Duncan Phillips, the grandson of a steel magnate and son of a businessman, shows an interest in art from an early age, which is encouraged by his family via a modest annual fund dedicated exclusively to acquiring works of art. The sudden death of his father and brother causes him to honour them by publicly exhibiting acquired works in one area of their mansion. Duncan Phillips acquires around three hundred paintings and adds them to the two dozen or so works already in his possession to open the Phillips Memorial Gallery in 1921, thus turning the collection into the first modern art museum in the USA.
During the three decades that follow, until his death in 1966, he is devoted to acquiring sets of works by his favourite artists, which include Pierre Bonnard, Georges Braque, Paul Klee and Paul Cèzanne. In 1953 the artist Katherine S. Dreier leaves him a collection of some of her most iconic works, including pieces by Juan Gris, Franz Marc, Piet Mondrian, Kurt Schwitters, Alexander Archipenko and Wasily Kandinsky.
By the Sixties the Phillips Collection already has over two thousand works, which means he has to build an extension to his Washington mansion. Due to an awareness of the huge artistic value of the acquired works, to manage the collection he frequently loans them out to galleries and they can be seen in temporary exhibitions in museums throughout the world.
In 1987 the collection embarks upon a world tour as it passes through London, Frankfurt and also the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. The selection presented in Madrid is, essentially, the same as the one in England, apart from a few works that are not displayed in the Centro de Arte. For instance, Francisco de Goya's San Pedro penitente (1820-1824), which appears simultaneously in another exhibition in the Museo del Prado, landscape paintings by both Camille Corot and Gustave Courbet, one of a pair of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes pieces and respective works by A. Pinkham Ryder, John D. Graham, J. Walker and Sean Scully that are not seen in Frankfurt either as they are reserved for the London exhibition. One other absentee is the mythological landscape by Ker-Xavier Roussel, offset by the addition of a Jean-Édouard Vuillard piece that does not feature in the British exhibition catalogue.
Quite possibly the linchpin of the collection is Déjeuner des canotiers (1881), the masterpiece by Pierre-Auguste Renoir that so appeals to Marjorie and Duncan Phillips in the back room of the marchandte Durand-Ruel that they pay the then enormous sum of 125,000 dollars for it.
There is a fascinating collection of Impressionist and Post-impressionist art, with works by Alfred Sisley, Maurice Utrillo, Claude Monet, Georges-Pierre Seurat and Edgar Degas together with Cèzanne, Braque and Vincent Van Gogh. Moreover, the exhibition also displays four of Pierre Bonnard's twenty-nine paintings that form part of the collection, with past avant-garde movements also represented, mostly by virtue of the donations by Katherine S. Dreier mentioned above.
The Phillips' interest in Spanish art is significant, not only because of the works with particularly Spanish themes, such as Manet's El baile español (1862), but also El Greco's Las lágrimas de San Pedro (1580-1586), two works from Picasso's youth El cuarto azul (1901) and Bodegón con retrato (1905), and also a magnificent Cubist bodegón by Juan Gris in all its pictorial splendour and Sol rojo (1967) by Joan Miró, bought from the son of Henri Matisse, the famous New York art dealer.
This panorama of European painting is complemented with a major selection of American artists ranging from Craig Horner, George Bellows, Maurice Prendergast and Edward Hopper to Mark Rothko, Philip Guston, Francis Bacon, Phyllis Diebenkorn and Mark Stella, thus confirming the vigour and beauty of one of the most highly recognised collections of paintings worldwide.
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