About the Exhibition

A Modern Vision presents a selection of the most iconic European paintings and sculptures from The Phillips Collection, America's first museum of modern art, which opened in Washington, DC, in 1921. Ranging from the early nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth century, the incomparable collection of "modern art and its sources," as its founder, Duncan Phillips, characterized it, includes distinctive Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and Expressionist masterworks. Viewers will encounter a stunning array—paintings from the first half of the nineteenth century by Courbet, Corot, Daumier, Delacroix, and Ingres in dialogue with Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masterpieces by Cézanne, Degas, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Manet, Monet, and Sisley. Central to the exhibition are important works by Bonnard, de Staël, Kandinsky, Matisse, Morandi, and Picasso, artists who shaped the look of the twentieth century. Many of these works have not traveled together in more than twenty years. A Modern Vision, in the words of Duncan Phillips, gathers "congenial spirits among the artists from different parts of the world and from different periods of time," demonstrating "that art is a universal language."

  Duncan Phillips and His Vision
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Duncan Phillips (1886-1966), the grandson of a prominent Pennsylvania steel magnate, built this extraordinary collection. When the museum opened in a large skylight room added to the family’s nineteenth-century Georgian Revival home, it was known as the Phillips Memorial Art Gallery, in honor of Phillips’s father and brother. This intimate setting was the destination to see paintings by American and European Impressionists and the work of living artists. After founding the museum, Phillips married the painter Marjorie Acker; through her, and through expanding friendships with living artists, his eyes were opened to new strains in painting and sculpture. He soon expanded the ambitions and the breadth of his collection, reaching out to acquire the works of such modern American painters as Stuart Davis, Arthur Dove, John Marin, and Georgia O’Keeffe, but also significant holdings of works by French, Swiss, German, and Austrian artists of the period 1850-1950. Phillips referred to the museum as an “experiment station,” and today it retains the founder’s personal stamp in a gathering of art that combines tradition, idiosyncrasy, and daring. Art, in Phillips’s opinion, was meant to inspire: “Pictures send us back to life and to other arts with the ability to see beauty all about us as we go on our accustomed ways,” Phillips wrote. “Such a quickening of perceptions is surely worth cultivating.”

The Art of The Masters
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A Modern Vision begins with a spare and, in Phillips’s view, quintessentially modern still life painted by Chardin in 1728 and concludes with a highly stylized bird painted by Braque in 1956. Among the Old Masters Phillips collected are important works by El Greco and Goya; but Phillips also looked back to the immediate past, in the belief that the art of earlier painters informed that of his favorite contemporary artists–as Cézanne, for instance, influenced the work of Braque. Phillips admired Corot for his treatment of light; Delacroix for his expressive drawing and emotion-laden color; and Manet for his mastery of modern subject matter. In opening his museum in 1921, Phillips sought to establish a collection that included these “immediate ancestors of the modern art movement”–a tactic that was followed by the founders of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, inaugurated in 1929.

Phillips' Units
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Keenly enthusiastic for the art of his time, Phillips supported independent thinkers, including those outside the mainstream, whom he encouraged by collecting their work in depth. Critical to the exhibition are important selections from the carefully formed “units” by Phillips’s nineteenth- and twentieth-century favorites: Daumier, including The Uprising; Bonnard, including The Open Window and The Palm; Klee, including Tree Nursery and Printed Sheet with Picture; and Braque—with some seven works, among them the elegiac Shower. Phillips was among the earliest American collectors to champion the art of Daumier, referring to him in 1926 as “perhaps the greatest artist of the nineteenth century.” The Phillips Collection is unique among museums of modern art in placing greater emphasis on the work of Braque than that of Picasso. Phillips was convinced that Braque’s art would better stand the test of time because it satisfied three criteria: classicism, personal vision, and continuity with French tradition. The Klee unit, comprised of thirteen works, is considered one of the cornerstones of The Phillips Collection. For Phillips, Klee was a dreamer, poet, and brooding rebel whose art epitomized personal expression. “No art could be more personal than the art of Klee," Phillips observed. "This private individualism . . . was no doubt what seemed so dangerous to Hitler.” In 1925, Phillips acquired the first painting by Bonnard to enter an American museum collection, Woman with Dog. Phillips also hosted the artist’s first US museum show in 1930 and went on to acquire one of the largest and most diverse collections of Bonnard’s work in the country. He proclaimed Bonnard his favorite artist and “an unmistakable genius of color.”

A Passion for Color
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Central to Phillips’s taste was a preference for intense color and design. Phillips revered artists who achieved the mastery of color, the power of great emotion, and the balance of representation and abstraction. As critic Robert Hughes put it, “Phillips was in fact the complete optical collector. He craved color sensation, the delight and radiance and sensory intelligence that is broadcast by an art based on color. Color healed; it consoled, it gave access to Eden. He could not understand . . . why art should be expected to do anything else.“ Phillips was repeatedly drawn to vibrant and seductive colors, especially that of French paintings by Van Gogh, Degas, and Bonnard. Phillips also collected American and Eastern European works with expressive color and symbolic power.