It wasn’t until our third visit to Washington, D.C., that we made it to the Phillips Collection, a gem largely overshadowed by the city’s larger Smithsonian museums. This time, though, “America’s first modern art museum” was a mere five-minute walk from our Dupont Circle apartment, making it an easy place to spend an afternoon.
Seeing the collection reminded me that modern art doesn’t always mean contemporary. The term modern actually covers a period extending over one hundred years and is broad enough to include such giants as van Gogh and Monet.
Interestingly, though, when museum founder Duncan Phillips acquired much of the art that now hangs in his former 1897 Georgian Revival home it was only a few years old at the time. Renoir, for example, painted his now world-famous Luncheon of the Boating Party in 1919. Phillips added it to his collection just four years later in 1923, meaning that for him it was not only modern but totally contemporary too.
Originally, Phillips displayed his collection of masterworks in a single room in the family home. Eventually the collection grew so large that the family moved to a new house and turned their entire former residence into an art museum.
Despite two later additions, the cozy and distinctive charm of the original mansion remains. So much so that we imagined ourselves conversing with the Phillips while sipping sherry and admiring the Picasso, or the Monet, or the Cezanne, or whatever great work adorned whichever of the many fireplaces still found throughout their humble abode.