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What Duncan Phillips Built

In an article (Les choix éclairés de la Phillips Collection [The enlightened choices of the Phillips Collection], August 6) in Le Monde, Philippe Dagen has a look at the exhibit Chefs-d'œuvre de la Phillips Collection at the Fondation Pierre Gianadda, in Martigny, Switzerland, until September 27. The Phillips Collection here in Washington has been building a larger exhibition space, and it has sent 55 of its most precious paintings around the world. The little Web page from the the Gianadda has images that made me realize how much I miss some of those paintings. (There are better images, but of fewer works, here and from when the show was at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.)

There are at least two ways of visiting this exhibit in Martigny, the only European stop on the tour these works are making during the renovation of the facilities in Washington. The first is epicurean: of the 55 paintings presented, most of them are the best of what their creators made. They were chosen according to two criteria, their excellence and the desire to put together significant groups. Cézanne can hold up with three works: a self-portrait, a View of Mont Sainte-Victoire [1887], and a still life. The same treatment for Degas: dancers, a woman combing her hair, and a portrait. For Van Gogh, too: a painting of Arles, one of Saint-Rémy, and one of Auvers.

In each case, the works are first-rate. Some are historic: the Sainte-Victoire, the Dancers at the Barre, and of course Renoir's celebrated Luncheon of the Boating Party [1881], which Duncan had the presence of mind to buy in Paris in 1923 at Durand-Ruel, without a single French museum raising a complaint. Visitors are crowding in to see it in Martigny. Gauguin's Le Jambon [1889], Bonnard's Le Palmier [1926], Courbet's The Mediterranean could all excite the same fervor. Phillips knew how to buy. That's how he put together his gallery of modern and Impressionist French painters, perfecting it tirelessly through the 1950s.

Thus we come to the other way of looking: wasn't that a little bit late? To acquire Cézanne or Degas around 1930, fine. But the risk of error was low. At first, Phillips was happy to follow the teaching of accepted art history. His oldest major purchases were Monet, Sisley, and Renoir. At the time, he hardly cared for the art of his contemporaries. In 1913, he wrote a nasty article against the Armory Show in New York, which he thought "astounding in its vulgarity," having understood nothing about Cubism, Futurism, or Duchamp, which were being shown for the first time in the United States.
It's a valid point. As I wrote over a year ago, Gertrude Stein was a much more daring collector: while Duncan Phillips was spending large sums of money on the previous century's best painters, Stein had bought Matisse—La Femme au Chapeau (1905) and Le Bonheur de Vivre (1906, now at the Barnes) and Picasso (whose portrait of Stein is shown hanging above the first Matisse she bought in this photograph of her gallery). I wish that Gertrude Stein's collection had been kept together at her famous apartment at 27, rue de Fleurus, in Paris. That would be something to see.

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