Women of Influence

postcard from archives

Postcard from Elmira Bier to Marjorie Phillips, undated. From The Phillips Collection archives

Women of Influence: Elmira Bier, Minnie Byers, and Marjorie Phillips is the current Reading Room exhibition just outside of the Phillips’s library, and examines the critical role that each woman played in the day to day activities of The Phillips Collection. Elmira Bier first started working at the Phillips in 1923, two years after the museum opened to the public, and retired in 1972. Bier was Duncan Phillips’s executive assistant. Fiercely protective of Phillips’s time, Bier took on many responsibilities, including serving as the first director of the music program, beginning in 1941. Despite her lack of formal training, Bier quickly established a widely acclaimed concert series that highlighted new performers and innovative music, which paralleled Duncan Phillips’s support of contemporary art.

Bier traveled extensively with Virginia McLaughlin, the sister of Jim McLaughlin, who was a curator at the Phillips. In addition to trips within the United States, they ventured to Norway and Ethiopia. Bier wrote of the latter, “This is really a wonderful experience. The people are gentle and many are handsome. Had lunch in home of young Ethiopian woman whose husband is in diplomatic corps. Nature dishes, some of them red hot! Friends assisting her alert and very feminist. They have women in parliament; we had no sense of color barrier. Saw the Emperor on Monday and heard him speak. Tiny but royal in bearing and very alert. He is particularly interested in education.”

group photo with Elmira

From left to right, seated in front row: C. Law Watkins, Elmira Bier, Marjorie Phillips, Duncan Phillips. Standing are Ira Moore [?] and on the right Charles Val Clear. Photo circa 1931.

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.