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The Phillips Collection at 100: Heralding the New, Treasuring the Old

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Pierre‐Auguste Renoir, Luncheon of the Boating Party, 1880-81. Oil on canvas. 51 1/4 x 69 1/8 in. (The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1923) The sound of a grinding ax is distracting when looking at art. In Seeing Differently, the museum’s anniversary show, just ignore the wall-label rhetoric and let the good stuff speak for itself.

I’d feel deeply irresponsible if I let the 100th anniversary of the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., pass without recognition. The Phillips is one of America’s finest small museums and a citadel of good taste in a squalid, parasitical swamp. In 1921, Duncan and Marjorie Phillips, a rich husband-and-wife team with deep roots in Washington and an unusual eye for collecting, opened a gallery in their stately townhouse showing their art.

Theirs was an idiosyncratic collection. Its heart and soul was and is modern and American, yet the Phillipses bought and showed those Old Masters, such as El Greco and Goya, who informed contemporary art. Van Gogh, Matisse, Bonnard, and Renoir gave a French context. The couple saw modern French art and Picasso as foundational to the best in American avant-garde art.

Displaying it “in full view of the public,” as the Phillipses said, has two dimensions. First, in selecting their home, mansion though it is, as their exhibition space, they made a visit to the Phillips Collection feel like going to an open house. If not cozy, the place is domestic; if not exactly intimate, its human-scale rooms promote close looking and contemplation. The National Gallery, which, by the way, opened 20 years after the Phillips, is a temple of art and has the imprimatur of officialdom. The Smithsonian now has, and always had, the feel of a packed, eclectic, national attic.

Second, Duncan and Marjorie not only showed their collection but expanded and developed it “in full view of the public.” Regular visitors seeing new additions were treated to the latest American styles and newest artists, filtered by what was mostly Duncan’s distinct eye. They bought great, new things while the paint was still wet.

Vincent van Gogh,

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