"Over the course of a decade, from 1912 to 1922, Duncan Phillips assembled an impressive collection of American impressionist paintings," says Jay Gates, director of The Phillips Collection. "They formed the very bedrock of the museum and have shaped the development of the collection ever since."
When Duncan Phillips opened his museum in the fall of 1921, the collection included 237 paintings 87 of which were works by 25 different American impressionist artists. By far, the greatest number of these were by the acknowledged "mature" masters of the style such as Childe Hassam, Theodore Robinson, John Henry Twachtman, J. Alden Weir, and William Lathrop. The collection also included paintings by Ernest Lawson, Maurice Prendergast, Gifford Beal, and Helen Turner. These artists applied the brighter palette and broken brushwork of French impressionism to the American landscape, focusing on intimate and atmospheric views of parks and beaches as well as urban views and charming interiors. While all of these paintings were crafted with particular interest in the seasons, changing light, and optical effects, American impressionist painters differed from their French counterparts by continuing to imbue their work with larger ideas related to the emotional and spiritual character of the landscape.
For Phillips, impressionism was always a question of personal temperament or subjectivity combined with natural phenomena. In the work of both Twatchman and Weir, for instance, Phillips found depictions of the intimate moods of the artists’ Connecticut properties as celebrations of the American countryside and pastoral respite from the modern world. Both artists used the language of French impressionism to explore nature’s emotional effects. Twachtman’s Summer is a classic example of this. Phillips regarded it as one of his best purchases for 1919, outranking all others, including those by Weir, Hassam, and Lawson. The exhibition also features the work or less well known but equally extraordinary artist, Allen Tucker. Phillips acquired Tucker’s Paintings, Red Barns and The Rise, in 1926-1927. Considered by his colleagues to be the “American van Gogh” because of his vigorous and animated brushwork, Tucker captured the attentions of Phillips who sought to add an original van Gogh to his growing collection of modern art during this period.
Duncan Phillips and American Impressionism
Duncan Phillips arrived in New York in 1910, with dreams of becoming an art critic. Impressionism was America’s popular mainstream aesthetic style. By the end of the decade, he could count himself as one of its first collectors. American impressionist works were the foundation of the museum and significantly shaped its development, playing a vital role in Phillip’s maturing appreciation of abstraction. In the early 1920’s the writing of contemporary critics such as Roger Fry and Clive Bell, opened Phillip’s eyes to the intent of abstract art, and his collecting in that decade reflected his new understanding of abstraction, he turned his attention towards other artists. He was drawn not only to the new American realism, but also to the American moderns around Stiegliz and the artists of the School of Paris, including Bonnard, Vuillard, Matisse and Braque. Phillip’s collecting practices were ultimately driven by his desire to create a cohesive collection. Only artists whom Phillips saw as “modern in mind,” or whose work could be seen as links between the past and present, found a permanent place in the collection.
The catalogue entitled American Impressionists: Painters of Light and Modern Landscape is available in the Dixon Museum Store. The book was published by The Phillips Collection and Rizzoli International Publications and features essays by William H. Gerdts, the leading authority on American impressionism and Phillips exhibition curator Susan Behrends Frank.
Organized by The Phillips Collection, Wahington, D.C.
This exhibition is generously sponsored by:
Mr. and Mrs. William B. Dunanvant, Jr.
Le Bonheur Children's Medical Center
The Arthur F. Alice E. Adams Foundation