Nicolas de Staël, Milton Avery and Augustus Vincent Tack. By purchasing works by such promising but unknown artists, Phillips provided them with the means to continue painting. He formed close bonds with and subsidized several artists who are prominently featured in the collection—Dove and Marin in particular—and consistently purchased works by artists and students for what he called his "encouragement collection." The museum also served as a visual haven for artists such as Richard Diebenkorn, Gene Davis, and Kenneth Noland. In a 1982 tribute to the museum, Noland acknowledged, "I’ve spent many hours of many days in this home of art. You can be with art in the Phillips as in no other place I know."
There is a Duncan Phillips story that is worth recounting. The founder is standing with Dr. Albert Barnes, before the Renoir masterpiece "Luncheon of the Boating Party" (see illustration). "That's the only Renoir you have, isn't it?" asked the fearsome Dr. Barnes, whose distinctive collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist fine art contains scores of Renoirs and is now the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. Phillips's reply was succinct: "It's the only one I need.”
When Duncan Phillips died in 1966, Marjorie succeeded him as museum director. Their son, Laughlin, became director in 1972. He led The Phillips Collection through a multi-year program to ensure the physical and financial security of the collection, renovate and enlarge the museum buildings, expand and professionalize the staff, conduct research on the collection, and make the Phillips more accessible to the public. In 1992, Charles S. Moffett, a noted author and curator, was named director. Moffett was directly involved with the presentation of several ambitious exhibitions during his six-year tenure, including the memorable "Impressionists on the Seine: A Celebration of Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party" in 1996.
Current director Jay Gates assumed leadership in 1998. Under his direction, The Phillips Collection continues to grow and broaden its presence in Washington, D.C., across the country, and internationally. To accommodate its ever-growing collection of art, audiences, and activities, the Phillips completed a major building project in April 2006. With 65 percent of the added 30,000 square feet located below ground, the expansion preserves the intimate scale and residential quality that distinguishes The Phillips Collection, as well as respects the character of the Dupont Circle neighborhood. The new spaces incorporate expanded galleries, among them the first to accommodate larger-scale post-1950s work; a 180-seat auditorium for lectures, films, and events; an outdoor courtyard; and a new shop and café.
The museum’s longstanding history of educational programming is in the building project as well. Since the museum’s early years, when art classes were held on the third floor of the house, significant attention has been given to educational outreach. Today, the museum features an active schedule of lectures, gallery talks, classes, parent/child workshops, and teacher training programs. It also reaches out to the community through initiatives such as Art Links to Literacy, combining programs for underserved students at District of Columbia Public Schools and their parents and caregivers with professional development for their teachers. These and other ventures are facilitated by new exhibition spaces for student art, an art activity room for hands-on education projects, and an art technology lab for developing interactive resources based on the museum’s educational programs.
The addition also makes possible The Phillips Collection Center for the Study of Modern Art, a new museum-based educational model. Undertaken in partnership with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, this interdisciplinary enterprise will bring together scholars from across academic fields in an ongoing forum for discussion, research, and publishing on modern art.