Phillips Flashback: A Visit From Pierre Bonnard


Bonnard_Early Spring

Pierre Bonnard, Early Spring, 1908. Oil on canvas, 34 1/4 x 52 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1925; © 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

French painter Pierre Bonnard visited The Phillips Collection in 1926 after serving on the jury of the Carnegie International, an art exhibition in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. On the train to Washington, Bonnard was so fascinated by the architecture of a club sandwich that he made a sketch of it.

Bonnard letter from the archives

Letter from The Phillips Collection’s archive from Pierre Bonnard

During his visit to the Phillips, Bonnard asked Marjorie Phillips, an artist in her own right, to lend him some paints and brushes so he could “improve” a section of his painting Early Spring. Marjorie Phillips, fearing the worst, fibbed and told Bonnard that all of her paints and brushes were in Ebensburg, Pennsylvania, where she went to work during the summer months.

Bonnard was enchanted with the color soaked work of American painter John Twachtman, particularly his canvas entitled The Emerald Pool, based on his observations of hot springs in Yellowstone Park.

Duncan Phillips asked Bonnard to look at half a dozen of Marjorie Phillips’s paintings. Bonnard suggested, “draw more” and “get the character.” Following his return to France, Bonnard wrote to the Phillipses, “I still work despite my age. I imagine Mrs. Duncan Phillips continues to paint as sensitively as in the paintings I saw on my American trip.”

Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Good World”

archival_okeeffe letter

Letter from Georgia O’Keeffe to Marjorie Phillips, 1975

A letter from Georgia O’Keeffe to Marjorie Phillips, wife of Duncan Phillips and a painter in her own right, has a postscript that reads, “It was so good to see you here in what I call ‘my good world.'” Dated 1975, this letter reveals that Marjorie Phillips visited O’Keeffe in her New Mexico home, a previously undocumented journey. In 1949, O’Keeffe paid tribute to the long friendship between her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, and Duncan Phillips by willing a series of Stieglitz’s photographs to The Phillips Collection. The 19 photographs, called the Equivalents, feature views of cloud-filled skies. Stieglitz’s goal was to evoke an emotional state through each image. By not including any reference points, including the horizon line, Stieglitz allowed viewers to focus on the abstract qualities of the cloud formations.

Treasures by Arthur Hall Smith

A plate from Arthur's handmade book for the Phillipses showing visiting nuns admiring Matisse's Studio, Quai Saint-Michel, 1916.

A plate from Arthur’s handmade book for the Phillips’s showing visiting nuns admiring Matisse’s Studio, Quai Saint-Michel. The Phillips Collection Archives, Washington D.C.

Arthur Hall Smith was a beloved employee during his tenure at The Phillips Collection, from 1960-1974. In 1960, the Phillips expanded into an annex which generated the need for more staff. In an oral history, Smith recalled interviewing for the job: “I bought a new pair of shoes and I went out to the Phillips’s house for the interview… they showed me a model of the new building and where they wanted to place me, which was the second floor because it had the Renoir, the Bonnards–really the ‘high rent place’ and he [Duncan Phillips] thought I would be a good welcoming presence there.” Arthur’s welcoming presence and French speaking ability made him a frequent guest at the home of Duncan and Marjorie Phillips, and unofficial translator for tours and foreign visitors to the museum.

Arthur made the Phillips’s a miniature book for Christmas one year, with depictions of the Phillips house with people, including two nuns, looking at paintings in the collection. During the major Cézanne exhibition in 1971, Smith went to a nearby “head shop” which sold pipes and other drug paraphernalia. The store also sold all kinds of buttons, so Smith got thirty of them and painted them ochre with a hand-painted Braque bird and the word “Staff,” and finished them with a heavy lacquer.

Handmade staff buttons

Handmade staff buttons. The Phillips Collection Archives, Washington D.C.

Arthur died in February of 2013 in Paris, France, where he lived for many years. A transcript of his oral history interview is available in the library.