From the Archives: Duncan Phillips, Jacob Kainen, Alma Thomas

Associate Curator Renee Maurer shares letters and brochures from The Phillips Collection Archives that reveal the museum’s support of artist Jacob Kainen, one of Alma Thomas’s teachers at American University. 

Trained in New York as a painter and printmaker, Jacob Kainen moved to Washington in 1942 for a curatorial job at the Smithsonian. Kainen likely met Alma Thomas at the Barnett Aden Gallery in the mid-1940s, where they would both exhibit and where she worked as vice president. In 1957, Kainen taught Thomas during her last semester at American University. A strong supporter of her art, he became a mentor and offered art critiques at her home. In his oral history Kainen said: “She asked if I would come and give her some criticism. She’d pay me. So, I came from the Smithsonian, visited her home on 15th Street, g[a]ve her criticism every couple of weeks. She’d have a little lunch there . . . . [S]he looked at everything. She really wanted to be a great painter. She not only read all the art magazines, she knew about . . . color theories, and we would discuss . . . should her stripes end before the edge of the canvas or not. We’d discuss what would happen.” Kainen and Thomas also shared an interest in the modern paintings on view at the Phillips. Kainen explained: “The big influence in this town was the Phillips Gallery on artists. . . . [Y]ou could see contemporary art, you could see modern art, you could see the connection between the older art and the new art, because the gallery was devoted to modern art and its sources.”

Jacob Kainen, Street Corner, 1941, Oil on canvas, 23 1/8 x 28 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1942

Kainen received vital support from the Phillips soon after he moved to DC. Advised by his art peers, Kainen wrote a letter of introduction to director Duncan Phillips, hoping to obtain exhibition and acquisition opportunities, as this archival letter indicates. Kainen admitted: “Phillips liked my work, said to bring some paintings up to his office, and leave them there. Duncan Phillips liked to look at paintings against the wall for weeks because he said some paintings look sensational when you see them for the first time. But when you continue looking at them from time to time they sort of fall apart . . . . Other paintings might look very modest, quiet . . . but the longer you look at them, the stronger they get.”

My Dear Mr. Phillips: It has been suggested to me by Joseph[?] Solman[?], Milton Avery and Walter Quirt[?] that you would be interested in seeing my paintings. I would appreciate the opportunity of showing them to you. I have recently transferred my home and studio to this city and am therefore about to bring a group of canvases for you to see at your own convenience. I have exhibited in New York for the past eight years, having had shows at the A. C. A. Gallery and elsewhere. Your very truly, Jacob Kainen

As this letter suggests, Kainen’s efforts succeeded. Duncan Phillips was interested in his art. On Phillips’s behalf, a staff member wrote to Kainen to offer him the opportunity to submit work to a regional sales show held at the museum during the Christmas season. All proceeds from the sales of works went directly to the artists. That December, Phillips purchased Street Corner, 1941, the first painting by the artist to enter a museum collection.

Dear Mr. Kainen: You have probably given up hope of ever getting a reply to letter of June 17th in which you asked about the possibility of showing your work here. Mr. Phillips left the city about the time your letter came and I have been meaning to tell you that we would put your name on our list and that if we have a Christmas Sales Show, you would have an opportunity to submit your work then. We hope you will visit the Gallery frequently and that you will enjoy it. If you care to do so, in late September you might come in to see me and bring one or two representative paintings. I do not promise anything in the way of an interview but it will serve as an introduction of you to us and of us to you. With best wishes, Sincerely yours,

For Thomas’s teachers at American University—Kainen, Robert Gates and Ben “Joe” Summerford—the collection of modern art at the Phillips served as an important resource. In their own work and in classroom discussions, they all drew upon color-filled canvases by Pierre Bonnard, Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, and others at the museum. Duncan Phillips supported Thomas’s teachers in many ways through the acquisition and exhibition of their art. In 1952, the Phillips presented their work in An Exhibition of Paintings by a Group of Washington Artists, which Thomas would have seen. This letter acknowledges Kainen’s participation in the show.

May 9, 1952 Dear Mr. Phillips: Thank you for your letter of May 7 inviting me to participate in an exhibition by a group of Washington artists, to be held in your Print Rooms during the coming summer. I deeply appreciate your kindness in selecting me as one of this group. With regard to the three paintings I left at the Gallery, you may, of course, keep them at your convenience for decision as to your choice for the exhibition. Sincerely yours, Jacob Kainen

Throughout her many decades in Washington, Alma Thomas frequented the Phillips, a short walk from her home at 1530 15th Street, NW. She held onto brochures that were meaningful to her like this example from Kainen’s retrospective at museum in 1973.

