Edited by Ortrud Westheider and Michael Philipp

Prestel Publishing. 249 pages. £39.99. ISBN 978-3791-3569-38

Reviewed by Jim Burns


Duncan Phillips (1886-1966) founded the Phillips Collection in Washington in 1921. Born into what is described as “a wealthy Gilded Age family”, he was lucky enough to be the recipient of funds which allowed him to indulge in his passion for art.  I think it’s important to say that Phillips wasn’t just a rich collector of art that he was keen to have in his home to impress friends and visitors. He had a genuine interest in paintings, could write about them knowledgeably, and wanted the general public to see them.

It’s interesting to note that Phillips was an advocate for American artists at a time when many  American collectors, critics, and curators were reluctant to acknowledge that they could stand comparison with European painters. It’s pointed out that, in 1929, “the venerable Metropolitan Museum of Art deemed the work of American artists not museum-worthy when it refused sculptor/patron Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s gift of 500 contemporary American paintings and an accompanying endowment”.

Phillips was, therefore, going against the grain when he chose to collect and display the work of American painters in his gallery. But he was fully aware of what had taken place in Europe in the nineteenth century, particularly in France, and his collection included many European artists. It was a fact, after all, that hundreds of American painters had spent time in Paris, and at the artists’ colonies in Giverny, Pont-Aven, and elsewhere, in order to study the work of the Impressionists and other French artists. It’s worth noting that one of the paintings that Phillips purchased was Renoir’s splendid, Luncheon of the Boating Party.

It’s interesting to consider Phillips’ approach to collecting. He wasn’t “concerned with creating a comprehensive collection or documenting a period or movement”. He said that he was committed to buying “many examples of the work of artists I especially admire and delight to honour…..instead of having one example of each of the standardised celebrities”. He responded to “individual voices” like Milton Avery and there is an “in-depth group of Averys that remains a cornerstone of the collection today”. I doubt that Avery’s work is known to most people in Britain.

The same could be said of other artists who Phillips supported. The catalogue reproduces paintings by Augustus Vincent Tack, who painted what are referred to as “semiabstract landscapes” and “poetic abstractions”. I have to admit that I knew nothing at all about Tack before reading this book and admiring the work of his that it contains. And there is Edward Bruce, whose 1933 canvas, Power, offers a striking cityscape of New York.

It’s rightly said in the Foreword that “American art from the first half of the twentieth century is still little known in Europe”, and it’s true that quite a few of the artists in the Phillips collection, in addition to Tack and Bruce, might well arouse a bemused response if their names were mentioned in conversation in Britain. A few others might elicit a nod of recognition because of the popularity of Impressionist art and the profusion of paintings by Americans who spent time in France. I was lucky enough a few years ago to have visited the gallery in Giverny more than once when it was operated by the Terra Foundation for American Art. It had several exhibitions of American Impressionists which included work by Theodore Robinson, Childe Hassam, John Henry Twachtman, Louis Ritman, Mary Fairchild McMonnies, and others.

There is, in From Hopper to Rothko, an interesting essay by Susanne Scharf on the “Reception and Interpretation of Impressionism in America”. It wasn’t only in America that the reactions to Impressionist painters were, initially at least, hostile. The art student, Julian Alden Weir, visited the Third Impressionist Exhibition in Paris in 1877, and wrote to his parents that he never in his life “saw more horrible things”. Another American art student, Ellen Day Hale, wasn’t quite as vehement in her comments, but questioned the way that the human figure was represented in many of the paintings. Weir later changed his mind about what he saw in Paris, and the catalogue describes him as “a leading American Impressionist”. His painting, Roses, acquired by Phillips in 1920, is attractive, if conventional.

The difficulty was that the Americans in Paris had been trained to “render the human figure as naturalistically as possible and to depict it in its spatial depth by means of appropriate tonality and light-dark contrasts”. They didn’t have quite the same problem when it came to Impressionist landscapes, and their paintings seemed to indicate that they felt happier following Impressionist guide-lines in that area. But it does appear to be true that many of the paintings produced by Americans, who are now classed as Impressionists, are relatively straightforward in style and technique. They may have seen Monet’ work, and some of them even knew him, but they rarely got anywhere near his idea of Impressionism.

They weren’t alone in this, of course, and it makes one realise that Impressionism, as a term supposedly pointing to something specific, is now so loosely applied that it can cover any number of American, British, Australian, Belgian, and other artists from a variety of countries, who often, though not always, spent time in France, painted en plein air, and took some inspiration from the painters associated with the Impressionist movement. But, as another essay stresses, “the American Impressionists never completely lost their grounding in the realist tradition”.

It isn’t a criticism of American Impressionism, for which I have a great fondness, to say that the pleasant and the polite were key factors in its productions. Look at the samples of work by William Merritt Chase and Frank Weston Benson in From Hopper to Rothko, and I think you’ll see what I’m suggesting. There’s never a hint of the mills and mines that provided the money for the wealthy to purchase paintings. There is a streetsweeper to be seen in Childe Hassam’s finely balanced, Washington Arch, Spring, but he’s hardly noticeable in comparison with the lady in the long dress walking towards the viewer, or the coach and horses in front of the Arch. Duncan Phillips isn’t to be faulted for obtaining paintings by Hassam and other Impressionists. They are good in themselves, and the fact that they don’t offer any social criticism should not be held against the artists. They were painting what was wanted by people who could afford to buy art. 

