Phillips Flashback: A Note From Georgia O’Keeffe

Every so often, routine messages from the past can provide new insights into historic connections and relationships. While preparing Duncan and Marjorie Phillips’s correspondence for an ambitious three-year digitization project of the Phillips archives (generously funded by a grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services), Processing Archivist Juli Folk found a handwritten note from Georgia O’Keeffe from 1936 on the back of a Phillips Memorial Gallery (as the museum was called then) envelope:

“Dear Mr. Phillips, I came in this afternoon with my friend Anita Pollitzer and was very sorry not to see you. When I asked this morning if the gallery would be open it did not occur to me to ask if you would be here. I enjoyed the paintings very much. My greetings to Mrs. Phillips. Sincerely, Georgia O’Keeffe.”

A note from Georgia O’Keeffe from the Phillips Collection archives

After a visit to the museum one day, O’Keeffe used the envelope to leave a note telling Duncan Phillips that she and her companion, Anita Pollitzer, enjoyed the paintings and to express disappointment that she had not been able to see him that day. By this time, Phillips and O’Keeffe had an established correspondence and Phillips already owned her painting Ranchos Church, No. II, NM (1929). Pollitzer was O’Keeffe’s best friend, with whom she also carried on a prodigious correspondence and to whom O’Keeffe often showed her work. In fact, it was Pollitzer who sent some of O’Keeffe’s early abstract charcoal drawings, which O’Keeffe called the “Specials,” to Alfred Stieglitz, gallery dealer and photographer, launching a lifelong relationship. Stieglitz went on to become a champion of O’Keeffe’s work, giving her many exhibitions in his New York gallery, and the two were married in 1924.

It is tantalizing to speculate which works of art O’Keeffe saw at the gallery that day. According to the museum’s installation records, in 1936 she could have seen paintings such as Pierre Bonnard’s The Open Window, Paul Cézanne’s Self-Portrait, Arthur Dove’s Morning Sun, Vincent van Gogh’s The Public Gardens at Arles, Ernest Lawson’s Spring Morning, Edouard Manet’s Spanish Ballet, Pablo Picasso’s The Blue Room, and Albert Pinkham Ryder’s Moonlit Cove, as well as her own Ranchos Church, inspired by a trip to Taos, New Mexico.

The Nabis and the Decorative Arts

Bonnard to Vuillard: The Intimate Poetry of Everyday Life-The Nabi Collection of Vicki and Roger Sant (on view through January 26) demonstrates how the Nabis sought to break down the artificial barriers between the fine and decorative arts. Beyond painting and prints, the artist employed their aesthetic of flat colors, decorative patterning, and silhouetted forms on screens, wallpaper designs, tapestry, stained glass and more.

Pierre Bonnard, Stork and Four Frogs (Le Marabout et les Quatre Grenouilles), 1889, Three-panel screen, distemper on canvas, Each panel 62 3/4 x 21 1/2 in., overall 62 3/4 x 64 1/2 in., The Phillips Collection, Promised gift of Vicki and Roger Sant

This striking screen marks a major turning point in Pierre Bonnard’s adoption of the Nabi aesthetic. Just the year before, he had become one of the group’s founding members and a chief proponent of the group’s core belief in art as an extension of everyday life: “At that time I personally envisaged a popular art that was of everyday application: engravings, fans, furniture, screens.”

Bonnard’s choice of a bold vermilion ground and a palette of saturated, non-naturalistic colors owes a debt to the “magnificent example” of Paul Gauguin. Gauguin’s Vision of the Sermon (1888), which was shown in Paris earlier that year, left a lasting impression on Bonnard, who kept a postcard of it on his studio wall. Like many in the Nabis circle, Bonnard also found inspiration in Japanese art, especially 19th-century ukiyo-e prints. Bonnard later earned the moniker “le Nabi très japonard” (the very Japanese Nabis), and his screen bears the flat, unmodulated color, asymmetrical composition, and botanical motifs characteristic of Japanese art. Stork and Four Frogs is one of at least seven screens Bonnard made in the early years of his career.

Paul Ranson, Rabbits (Les Lapins), c. 1893, Design for wallpaper; distemper on paper, 23 5/8 x 29 1/2 in., The Phillips Collection, Promised gift of Vicki and Roger Sant

During the 1890s, wallpaper was in vogue as an interior design element, and wallpaper manufacturers turned to artists to develop appealing designs. Paul Ranson and Maurice Danis were among the Nabi painters who worked with wallpaper motifs. In 1893, Ranson received a commission from Arthur Sanderson & Sons, a major London wallpaper manufacturer and exporter.

The playful composition of Rabbits, featuring a trio of bunnies feasting on radishes, is one of several wallpaper designs painted by Ranson. In choosing the rabbit as his subject, Ranson followed the advice of art critic Charles Blanc, who spoke of the charm of painting objects in wallpaper that “we see every day—those things that we can easily recognize, such as flowers, fruit, familiar birds, domestic animals, and common plants.” Nevertheless the company must not have considered Ranson’s design marketable and never fabricated it into wallpaper.

Paul Ranson, Woman in Red or Woman with Cape (Femme en rouge or Femme à la cape), 1895, Needlepoint tapestry; wool on canvas, 59 x 39 3/8 in., The Phillips Collection, Promised gift of Vicki and Roger Sant

Woman in Red is one of several tapestries Paul Ranson made in the 1890s, a time when the medium enjoyed a revival in France as part of a larger embrace of the decorative arts within the official art salons. Ranson, like Aristide Maillol, became an enthusiastic practitioner of tapestry design, joining William Morris and other English artists who were leaders in the international Arts and Crafts movement of the late-19th- and early-20th century.

