The Whistler in the Room

William Merritt Chase, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 1885. Oil on canvas, 74 1/8 x 36 1/4 in. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of William H. Walker, 1918

Every time I walk from my desk to the library, I pass through the Phillips’s new exhibition, William Merritt Chase: A Modern Master. I always make a point to stop by one portrait: an 1885 portrait of James Abbott McNeill Whistler, hung beautifully in the high-ceilinged Wurtzel Gallery. It’s a work that stands out for its distinguished sitter and for Chase’s distinguished artistry.

Whistler was also a portraitist of the late 19th century, Chase’s senior by some years. Chase greatly admired him, and sought Whistler out in London early in his career. The two immediately became friends, and Whistler suggested that they paint each other’s portraits. The picture in this exhibition, which Chase described to his wife as promising “to be the best thing”[1] he ever did, is what resulted from Whistler’s urging.

Unfortunately, their friendship was short and ended bitterly. Whistler described the portrait as a “monstrous lampoon,”[2] though his Brown and Gold (Self Portrait) (1895-1900) seems to echo Chase’s earlier image. Both Whistler and Chase are important to The Phillips Collection outside of this 2016 retrospective exhibition. Duncan Phillips acquired Whistler’s Miss Lillian Woakes (1890-91) in 1920 (which is currently on view in another gallery in the museum) and Chase’s Hide and Seek (1888) in 1923.

Whistler’s Miss Lillian Woakes is small, dark, and extraordinarily powerful. Whistler’s first biographer, Joseph Pennell, described it as “one of the most successful—certainly the most beautiful [works] Whistler produced after his marriage.”[3] Included in the Knoedler Galleries group of Whistlers in 1914, a New York Times critic praised it: “Above enchanting draperies rises the head, soundly modelled and rich in humanity.”[4]

Whistler can be a hard artist to classify due to his whimsicality, exploration, and innovation. About 300 of his works can be found across the city at the Freer|Sackler. Its founder, Charles Lang Freer, collected Asian art as well as Whistler and other American artists; Whistler due to his Asian influences—this is particularly evident in Whistler’s Peacock Room. Whistler’s paintings also hang beside Thomas Eakins’s in the American galleries at The National Gallery of Art.

Phillips seems to have seen Whistler as a link to the realism of Gustave Courbet and Edgar Degas, and the naturalism of Diego Velázquez. In the 1930s and 40s, Phillips usually displayed Miss Lillian Woakes next to French masters: Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Honoré Daumier, Degas. More recently, the portrait has been hung with American contemporaries: Eakins, George Fuller, Winslow Homer, and George Inness.

whistler_miss lillian woakes

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Miss Lillian Woakes, 1890-01. Oil on canvas, 21 1/8 x 14 1/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC

Phillips was keen to distinguish his Whistler from those held at the Freer. In A Collection in the Making, he catalogued her: “Miss Woakes, however, is not a mere pretext for a color scheme, and not a Japanese conception of the figure as an arabesque, nor a graceful form enveloped in shadowy air. She is a robust blooming English girl in whose vitality and subtle spirit the artist seems to have forgotten himself, striving only for the plastic ‘presence’ and for an expression of the ‘eternal feminine.’”

When you come to visit William Merritt Chase: A Modern Master at the Phillips, ensure you take the time to go downstairs and see the lovely Miss Lillian Woakes as well.

Noah Stevens-Stein, Director’s Office Intern

[1] William Merritt Chase to Alice Gerson, August 8, 1885, reel N69-137, frame 538. Chase Papers.
[2] Smithgall, Elsa, Erica E. Hirshler, Katherine M. Bourguignon, Giovanna Ginex, and John Davis. William Merritt Chase: A Modern Master. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016.
[3] Joseph Pennell to Knoedler Gallery, n.d., Knoedler Archives, New York.
[4] W. L. Lampton, “Art Notes,” New York Times, Apr. 5, 1914, sec. 3, p. 14.

