Women’s History Month: “Marjorie Sketches”

Phillips_Little Bouquet

Marjorie Phillips, Little Bouquet, 1934. Oil on canvas, 15 1/2 x 14 1/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired c. 1941

As Women’s History Month comes to a close, it’s the perfect time to reflect on some of the powerful in the art world throughout history. Often overlooked is one such woman, Marjorie Phillips, who served many roles throughout her marriage to Duncan Phillips: wife, mother, hostess, adviser, museum director, and even artist. Despite the lack of support women received for practicing art at the time that Marjorie began painting, she maintained the hobby until the end of her life. Describing how those around her reacted to her pastime, she remembers Duncan’s mother saying “‘Marjorie sketches.’ That sounded better to her than ‘Marjorie is a painter.’”

But Marjorie was a painter, and a prolific one at that. Throughout the second half of the 20th century, her paintings were exhibited in museums all over the country. Perhaps one of the most widely exhibited is Little Bouquet (1934), featuring a couple of Marjorie’s favorite things: flowers and paint. As her son Laughlin described her artistic style in 1985, “her painting always reflected a conscious decision,” an ironic statement given the apparent spontaneity in Marjorie’s subject matter. Like Little Bouquet, all of her paintings offer a glimpse into her personal life. This piece serves as an inside look at the artist’s working surface as if left mid-session. Yet each individual application of color is extremely deliberate upon close inspection. In a review of her works exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1955, a reporter wrote “without trying for the iridescent chromatic effects of the French painters, she gives an equal impression of color through the simplest of means.” Simple indeed, yet extremely poignant.

Marjorie’s works are exhibited throughout the collection among leading impressionists like Cézanne, Bonnard, and Monet. Her impressionist style shines among them, making her truly a leading lady among her contemporaries.

Annie Dolan, Marketing and Communications Intern

Giacometti at the Phillips, 1963

Vesna Pavlović’s Intersections work, Illuminated Archive (on view through September 28th), uses imagery from our 1963 exhibition Giacometti. That exhibition was years in the making and required many loans of large sculptural pieces which can be difficult to manage. Planned while Duncan Phillips was in his late 70s, his wife Marjorie played an active role in the securing of loans, writing many letters to museums as well as prominent collectors such as William and Babe Paley and Joseph Pulitzer, Jr. Assisting with locating works in both public and private collections, the Pierre Matisse Gallery provided Marjorie Phillips with the lists below, which were thoroughly annotated as the exhibition planning proceeded.

Works by Albert Giacometti in public and private collections as listed by Pierre Matisse Gallery for the Phillips Collection.  The Phillips Collection Archives, Washington DC.

Works by Alberto Giacometti in public and private collections as listed by Pierre Matisse Gallery for The Phillips Collection. The Phillips Collection Archives, Washington, DC.

The result was a beautiful and popular show. The Phillipses remarked that they were so pleased, they wished it could remain as a permanent part of the museum.

Giacometti exhibition, 1963. The Phillips Collection Archives, Washington DC.

Giacometti exhibition, 1963. The Phillips Collection Archives, Washington, DC.

Giacometti exhibition, 1963. The Phillips Collection Archives, Washington DC.

Giacometti exhibition, 1963. The Phillips Collection Archives, Washington, DC.

 

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.