In this design, Ranson conjured out of a few sinuous lines and subtle, broad tones a standing female figure surrounded by a field of flowers, a subject common in medieval millefleurs tapestries. Ranson frequently depicted women in nature, finding the subject rich with mythological and biblical associations. His tapestries were shown in public and private galleries throughout the 1890s, with Woman in Red being featured most often.

Like his fellow Nabi artists, Ranson created the initial design for his tapestries, but did not fabricate them. In most instances, Ranson relied on the weaving skills of his wife, France. She was known for her coarse stitching, as seen in Woman in Red, which enlivens the surface with an undulating textural pattern.

Ker-Xavier Roussel, The Garden (Le Jardin), 1894 (executed 1895 by Tiffany and Co.), Stained glass; 48 7/8 x 36 5/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Promised gift of Vicki and Roger Sant

Made after a preparatory study or cartoon by Ker-Xavier Roussel, this window was one of 13 commissioned by German-born Paris-based dealer Siegfried Bing in collaboration with American designer Louis Comfort Tiffany. Bing conceived of the idea for the commission soon after his return from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, where he admired a display of Tiffany’s stained-glass windows. Stained-glass design, revived from a grand tradition practiced by medieval guilds, provided a rich vehicle for the Nabi to reimagine their pictorial designs as light transmitted through color.

In addition to Roussel, Bing commissioned designs from other Nabi artists, including Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis, Henri-Gabriel Ibels, Paul Ranson, Paul Sérusier, Félix Vallotton, and Edouard Vuillard. Of the 13 commissioned windows, Roussel’s is one of only three surviving examples. Despite the valiant effort from Bing and Tiffany to introduce stained glass to the French market, the works met with mixed reviews and no further commissions followed.

The Nabis and Printmaking

Bonnard to Vuillard: The Intimate Poetry of Everyday Life-The Nabi Collection of Vicki and Roger Sant (on view through January 26) dives into the artists’ important contributions to the burgeoning field of color lithography. During the period of their close collaboration, they were widely celebrated for their graphic art. The careful process of transferring their sophisticated designs onto lithographic stones required a team of specialists at printing houses. This often included an artiste or dessinateur (draftsman) who translated the original work to the lithographic stone, a chromiste (color specialist) who honed the artist’s palette into a few colors and determined their order for printing, and an essayeur (proofer) who pulled test prints. The paper could vary from traditional French papers to imported Dutch laid papers to the Asian papers popular in Paris at the time.

The Nabis’ bold and inviting designs were much sought-after by commercial print shops, resulting in numerous commissions for posters, theater programs, sheet music covers, and illustrations in book and periodicals. These collaborations placed them at the center of the lively publishing explosion in Paris in the last decade of the 19th century. The exhibition Bonnard to Vuillard features two notable examples of Nabi print albums: L’Estampe originale and Paysages et Intérieurs.

L’Estampe originale, 1893
Complete set of 10 prints on handmade paper
Edition of 100; published by André Marty, printed by Delanchy, Ancourt et Cie

From 1893–1895, Parisian printer André Marty published an ambitious ninevolume series with no fewer than 95 prints by 74 artists in L’Estampe originale (The Original Print). To launch the series, Marty invited the Nabis and some of their associates to create the suite of 12 prints shown here. The color lithographs in L’Estampe originale were the most avant-garde and collectible prints of their day. The cover by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, not a member of the Nabis but very close to the circle, certainly increased the album’s desirability.

L’Estampe originale: Paul Ranson, Tiger in the Jungle (Tigre dans les jungles), 1893, Lithograph printed in three colors, 22 7/8 x 16 1/4 in., The Phillips Collection, Promised gift of Vicki and Roger Sant

L’Estampe originale: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Cover (Lithography [La Lithographie]), 1893, Lithograph printed in six colors 23 x 32 5/8 in., The Phillips Collection, Promised gift of Vicki and Roger Sant

L’Estampe originale: Ker-Xavier Roussel, In the Snow (Dans La Neige), 1893 Lithograph printed in four colors, 23 1/8 x 16 1/8 in., The Phillips Collection, Promised gift of Vicki and Roger Sant

Paysages et Intérieurs, 1899
Complete set of 13 color lithographs on China paper
Edition of 100; published by Ambroise Vollard, printed by Auguste Clot

In the latter 1890s, color lithography continued to flourish under the patronage of Paris dealer and publisher Ambroise Vollard and his master printer August Clot. In 1899, Vollard commissioned Vuillard to create a series of 12 vibrantly colored lithographs for the album Paysages et Interieurs (Landscapes and Interiors). The artist worked closely with Clot and expanded his use of color with techniques that may have been unique to Clot’s shop at the time. Prized for their aesthetic qualities and techniques, prints such as these helped elevate the status of color lithography in the 19th century to an artistic medium on par with painting on canvas.

Paysages et Intérieurs: Édouard Vuillard, On the Pont de l’Europe (Sur le Point de l’Europe), 1899, Lithograph printed in four colors, 13 1/8 x 15 1/2 in., The Phillips Collection, Promised gift of Vicki and Roger Sant

Paysages et Intérieurs: Édouard Vuillard, The Pastry Shop (La Patisserie), 1899, Lithograph printed in seven colors, 15 3/4 x 12 3/8 in., The Phillips Collection, Promised gift of Vicki and Roger Sant

Paysages et Intérieurs: Édouard Vuillard, Interior with Pink Wallpaper I (Intérieur aux Tentures Roses I), 1899, Lithograph printed in five colors, 15 3/8 x 12 1/8 in., The Phillips Collection, Promised gift of Vicki and Roger Sant