Duncan Phillips began displaying his collected art in his family’s Dupont Circle home in 1921, even while the family still resided there. The original 1897 Georgian Revival house still makes up the part of the museum on the corner of 21st and Q Streets, although the Phillips family moved out in 1930 to accommodate the ever-growing gallery. In 1960 Duncan Phillips added what is now known as the Goh Annex – named after a Japanese businessman who funded its renovation – directly adjacent to the house. The third and final building that makes up the Phillips Collection is a former apartment building, the Sant Building, which was added in 2006 as part of a major expansion that also added 30,000 subterranean feet.
Housed within the collection are works by modern masters such as Renoir, Degas, Rothko, O’Keefe, Cezanne, and van Gogh and the museum continues to add contemporary artists. Special exhibits are also frequent, although there is a $2 increase on the weekend admission while exhibits are running. That same $12 adult fee is charged to visit any visiting exhibit on weekdays as well, although seeing only the permanent collection still remains an option for non-weekend visitors.
The interesting collection is well presented, making this a very worthwhile stop, even for a passive art lover. The museum also comprises a pleasant enclosed courtyard and a Tryst Coffeehouse that serves beverages, pastries, soups, and sandwiches. It really is possible to spend several hours enjoying the art and its surroundings despite the museum’s modest size. If you find yourself being overwhelmed by the size and scope of the major museums, the Phillips Collection might be perfect for you. Likewise, if you are a lover of impressionist and modern art, the Phillips Collection might be perfect for you too.
Paul Cézanne – Mont Sainte-Victoire. Cézanne painted the landscape featured in this piece more than 30 times. This version is one of his earlier works, which still features curving lines and a sense of realism. In his later years, Cézanne began to depict everything – including Mont Sainte-Victoire and the surrounding French countryside – in terms of their base geometric shape, bridging the gap between impressionism and cubism. Some of what was to come from Cézanne can be seen in this painting, specifically in the farmland and its blocky buildings.
Wolfgang Laib – The Laib Wax Room. On the second floor of the Phillips House is where you will find one of the most strangely pleasant art installations in the Phillips Collection. The room is as it sounds: lined with beeswax. The small 6 by 7 foot room contains about 440 pounds of wax molded by the German artist and lit by a single bare light bulb. The experience is meant to be meditative, although we are boorish and find it a bit comical. As we stood in the Laib Wax Room contemplating life we also began contemplating whether beeswax tasted like anything. We can neither confirm nor deny that it does not.
Jacob Lawrence – The Migration Series. This series of 60 paintings depicts the relocation of many African Americans from the south to the north during the period between World Wars I and II. This series highlighted an aspect of social unrest unknown to many, making Lawrence an important social artist as well as one of America’s most important black artists. Lawrence was so concerned about color uniformity in these paintings that he applied them one color at a time across all 60 paintings, basically composing and constructing all of them at once.
In 1941 – when Lawrence was the first black artist represented in a show in New York – The Migration Series started a bidding war between The Phillips Collection and New York’s Museum of Modern Art. They eventually decided to split the series, with The Phillips Collection now the home of the odd-numbered panels.
Georgia O’Keeffe – My Shanty, Lake George. Georgia O’Keeffe is one of America’s most important artists – credited with helping popularize modern art in this country. She is best known for her magnified paintings of small objects, and The Phillips Collection features some of those (Pattern of Leaves is particularly excellent). My Shanty, Lake George shows another wonderful aspect of O’Keeffe’s painting, however, her ability to use her precision painting to great effect in a landscape. The hard, straight edges of the shanty are perfectly contrasted by the hazy flowers, wispy trees, and curving mountains giving the painting a sharp focus despite its dreamlike surrounding.
Marjorie Phillips – Night Baseball. The wife of the collection’s founder Duncan Phillips, Marjorie was a talented artist in her own right, as proven in her best work: Night Baseball. Attending many Washington Senators games with her husband, Marjorie began to sketch as she watched, eventually culminating in this scene from a 1951 game between the Senators and the New York Yankees. The details included in the painting are remarkable: the empty sections of the stands; the Yankee players in the dugout eagerly watching the pitch; the well-known batting stance of Joe DiMaggio – the only recognizable player in his final season.
What is conveyed most thoroughly in Night Baseball, however, is the feeling of anticipation. Everything in the moment is calm as the pitcher prepares to release the ball. Eyes are drawn to the batter by not only what is about to happen, but by the lines of the basepaths that converge on DiMaggio. There was an eruption the instant following what was captured here: the pitch came, the crowd cheered, players ran. But here, in this painting, is silence.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir – Luncheon of the Boating Party. The most well-known and popular piece in The Phillips Collection, Luncheon of the Boating Party is a work that encapsulates everything that is loved about Renoir. He painted happy things: beautiful women, flowers, pets, party scenes, and this painting contains all of those things. Renoir was a true impressionist, painting without outlines and clipping the edges of the scene conveying motion and implying that the party continued off-canvas. He also refused to use black in his painting – he said it is not a color – instead using dark blue for shadows.
Despite the casual, energetic look of his style, Renoir spent many hours perfecting each of his paintings, including this one. That does not show, however, as the life and liveliness of the scene jumps off the canvas. Much like a real party you can even tell which people are flirting and which have had a little too much wine. This is a masterpiece by a master; expect to spend a little extra time looking it over.
The Repentant St. Peter – versions by El Greco and Francisco Goya. The Phillips Collection boasts not one, but two paintings entitled The Repentant St. Peter, both done by master painters. The far older version is by Domenikos Theotocopoulos – simply known as El Greco for obvious reasons – painted in the early 17th century. El Greco was a Renaissance artist known for elongated figures and harsh light and his portrait of St. Peter is no different. The thin apostle looks pleadingly skyward towards a bright light seemingly on the verge of tears. Like most of El Greco’s works, The Repentant St. Peter is full of emotion, yet distant due to the strong use of color and Byzantine style.
Contrasting the El Greco with the Francisco Goya version is striking. Goya is an artist without a category, known mostly for painting rebellious, unforgiving images depicting the corrupt side of humanity. He painted this rare religious subject sometime around 1824 and his St. Peter is portly and strikingly solitary. Unlike El Greco’s, this St. Peter is bathed in soft light, and while he still pleads with the heavens, there is depth in his face suggesting complex emotions – a face that is rugged and worn.
Mark Rothko – The Rothko Room. On the second floor of the Sant Building sits the Rothko Room, space dedicated solely to Mark Rothko and his large color field paintings. Rothko used hidden paint strokes to make blocks of color - the edges blurred into their background - to evoke emotion. The paintings allow the viewer to attach their own feelings to the art – joy, anger, fear, sadness, disgust, or maybe a feeling of confusion over why color blocks are considered art (not our feeling, but a common one nonetheless). Sadly, Rothko’s color palette often reflected his own mood, where it became blacks and browns shortly before he took his own life in 1970.
Vincent van Gogh – Entrance to the Public Gardens in Arles. Painted in 1888, the thick, haphazard brushstrokes seen so often in van Gogh’s works are evident here, especially in the sky. While no doubt a tranquil scene, the dynamic style of the surrounded walkway and shadowy visitors hint at the feelings within Van Gogh’s troubled mind. This is not one of van Gogh’s best works, but the mastery of place, emotion, and dynamism shows just how talented the Dutchman was.
Leo Villareal – Scramble. This modern art piece constructed in 2011 consists of a square light box with rapidly shifting LEDs. It features a randomly changing color flow, gradual enough that you think your eyes are playing tricks on you. While certainly not traditional art, the piece is technically impressive and mesmerizing.