When talking with visitors about the museum’s permanent collection, I often begin by describing what I refer to as the “Essential Phillips”—the significant philosophies of the study of art history, a love of natural forms, a dynamic, non-linear viewing experience of paintings and sculpture in a comfortable setting, and a commitment to experimentation, that guided Duncan Phillips’s formation, and subsequent stewardship, of the museum.
I make a point, however, to note that the most essential of “essentials” was more personal and critical to the founding of the museum: Duncan Phillips’s conviction that art could revive the human spirit devastated by loss. Phillips’s belief in art’s constancy sustained him in his darkest and most desperate hours. When his father, Duncan Clinch Phillips, and his older brother James, died within thirteen months of each other in 1917 and 1918, he lost his two greatest champions—both had encouraged and nurtured his passion for art and collecting—and his world shifted. The hopelessness he felt was inexpressible. With eloquenceand characteristic restraint Phillips wrote later: “There came a time when sorrow all but overwhelmed me. Then I turned to my love of painting for the will to live.”
Duncan Phillips’s crushing despair was the catalyst for the founding of the Phillips Memorial Art Gallery, as the museum was known when it opened in the fall of 1921. Ninety years later, the museum is a sanctuary for art lovers and a refuge for kindred spirits seeking consolation in art and the steadfast reassurance it provides when the ground in our lives seems shaky and the darkness around the periphery starts to envelope us. Whether it is Renoir’s captivating masterpiece Luncheon of the Boating Party or the quiet beauty of Corot’s View from the Farnese Gardens, Rome or Bonnard’s color cacophony The Open Window, or the restrained luxury of one of Morandi’s still life paintings or any number of works in the collection, you can share Duncan Phillips’s belief that in a favorite work of art you can find companionable comfort and be reminded of the essential truth that you are not alone and your anguish will not last forever.
-Mike Owens, Gallery Educator