From the Archives: Dear Mr. President

Duncan Phillips was an extremely prolific writer. Our archives are full of his correspondence (currently being digitized) with artists, gallerists, collectors, and also…US Presidents. Here are letters from Phillips to President Truman in 1946 and President Kennedy in 1961 in which he urges and commends the presidents for calling for world peace.

Following the known dangers of the first nuclear weapon deployments of WWII, and legislation on its regulation pending in Congress, Phillips wrote to President Truman about the urgent need for “emergency safeguards against any and every war in a period of atomic energy unleashed and of national sovereignty uncurbed. I write to you urging you to call for a world conference to make an actual start on world government.”

During the Cold War conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States and its culmination in the construction of the Berlin Wall, Phillips commended President Kennedy for the “greatly inspired leadership in your words when you said to the Soviet Union, let us call a truce to terror. Your challenge to a ‘race for peace’ is a heart-lifting thought.”

Celebrating 50 Years of Bill Koberg

Please join us in congratulating Bill Koberg, our inimitable chief of installations, on his 50th anniversary of being part of The Phillips Collection team!

From Shelly Wischhusen, former Chief Preparator:

“I was extremely lucky to have worked with Bill Koberg for 40 (1978-2018) of his now-50 years at The Phillips. He is one unique individual! He has an encyclopedic knowledge of the collection, having completed the annual inventory for decades. He has done everything from installing the artwork, to lighting the artwork, to packing and crating the artwork, as well as accompanying the work as a courier to far points of the globe. He is essential during installations for his great “eye.” He was a joy to work with, with his insane sense of humor and his singing refrains of the most annoying songs which then became “earworms” one couldn’t shake. And best of all, behind all of his vast institutional knowledge and intelligence, he is one of the kindest persons I have ever met.”

From Karen Schneider, Head Librarian:

“Bill Koberg started working at the Phillips in 1971 during the museum’s major Cézanne exhibition, when many new people were hired to guard the galleries. Elmira Bier, Duncan Phillips’s executive secretary, apparently thought that Bill would be a somewhat intimidating presence because of his height and build. Bill was initially a museum assistant and then became a preparator. He was a preparator when I started at the Phillips in 1981 when he worked with Shelly Wischhusen and a rotating cast of assistant preparators.  Over time Bill got more involved in exhibitions, working closely with curators to make suggestions about the installation of works of art as well as pulling works out of storage that had not been exhibited in a long time. His knowledge of the collection is unparalled.”

Finding Peace, Solace, and Joy

Alice Phillips Swistel, grandniece of museum founder Duncan Phillips, reflects on the founding of The Phillips Collection.

I am named after my paternal grandmother, Alice Gifford Phillips. I have been thinking a lot about her lately, though I never knew her, especially as I have been sheltering separately from my husband, a surgeon, as this coronavirus rages on.

Duncan and James Phillips with their father, Major D.C. Phillips, c. 1900.

My grandmother, Alice, was married, had a baby, and suddenly became a widow all in the span of 14 months, from August 1917 to October 1918. Her husband, my grandfather, James Laughlin Phillips, Duncan’s older brother, died of the influenza pandemic of 1918. The baby, my father, was four months old. It was a tragedy that changed the lives of the family and of so many around the world. The so-called Spanish flu killed an estimated 50 million people.

Rockwell Kent, Burial of a Young Man, c. 1908-11, Oil on canvas, 28 1/8 x 52 1/4 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1918

Duncan and his brother, James, we very close, having been raised by older parents in a privileged home. Their father, a major in the union army during the Civil War, was a widower when he married 38-year-old Eliza Laughlin. The brothers, grandsons of the founder of Jones and Laughlin Steel, were schooled together, traveled to Asia together, and attended college at the same time. At Yale University, Duncan and James developed a fascination and love of contemporary art. They started collecting paintings, pooling their allowance and even asking their parents for an additional stipend so they could purchase more. After graduation, Duncan continued writing art history criticism for publications. James was interested in politics and became the assistant treasurer for the Republican Party. He met Alice in New York. The daughter of an architect, she had style, was lively, with a sense of humor and quite athletic, so I’ve heard. They married in the summer in Nantucket. Duncan was best man, clutching his top hat on his way to the wedding in a speeding boat. Sadly, just a month after their wedding, the Major died suddenly. James and Alice moved from New York to Chevy Chase, Maryland, just outside of Washington, DC, to be closer to his mother.

Gustave Courbet, The Mediterranean, 1857, Oil on canvas, 23 1/4 x 33 1/2 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1924

When the United States entered World War I, both brothers enlisted but both were rejected due to health problems. Duncan was apparently 40 pounds underweight according to army regulations and James had bad lungs due to several bouts of pneumonia. Instead, James signed up for the American Red Cross, where he was an associate director of personnel, in charge of applications for overseas service. It was there that he contracted the flu virus. He died after a matter of days, at the family house on R and 21st St. His mother, already stunned by her husband’s sudden death, had a breakdown. She became an “invalid,“ moved to the top floor of the mansion, as my father recalled, and never left it again. Duncan was profoundly grief stricken, and fell into poor health and a lingering depression.

Somehow, remembering his and his brother’s love of art and collecting, Duncan seized on the idea of a memorial and that is how we came to have The Phillips Collection today. Duncan, along with his artist wife, Marjorie, in 1921, threw open the doors of the family house even though they all still lived upstairs. A home that had been a place of sorrow became a place to linger and reflect with color, line, and form, to be stimulated by bold ideas and intimate moments, both historical and contemporary, political and lyrical. Duncan, my great uncle, who impressed me as a little girl as bristling with enthusiasm, was passionate about sharing his experience. He wanted everyone to find peace, solace, and ultimately joy in art and music.

Maurice Prendergast, Ponte della Paglia, c. 1898/reworked 1922, Oil on canvas, 27 7/8 x 23 1/8 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1922

As we approach our centennial next year in 2021, I hope our quarantine and social-distancing months have subsided, and we can find joy again in the collection that Marjorie and Duncan founded.

I personally thank you for supporting The Phillips Collection at this critical time. Thank you for visiting us virtually and we hope to see you again in the near future.

Stay well, wash your hands, and thank you for being art lovers.

Alice Phillips Swistel