Recent Paintings by Jacob Kainen exhibition brochure


Kainen, Jacob, 1942-1952, The Correspondence of Duncan Phillips, The Phillips Collection Archive, Washington, D.C.

John Marin: A Strong and Bracing Wind

The Phillips Collection is excited to share that the recent publication “Duncan and Marjorie Phillips and America’s First Museum of Modern Art” (Vernon Press, 2021) by Pamela Carter-Birken is now available in paperback. Here is an excerpt from the book focused on the Phillips’s interest in the artwork of American painter John Marin.

Duncan and Marjorie Phillips collected works by John Marin long before Look magazine named him the best painter in America. They would show Marin’s art with works by established European painters, beckoning viewers to the American Modernist. Duncan Phillips regarded the abstract artist from Maine as “one of the most provoking, challenging innovators in the history of painting,”[i] writing that he “blows through the world of modern art like a strong and bracing wind.”[ii] The pursuit of rhythm and a life-long love of the outdoors guided much of Marin’s painting. His own imagination and his ability to engage the imaginations of viewers are key to Marin’s place in art history.

John Marin

Summing up Marin’s biography, Duncan Phillips wrote: “Yankee birth and independence—training as an architect—the influence of Whistler—then of the Chinese, then of Cezanne and Stieglitz—that is the story.”[iii] Marin was almost thirty-years-old when he became a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1899. After attending New York’s Art Students League at the dawn of the twentieth century, he lived in France for four years and studied briefly at the Académie Julian. Approaching forty years of age, he moved back to the United States where he would divide his time between New York City and the Maine coastline, the two predominant inspirations for his art. Like his kindred painters of the Stieglitz Circle, Marin did not concern himself with purposeful representation, writing that his works “are meant as constructed expressions of the inner senses, responding to things seen and felt.”[iv] He later added to how he functioned as an artist, writing: “I don’t paint rocks, trees, houses, and all things seen. I paint an inner vision.”[v] Alfred Stieglitz served as Marin’s art dealer, much as he did for other artists of the Circle, including Arthur Dove, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Marsden Hartley. Buying from Stieglitz, the Phillipses would come to own a half-dozen Marin oil paintings, but mostly they bought Marin watercolors. Like Phillips, Hartley admired Marin’s originality as well as his skill. “He paces his strokes to a new beat,” Hartley wrote of his fellow Modernist. “He is keen as a whip, alert as a razor, and has the grip of steel on his medium. Strength is always a personal thing, and this is the case of the mighty Marin.”[vi]

John Marin, Maine Islands, 1922, Opaque and transparent watercolor and charcoal on paper, 16 7/8 x 20 1/8 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1926

Proud of his and Marjorie’s Marin purchases, Duncan sent a letter to Alfred H. Barr Jr. in January 1927 about a forthcoming display of Marin’s works at the Phillips Memorial Gallery. “In February and March I will give Washington a bracing shock in the work of this stimulating creator,” Phillips wrote to the future MoMA director, describing Marin “with his incisive brain, his flashing eye, his startling intuition and magic with his medium.”[vii] In highlighting works by Marin in the winter of 1927, Phillips blazed the trail for New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, still two years from its opening. It would take ten years after Phillips’s boast for Barr to present a Marin retrospective at MoMA, the first for an American artist there. Phillips, however, did not wait a decade to broaden potential appreciation for Marin. He reached an international readership with an assessment of Marin’s importance in his 1932 article about American art for the journal Formes, published in French and English. “Never safe and sane,” Phillips wrote of Marin’s paintings, “with details often askew and out of focus, but with the essential part intensified and magnetic.”[viii] The following year, 1933, New York Times art columnist Edward Alden Jewell called Marin “an American artist of genius.”[ix]

Edward Hopper, Sunday, 1926, Oil on canvas, 29 x 34 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1926

About the same time, art critic Lewis Mumford wrote a remarkable essay for the New Yorker which can supply context for the multitudes of accolades Marin amassed. Mumford contrasted the act of viewing works by Marin to those painted by Edward Hopper, famous for restaurant and theater slices of life, sometimes featuring men with fedoras and women in fashionable coche hats, and almost always conveying a struggle to cope with modernity. Hopper’s best-known work is Night Hawks, which hangs in a place of pride at the Art Institute of Chicago. The iconic Night Hawks was not painted until 1942, but Phillips had purchased another Hopper, an imposing oil-on-canvas titled Sunday in 1926, the year the artist created it. In Sunday, the scene is barren save for disturbingly hued building fronts and a lone man sitting on the edge of a wood sidewalk, his feet planted in the street. It is a stunning work of art and will compel all but the most jaded visitors to stop and ask the questions who, what, when, where and why. In the New Yorker essay, titled “Two Americans,” when Mumford praises Marin at the expense of Hopper it is high praise indeed. “Visually speaking,” Mumford wrote, “one may follow Hopper on the pedestrian level; following Marin, one must risk one’s neck in an airplane.”[x] Mumford offered an additional opinion on the impact works by the two artists might have on viewers: “Both Marin and Hopper have been interpreters of America, but while Hopper has utilized our limitations and made the most of them, Marin has demonstrated our possibilities.”[xi]


[i] Duncan Phillips, A Bulletin of The Phillips Collection, Phillips Memorial Gallery, Washington, 1927.

