America's modern-art pioneer


Duncan Phillips taught himself to appreciate the new art of his era, and he shared his knowledge.

October 31, 1999|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

Movie actor Vincent Price, who in his offscreen life was a passionate art lover and collector, entitled his memoirs "I Know What I Like," a phrase that summed up the attitude of connoisseurs in the days before art history was a subject routinely taught to college undergraduates.

At the turn of the century, knowing what one liked meant making the grand tour of Europe to study the great masterpieces of the past, then judiciously applying that knowledge and experience to the development of one's own judgment and taste.

Such was the education of Duncan Phillips, who founded the first American museum of modern art, and whose career as critic, collector and tireless proselytizer for art education is the subject of a landmark exhibition at the Phillips Collection in Washington.

"Renoir to Rothko: The Eye of Duncan Phillips" is a selection of 350 works from the museum's permanent collection that relates the story of Phillips' pioneering crusade for the recognition of modern art in America.

The works include some of the world's best-loved paintings, from impressionists like Renoir, Monet and Degas, to modern European masters like Matisse, Picasso, Braque and Bonnard, to American modernists such as Georgia O'Keeffe, Richard Diebenkorn and Mark Rothko.

This is a huge show that takes up the entire space of both the old Phillips family residence that became the museum (it's been refurbished for this exhibition) and the museum annex next door. The works are displayed in roughly chronological order to illustrate Phillips' evolving taste and his relationships with key artists and contemporaries.

Horrified by ignorance

Phillips was born in 1886 into a wealthy Pittsburgh family that had made its fortune in banking and steel. The family moved to Washington around the turn of the century and built an imposing Georgian-style residence on 21st Street near Dupont Circle.

Phillips attended Yale University, where he began writing essays in art criticism for the school literary journal, even though the college didn't have a formal art history department at the time.

Paul Mellon, another great Washington collector and contemporary of Phillips at Yale, recalled that Phillips was appalled by the "deplorable ignorance and indifference" to art among his student peers.

Critic Robert Hughes relates an amusing anecdote from Phillips' college days: "A graduate student [Phillips] knew declared at dinner that 'Botticelli is a wine, a good deal like Chianti only lighter.' ... He was rudely awakened by a sensitive friend to the fact that Botticelli is not a wine but a cheese."

"Phillips was horrified by the lack of art history courses in American schools," Hughes observed. "He wanted to be a dilettante, but in the full and proper sense of the word: not a superficial amateur, but a man who took educated pleasure in every field of culture, especially art."

Yet at the outset, Phillips was still very much a product of his time and social class. At Yale, his ideas were essentially those of a young Romantic aesthete. He believed somewhat fuzzily, for example, that the purpose of art was to be "a joy-giving, life-enhancing influence, assisting people to see beautifully as true artists see."

He was most impressed by paintings that provoked "sentiment" and conveyed their meaning through morally uplifting parables and homilies.

At the same time, Phillips considered himself a thoroughly modern thinker and a perceptive observer of the contemporary scene. Not surprisingly, for a long time he was uncomprehending of the modernist revolution that was transforming the arts in Europe and the United States.

In an essay written in 1908, during his senior year at Yale, for example, Phillips dismissed Japanese art and literature as "of no lasting worth" because they "in general display no impressive evidences of genius."

He had no appreciation at this time of how Japanese art was influencing European art and design. And he roundly deplored those progressive critics who, in his view, had "even gone to the extent of tolerating many experiments in Impressionism."

During the decade after his graduation from Yale, Phillips traveled and studied abroad, visiting major museums in Europe and inspecting Asian art during family trips to China and Japan.

His ideas changed slowly. He was shocked, for instance, by the 1913 New York Armory Show that introduced the United States to European modernism. Phillips initially found this art "quite stupefying in its vulgarity."

For some reason, Phillips blamed Monet and the impressionists for what he called the "crass sensationalism" of the new style.

"I really believe that it was a reaction from [Monet's] excessive objectivity that induced such unbalanced fanatics as Cezanne and Vincent van Gogh to imagine that they saw nature subjectively in cubes and ovals," he wrote at the time.

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