In Case of Emergency . . . Part II

Honoré Daumier, Two Sculptors, 1870-1873. Oil on wood panel, 10 1/2 x 14 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1925.

Read part one of this post here.

Duncan Phillips appeared to feel tremendous relief and gratitude in his letter of December 30, 1941, to the director, Paul Gardner, of the then William Rockhill Nelson Art Gallery, as he announced the forty paintings from his collection that would seek refuge at the Midwestern museum as Washington, D.C., waited out World War II in post-Pearl Harbor anxiety. He also referenced another “almost equally large number of good pictures” being sent to the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center for the same purpose of safekeeping. By January 3, 1942, Phillips received a letter from Gardner, announcing that the first group of paintings, which had been shipped in batches, had arrived already to great excitement, especially regarding Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party. On its first day on view, January 25, 1942, that painting was written up in the Kansas City Star with the poignant headline, “When France was Free.”

Come October 16, 1942, however, Phillips was reassessing the impact of his decision to harbor his beloved collection so far out of reach. In a letter that day, again to Paul Gardner, he states that the gallery has been “very sadly crippled” by the loans of such works as Cézanne’s Self-Portrait, Manet’s Spanish Ballet, Chardin’s A Bowl of Plums, and El Greco’s The Repentant St. Peter.

I know now we really over-did our precautions in stripping ourselves of quite so many of our 19th century masters. In the case of two of them, Daumier and Cézanne, our loss is deplorable and I am finally compelled to write and ask you to return to us the “Two Sculptors” by Daumier and the Still Life by Cézanne . . . I still feel that the risk of air raids in Washington continues to be a very real one but the National Gallery and other institutions here are exhibiting great pictures and a certain amount of risk for property as well as human life is inevitable in war time.

Gardner easily agreed to return the two works and accepted Phillips’s offer to replace them with loans of a Paul Klee and Augustus Vincent Tack.

2 thoughts on “In Case of Emergency . . . Part II

  1. So interesting to read this marvelous history of The Collection. Thank you! How precious, how dear, these works and we appreciate the precautions of Mr. Phillips, and his sense of brave optimism during the dark days of WWII history. Am reminded of Admiral David Farragut’s “damn the torpedos, full steam ahead’” (if, indeed, this is correct) during Civil War, taking Mobile Bay for the Union forces. Now used to dismiss the dangers of a dangerous action.

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