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

Women’s History Month: Hear Her Roar

Mitchell_August Rue Duguerre

Joan Mitchell, August, Rue Daguerre, 1957. Oil on canvas, 82 x 69 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1958; © Estate of Joan Mitchell

March may be coming to an end, but we are surely not ready to finish celebrating Women’s History Month just yet. Women artists have helped to propel contemporary art into the rich field it is today, so I thought it only right to dedicate this post to one of the female artists I find most fascinating from the Phillips’s permanent collection—Joan Mitchell (1925-1992).

Joan Mitchell, born in Chicago, was an essential member of the American Abstract Expressionist movement and an all around fierce character. Sitting pretty in the galleries is Joan Mitchell’s August, Rue Daguerre (1957), an energetic oil on canvas painting, which was inspired by a bustling Paris street. This work, with its rather violent brush strokes and rich colors, is representative of Joan’s work as she was inspired by lively friends (fellow artists de Kooning and Kline) and the cities she traveled between most, New York City and Paris. Having lived in a number of locations, Joan’s abstract paintings expressed her environment and her reaction to them.

I adore how in looking at this painting, one can begin to visualize what Joan was seeing both in her surroundings and how they affected her own psyche. The various shades of brown and black on the canvas could be illustrative of the statuesque Parisian architecture, but also might signify how Joan feels content and rooted in Paris. Perhaps the interspersed strokes of bright, yet subdued reds and blues express the unpredictable French citizens Joan passes daily along the winding streets. I think the magic of this emotive work and of abstract art as a whole is that it’s always up for interpretation.

August, Rue Daguerre (1957) is certainly one of my favorite paintings in the Phillips’s collection. I appreciate how Joan Mitchell was brave enough to express herself through abstract art, knowing critics and the public may never fully understand her vision… and personally, I think being brave is what being a woman is all about.

Aysia Woods, Marketing Intern

Women’s History at the Phillips: Minnie Byers

Minnie Byers. Photo: courtesy Byers Family

Minnie Byers. Photo: courtesy Byers Family

Strong-willed Minnie Byers left her home in Ellenboro, North Carolina, when she was eighteen. With very little money, Byers found her way, attending business school in Richmond, learning secretarial skills, and studying the stock market. The financial knowledge she acquired made her invaluable to the Phillips family. Minnie Byers worked for the Phillipses from 1923 to 1960. Byers was initially assistant to museum treasurer Dwight Clark and became treasurer herself in 1927. Her financial acumen saved Phillips from the crash of 1929 by advising him to put his stock market holdings in real estate. Minnie was close to Duncan Phillips’s mother and administered her estate. Mrs. Phillips left Minnie a good sum of money, which she invested  and which became her nest egg.

Minnie Byers was a powerful executive before women played that role. In Byers’s day, working in finance was a man’s world. Once, Duncan Phillips took Byers to a board meeting with financiers and industrial people, all men. They told Phillips, “No women allowed, you can’t bring her in.” Phillips replied, “If she can’t come, I won’t be there.” “OK, bring her in.”

Minnie confided to one of her relatives, “I have a problem with Duncan.” He replied, “What is it?” She answered, “I can’t tell him how much money we have. He’ll go and spend it on works of art.” Minnie was protective of Phillips and his money. She began to educate herself about art. She’d say, “I don’t think it’s worth that, Duncan,” and he listened to her. “I invested their money wisely,” said Minnie.

Minnie Byers’s house in the Dupont Circle neighborhood, just three blocks from The Phillips Collection. Now the building is the Embassy of Mozambique. Photo: AgnosticPreachersKid at en.wikipedia

Minnie raised four nieces and nephews, providing them with the best education possible and a wide array of cultural experiences. To her many nieces and nephews, Minnie was a source of enchantment. She called and asked what they wanted for a birthday, and lo and behold, it would appear. Visiting Minnie was a magical affair, she took them to Woodward and Lothrop, and they got to ride the escalators and choose which clothes they wanted. Minnie had a cook and a maid. Her dining room table seated 12 and was always laden with food, a big banquet.

As a token of his esteem for Byers, Duncan Phillips gave her paintings by Walter Griffin, Lilian Westcott Hale, Henri Le Sidaner, and Helen Turner, and Marjorie Phillips gave her works of art as well.

Byers’s former home at 1525 New Hampshire Avenue is currently the Embassy of Mozambique.