As an interesting aside, the essay on how Impressionism was accepted, or not, in America, focuses some attention on the role of Lilla Cabot Perry in introducing work by Monet and others to people she knew might be interested: “Through her articles and lectures, she played a decisive role in making Monet’s new painting style and art known in Boston”. Mary Cassatt is rightly often given credit for getting Impressionist painters better known in the USA, but it’s good to see Cabot Perry also being acknowledged as active. She had lived in Giverny, knew Monet, and bought his paintings. She also supported the American Impressionist, John Leslie Breck. And she was a talented artist in her own right.

The American public’s responses to Impressionism were not only affected by the techniques used, but also by the subject-matter in evidence. Life on the streets, in cafes and bars, shops and railways stations, and among the working-classes, simply wasn’t seen in most American paintings at that time. Portraits of society ladies, gentle landscapes, perhaps sometimes a marine scene, were likelier topics for what was hung in the home. When artists like John Sloan, George Bellows, and William Glackens (all represented in the Phillips collection) came along they were mockingly called “The Ashcan School” because of their portrayals of New York life around its less-salubrious sections, in bar-rooms, at prize fights, and in theatres. John Sloan’s Six O’Clock, Winter is superbly effective in the way it captures the interplay of light and darkness, and the movement of people and machinery. It is almost defiantly about city life. Duncan Phillips deserves credit for recognising what the Ashcan artists were doing and showing their work in his gallery.

Phillips was also alert to the other side of city life, the loneliness and anonymity that contrasted with the hustle and bustle of the streets. Edward Hopper’s paintings of figures isolated in hotel rooms, and of buildings that seemed stark and without character, emphasised a psychological problem that could impact on individuals looking for a place in the life of the city.

Phillips never stood still in his search for individual artists who excited him. In the 1930s he spoke up for the “Precisionists,” painters such as Charles Sheeler, Stefan Hirsch, and Ralston Crawford. Not names to ring many bells in Britain, though several examples of Sheeler’s work were seen in the America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s exhibition at the Royal Academy earlier this year.

Later, Phillips collected work by Jackson, Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Philip Guston, and he also had the curiosity to look at what abstract expressionists on the West Coast were doing, and purchased work by Richard Diebenkorn, Elmer Bischoff, and Sam Francis. I recall a small Sam Francis exhibition in London some years ago, and Diebenkorn was the subject of a Royal Academy exhibition in recent times, but Bischoff who, along with Diebenkorn, moved some way back from abstraction to figurative work in the 1950s, is probably less well-known, at least to non-specialists.

I’ve moved around when discussing individual artists, and the Phillips Collection includes many more talented people. He bought Georgia O’Keefe paintings, and several by Marsden Hartley. The latter arouses interest as someone who spent quite a lot of time in Europe, primarily in Berlin. He was “one of the first advocates of abstraction in the United States”, and “promoted exchanges between artists in the United States and Europe”.

A homosexual at a time when being openly gay was not acceptable in America, he found the more-relaxed attitudes in Europe easier to live with. Later, when times were hard in the 1930s, and he was finding it difficult to sell his work, he re-invented himself as “a true Maine artist,” painting “stylised landscapes” and “dramatic coastal scenes”.  Robert McAlmon knew Hartley through encounters in Greenwich Village and Berlin in the 1920s, and one of his stories, “From Maine”, features an artist based on Hartley, and another, “Distinguished Air”, set in Berlin, also highlights Hartley, in fictional form, as active in gay circles in the Germany of the 1920s.

Phillips died in 1966, but he was still searching for work that appealed to him just prior to his death. He acquired several “colour field” paintings by Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis, and Helen Frankenthaler. Her work, together with that of Mark Rothko, was said to have been influential among artists working in the “colour field” approach. She “experimented with diluted pigments, which flowed together into fields of colour on raw canvas”, while Rothko “created misty veils of colour given a spatial presence by the constellation of colour, light, and proportion”. There is a photograph in the catalogue of the Rothko room in the Washington gallery.

The catalogue has been published to accompany the exhibition, From Hopper to Rothko: America’s Road to Modern Art at the Museum Barberini, Potsdam, from June 17 to October 3, 2017, but it functions as a publication in itself, complete with informative essays, a chronology of Duncan Phillips’ activities, artists’ biographies, and a useful bibliography. Reading it and looking at the illustrations, I can only regret that the exhibition will not come to the United Kingdom. We simply don’t get to see enough American art, or perhaps it’s more correct to say that we don’t have the opportunity to look at work by artists we know too little about. Hopper we know, Rothko we know, Motherwell we know,  but what about Arthur Dove, Thomas Eakins, Rockwell Kent, Bradley Walker Tomlin, and Harold Weston? Duncan Phillips had the good taste to collect their work, and it would be instructive if we could see it. We can’t all get to Washington or Potsdam.