Masterworks from the Phillips Collection offers a Unique Art History Lesson

Submitted by Evelyn Kiefer on Fri, 04/29/2005 - 14:28.

The special traveling exhibition Masterworks from the Phillips Collection is now on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art through May 29th. The exhibit includes 59 works from the Phillips Collection and 18 related works from the CMA collection. The exhibition’s next stop is the Mori Arts Center in Tokyo, Japan.

Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party is proving to be a favorite among visitors. In Cleveland, the show has consistently drawn large audiences, and visitors tend to crowd in front of this painting.

The Phillips Collection is a unique art collection shaped by the vision of two extraordinary collectors: Duncan Phillips and his wife Marjorie. The European and American works in the collection represent modern art and its sources. Phillips was a self-taught art historian before art history was an established academic discipline. During his education at Yale he promoted the appreciation of art, though no formal study of the subject was offered at the time. Phillips continued to develop his knowledge of art through his travels through Europe after graduation. After visiting the Armory Show in 1913 he became fascinated by modernism, though he found some of the works included in the show quite crude and shocking.  Marjorie Acker, an artist who became Duncan Phillip’s wife, is well represented in the collection and was a devoted partner in its development.  

The works in the Phillips Collection are part of a much broader historical perspective than one would expect to find in a survey book of modern art. Duncan Phillips found works such as a The Repentant St. Peter (c. 1600-1605) by El Greco to be a precursor and inspiration to modernism because of the artist’s use of non-naturalistic color and form to convey emotion and spirituality.

The 18 paintings from the CMA that have been integrated into the Phillips Collection offer an opportunity to see works that many Clevelander know well in a new context. Phillips acquired works by many of the artists who are represented in the CMA. Some of the works are very similar in style and subject. One of the most interesting comparisons is the two versions of The Road Menders (1889) by Vincent Van Gogh. The two paintings look very similar; however, according to his letters, Van Gogh considered the painting in the Phillips Collection more finished than the one in the CMA. This might comes as a surprise to most viewers who have had the opportunity to study both paintings in the exhibit because the Phillips version is slightly lighter with more yellow and green hues.

Color was very important to Duncan Phillips. Many of the works he collected represent masterful, innovative and influential use of color. Horses in Water, a small, yet beautiful work by the 19th-century colorist Delacroix is included in this exhibition. Few would associate Delacroix with modernism outside of this context. Phillips seemed drawn to colorists regardless of their style or subject.

The still-life was a favorite subject of Phillips. This exhibition includes several 18th-century still-lifes by Chardin hung close enough to compare with late 19th-century still-lifes by the Post-Impressionist painter Cezanne. One of the most interesting still-lifes in the Phillips Collection is Round Table by George Braque, created in 1929. Picasso is also represented in the Phillips Collection -- and this exhibition -- though Marjorie Phillip’s did not like Picasso’s personality.

The last two rooms of the exhibition contain works most museum goers would recognize as modern; works by Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc and Paul Klee. They have no companion pieces from the CMA.Their presence temporarily fills in some gaps in the  story of the birth of abstraction and modernism  in Europe ca. 1913.

Duncan Phillips (1886-1966) was the grandson of James Laughlin a Pittsburgh banker and founder of the Jones Laughlin Steel Company. His family moved to Washington D. C. in 1895. In 1918 Duncan Phillips and his mother established the Phillips Memorial Gallery in their home after the sudden death of his father and his older brother. Their home was opened to the public in 1921 and in 1930 the family moved and turned their former home into a museum.

Like the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Phillips Collection is undergoing an expansion. The project is scheduled to be finished in early 2006. The three year, $27 million dollar project includes an expanded library and archives that will house Duncan Phillip’s writings about art and correspondence with artists and dealers.

Masterworks from the Phillips Collection is the last special exhibition to be held at the CMA before the Museum closes for expansion and renovation. The project, designed by Raphael Vinoly, is scheduled to be completed in 2011. Many Museum galleries already closed in March. The Breuer wing (where special exhibitions are located) and the 1916 building will close this spring. The entire Museum will be closed for the first 6 months of 2006.