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.

A Technical Examination of Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers

In 2019, Smithsonian American Art Museum conservator Gwen Manthey and researcher Sydney Nikolaus examined the Phillips’s work Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers by Alma Thomas. Read an excerpt from their report to learn about Thomas’s process and join us on January 13 for a talk with Gwen Manthey and Amber Kerr.

In 2019, the Smithsonian American Art Museum began analyzing 40 of Alma Thomas’s paintings, including works from its own collection, The Phillips Collection, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, and the National Gallery of Art. Research focused on the tools and techniques that Thomas employed throughout her career from the early 1950s to her death in 1978. Using a modified Nikon D810 digital multispectral imaging camera that captures images across the electromagnetic spectrum, conservators identified the art materials and determined the layering construction of Thomas’s paintings. On November 18, 2019, SAAM conservator Gwen Manthey and researcher Sydney Nikolaus examined Thomas’s acrylic painting Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers at The Phillips Collection.

Figure 1 (left) Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers, normal light illumination, and 2 (right) verso.


They gleaned new information using infrared reflectography (IRR), a process where infrared wavelengths penetrate paint layers and are absorbed by carbon-containing pigments and drawing media, and then reflected by underlayers of white ground and paint. They learned that Thomas defined each color row in Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers by drawing vertical lines with a sharp graphite pencil on the prepared canvas. The evenness of these lines (spaced 1 inch apart), guided by short tick marks, suggest the use of a straight edge ruler (Figure 3a-b). Thomas also made straight lines at the inner top, left, and right edges of the painting’s edge to indicate the perimeter of the composition.

Figure 3 (left) infrared reflectograph overall image. Details in normal light (A) and IR (B) show Thomas’s graphite pencil lines for each vertical row of color pats.


Using UVA-induced luminescence from a Labino UV Light, the conservators found a strong autofluorescence in the rich orange paint that Thomas applied in several of the orange rows seen in the top right corner of the painting. This provides more insight into how Thomas layered her paint pats in each row (Figure 5).

Figure 4 (left), detail of top-right corner in normal light and 5 (right) in UVA-induced luminescence. The strong autofluorescence of the orange paint reveals how Thomas layered several of her rows.


Thomas chose a basket-weave medium weight fabric with an average thread count of 36 x 32 threads/inch for her canvas; it is attached to the stretcher with staples (Figure 6). The stretcher consists of four wooden stretcher bars, with mitered slot and tenon joints, and a horizontal crossbar. Impressed stamps (Anco bilt, Glendale, N.Y. and Grumbacher Artists’ Materials, New York) shown in Figure 7, were found on the stretcher bars. Each join contains a pattern of four large holes (Figure 7), possibly the location of previous metal plates added by the artist to increase the strength of the support; they have since been replaced by keys fixed with cord and screws. The painting’s verso contains several inscriptions by the artist in a black felt-tipped marker, her signature, the title, date, and dimensions of the work (Figure 2). The artist wrote “TOP” in a white paint or acrylic primer.

Figure 6 (left), detail of top-right corner tacking edge and 7 (right) of the same corner shown on the verso.


The painting is comprised of vertical rows of colorful acrylic paint, applied by brush, on top of the white ground. Examination of the painting’s edges show that the ground was applied by the artist. The ground has seeped through the canvas in some areas of the verso (Figure 7). Thomas applied additional layers of paint to several of her color rows. Often, they match the initial color, but there are instances where Thomas layered a different color such as blue gray over green and blue paint pats. The paint pats are formed from multiple brushstrokes, measuring about an inch wide. Thomas used a thinner brush to reinforce the white spacing between the pats with white paint. There are many downward drips of paint located between the yellow rows (Figure 8) and in the nearby orange row (Figure 9). The downward paint drips shown in Figures 8-9 indicate that Thomas did not work flat and that she watered-down her acrylic paints.

Figure 8 (left), detail of downward paint drips in the yellow center rows and 9 (right) in the orange center row.

To learn more about Thomas’s process, join us for a conversation with Gwen Manthey and conservator Amber Kerr on Janaury 13 at the Phillips about their research.