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23.7.03

Marsden Hartley at the Phillips

On June 7, my wife and I took our young son to see the Marsden Hartley retrospective at The Phillips Collection. Because it was the weekend of the Dupont-Kalorama Museum Walk Weekend, admission was free. The baby cooperated beautifully and slept in his stroller for a couple hours while we enjoyed this extraordinary exhibit in the jewel of Washington museums. If you will be anywhere near downtown Washington, you should not miss this show, which will close on September 7. After that, you will have to go the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, where it will be shown from October 11 to January 4.

If you don't know the history of the museum, Duncan and Marjorie Phillips gave over part and then all of their magnificent home at 21st and Q Streets NW to what is now recognized as a first-rate collection of modern art and some of its historical influences. That may not sound all that incredible except that this happened in 1921, a date that leads the staff of the Phillips to acclaim it as "America's first museum of modern art." What I love about this museum is that its interior is like so many other old houses in the District of Columbia, just much more spacious and luxurious and with absolutely incredible art hung on the walls. I almost wish that it was still a private house and that a butler would bring you another cigar as you sit and look at the Picasso.

Very little of the permanent collection can be shown at the moment because the Hartley exhibit is taking up most of the rooms, so you won't see what is perhaps the most famous painting at the Phillips, Renoir's Déjeuner des Canotiers [Luncheon of the Boating Party]. Duncan Phillips purchased it from a French collector in 1923 for the then-astronomical sum of $125,000. This painting is lovingly copied by a character in Jean-Pierre Jeunet's film Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain, one of the most beautiful cinematic evocations of Paris ever made. This is an interesting point because the character in the movie almost certainly has never seen the actual painting, although it is not important to the story.

A curator with whom I spoke about the Hartley exhibit assured me that the next major show at the Phillips will be even more spectacular. "Surrealism and Modernism from the Collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art" will be on view from October 4 to January 18. Since I have never been to Hartford, I am looking forward to it.

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