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.”
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.