[ii] D. Phillips, “Trowbridge Memorial Lecture: The Artist Sees Differently,” (Yale University, March 20, 1931), The Phillips Collection Archives, Washington, D.C., 12.

[iii] D. Phillips, A Bulletin of The Phillips Collection, 1927.

[iv] John Marin, The Forum Exhibition of Modern American Painters (New York: Anderson Galleries, 1916).

[v] Marin, “Letter to Stieglitz, Written in 1923,” Philadelphia Museum Bulletin, XL (1945).

[vi] Marsden Hartley, “As to John Marin and His Ideas,” John Marin: Watercolors, Oil Paintings, Etchings (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1936), 18.

[vii] D. Phillips to Alfred Barr, Jr., 15 January 1927, The Phillips Collection Archives, Washington, D.C.

[viii] D. Phillips, “Original American Painting of Today,” Formes, January 1932, 198.

[ix] Edward Alden Jewell, “The Rise of John Marin,” New York Times, October 23, 1933.

[x] Lewis Mumford, Mumford on Modern Art in the 1930s, ed. Robert Wojtowicz (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 101.

[xi] Ibid.

From the Archives: Picturing and Preserving The Phillips Collection’s History

Fall Archives Detail Anna Christian on her work assisting with the organization of the recently digitized Historic Photograph Collection in the Phillips archives.

Over its 100 year history, The Phillips Collection has developed an extensive archival collection. In 2018, the museum received a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to digitize three collections, including one of historic photographs. Imaging of the Historic Photograph Collection recently finished, and a finding aid will be published to make the material more accessible. Some of the photos in the collection are recognizable from the museum website, while others haven’t been made public yet.

The Phillips’s adventurous side. Image of a Phillips family trip in the early 1900s. Photographed are Jim, Duncan, other family members, and a hired guide.

The Historic Photograph Collection consists of photographic reprints, original photographs from the 1890s, black-and-white film negatives, and color film positives. The photographs range from 1880 to 2006, and represent exterior and interior images of the historic House, Duncan Phillips and his family, and other people relevant to Duncan Phillips’s history. There are images of gallery installations, Phillips Collection staff members, and notable museum visitors. Photographs of people have been arranged into a series called “Family, Visitors, Staff.” Series is a term used to describe a section of similar content within an archival collection. The series includes photographs of Duncan Phillips, Marjorie Acker Phillips, Laughlin Phillips, Duncan’s brother Jim Phillips, and their parents Eliza and Duncan Clinch Phillips.

A glimpse at the upper class. This is a family portrait of the Beal family from the late 1800s. Alice Beal (Marjorie Acker Phillips’s mother) can be seen standing behind the chair.

I am a Museum Assistant at The Phillips Collection, with a background in film photography, darkroom processing, and art history. I worked as a Detail in the archives this fall, and due to my photography background, I spent the majority of the past few months rehousing and describing this collection. Rehousing photos is done to ensure the material is properly stored for longevity. Historic photographs and negatives are more delicate than modern photos and require special care. They are light sensitive so acid free paper and archival plastic covers are used to protect them. Photographic material should be stored lying flat in archival quality boxes instead of vertically. I also numbered folders and created inventories for the Historic Photograph Collection.

A lesser seen view of the museum’s exterior. This shows the annex, ca. 1960, before the more modern renovations.

The project to digitize this collection was headed by Digital Assets Librarian Rachel Jacobson and Processing Archivist Juli Folk. Rachel and Juli worked to streamline the collection, which had been partially processed. One thing they did to improve a researcher’s experience was to remove complicated subseries to create a more cohesive collection for better navigation by patrons and staff.

Working with this collection has been a wonderful experience. There is so much history at this museum and it can be seen through the photographs in this collection. I was even able to work with photographs from the late 1800s and early 1900s. There were also many images I got to see of the House before the city was built up around it. It is fascinating to see images of the Phillips family throughout their lives.

The Historic Photograph collection will be available digitally sometime in 2022. In the meantime images can be seen upon request and the finding aid will be published in the next few months.