Phillips Flashback: A New York State of Mind

letter of inquiry NY _ archives

Letter from Duncan Phillips to Frank Rehn, 1922. From The Phillips Collection Library & Archives

In 1922, one year after The Phillips Collection opened to the public, Duncan Phillips explored the idea of opening a branch of the museum in New York. He reached out to Frank Rehn, a gallery owner, and A.C. Downing, Jr., of the New York Trust Company, for advice. Phillips’s treasurer, Dwight Clark, inquired about the location of the future art center of New York and specifically asked for information on the value of properties on 57th Street between Lexington Avenue and Sutton Place as well as within the bounds of Lexington Avenue, Sixth Avenue, 50th Street, and 70th Street. The New York branch never came to be because Phillips decided to make acquisitions of works of art a priority. Phillips paid $125,000 for The Luncheon of the Boating Party in 1923, which exhausted the funds needed for purchases as well as real estate.

Phillips-at-Home Summer Series #4: Summertime

This installment of the Phillips-at-Home Summer Series features the artist Marjorie Phillips and her work Night Baseball. For this art activity, you are going to create a watercolor painting of your favorite summertime scene.

Marjorie Phillips, Night Baseball, 1951, Oil on canvas, 24 1/4 x 36 in., Gift of the artist, 1951 or 1952, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

Marjorie Phillips, Night Baseball, 1951, Oil on canvas, 24 1/4 x 36 in., Gift of the artist, 1951 or 1952, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

Look closely: What is happening in this painting? Duncan Phillips introduced his wife, Marjorie, to the world of baseball after they got married. What do you like to do during the summer? What kind of summer activity would you turn into a painting?

About the artist: Marjorie Acker Phillips was  founder Duncan Phillips’s wife and his partner in developing The Phillips Collection. She was born on October 25, 1894 and began drawing at the age of five. By 1918, she was commuting from her family home in upstate New York to New York City to take classes at the Art Students League. She met Duncan Phillips in 1920 during the Century Club exhibition of his collection. Marjorie felt that she and Duncan were kindred spirits and they were married in 1921. She became associate director of the new Phillips Memorial Art Gallery in 1925, and stayed in that position for the next 41 years. During this time she was an active painter while being Duncan’s partner in selecting works of art for the museum. When Duncan passed away in 1966, Marjorie became the director of the Phillips. She passed away in Washington, D.C. in 1985. The Phillips Collection has 60 oil paintings and 2 watercolors by her.

 WHAT YOU NEED:Materials needed

  •    8.5″ x 11″ Cardstock
  •    4 1/4″ x 5 1/2″ Picture of your favorite summertime scene
  •    Ruler
  •    Pencil
  •    Watercolor set
  •    Watercolor brushes
  •    Cup of water
  •    Paper towels

 

 

SUGGESTED AGE:

  • Ages 8 and up

TIME FRAME:

  • 4 hours

STEPS:

1. Print out a picture of a scene from your favorite summertime activity.

2. Cut out the picture and fold in half one way, then the other way to create a 4-square grid on your cardstock paper. Make a dash at 4 1/4″ on the 8″ sides. Make a dash at 5 1/2″ on the 11″ sides. Connect the lines to make a grid. These will be your reference lines.

Step 2

Step 2 – I chose going to the beach

Step 2

Step 2 – Setting up the grid

Step 2

Step 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3. Place the picture in the corner of your paper and place your ruler from corner to corner on your picture. Draw a diagonal line through the center of your grid. Continue the diagonal line where the picture was placed.

Step 2 - Making the diagonal

Step 3 – Making the diagonal

 

4. Now, you have a better idea of where things are placed in your picture. Begin to lightly draw what is in your picture by using your laid-out grid as reference.

Step 4

Step 4 – Draw out scene

 

5. Once you have drawn your picture, erase your reference lines and set out your watercolor set, brushes, cup of water, and paper towels. Begin to paint your picture; the amount of water you use relates to how bright your colors will be. More water = lighter colors, less water = brighter colors.

Step 5

Step 5 – begin to use watercolors

Step 6

Step 5

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6. Feel free to keep adding to your watercolor as it dries. You can even add detailed lines with a pen. Once you are happy with your painting, give yourself a pat on the back because you just created a beautiful piece of artwork.

10

Final Painting

Tune in regularly for more art activities inspired by artwork in The Phillips Collection.

Julia Kron, K12 Education Intern