From the Archives: Duncan Phillips, Franz Bader, and Alma Thomas

Through archival materials, Associate Curator Renée Maurer explores the rich relationship between The Phillips Collection, Franz Bader, and Alma Thomas.

Austrian-born Franz Bader (1903-1994) fled Europe for the US in 1939 and settled in Washington, DC, where he worked at The Whyte Bookshop and Gallery located at 17th and H Streets. During the 1930s, the Whyte, The Phillips Collection, and the Howard University Gallery of Art, were among the few galleries in DC to acquire and exhibit the work of local living artists, including artists of color. Bader became director of Whyte Gallery in 1948, and then later opened Franz Bader Gallery in 1953. Duncan Phillips may have met Bader at Whyte Gallery. Archival correspondence indicates that he actively made purchases there, even acquiring examples by museum staff like Circus by John Gernand, who attended the Phillips Art School, worked with Alma Thomas’s teacher Robert Gates at American University, and served as the Phillips’s registrar and archivist.

Receipt for purchase of John Gernand, Circus, 1938, Oil on canvas, The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1939

The Phillipses and Bader also crossed paths at the museum. Bader later recalled to Duncan’s son Laughlin Phillips: “The beauty and informality of the Phillips Gallery has always meant so very much to me. Visiting it the first week after my arrival in this country helped to form my idea of America.” Duncan Phillips and Bader shared an interest in promoting DC’s arts community. In the 1950s Bader requested Phillips’s assistance with a traveling exhibition that featured work by Washington artists, supported by the United States Information Agency, and planned for Vienna, Bader’s hometown.

Through acquisitions and exhibitions, Phillips and Bader gave many Washington-based artists their first opportunities. Following the success of Alma Thomas’s first solo show at the Howard University Art Gallery in 1966, Bader became Thomas’s primary dealer. In 1968, he hosted an exhibition of Thomas’s paintings and watercolors, her first major one-person show at an established DC commercial art gallery.

In 1970, Bader presented paintings from Thomas’s Earth and Space series, two years before they went on view in the artist’s career defining retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art. In late 1971, while curating A Small Loan Exhibition of Washington Artists for the Phillips, Marjorie Phillips negotiated with Bader the loan of Thomas’s acrylic Atmosphere. Thomas’s last show at Franz Bader Gallery occurred in 1974, and it included two works that were on view in the Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful exhibition: Fiery Sunset, owned by Bader, and Horizon.

LEFT TO RIGHT: Alma Thomas, Fiery Sunset, 1973, Acrylic on canvas, Museum of Modern Art, New York; Alma Thomas, Horizon, 1974, Acrylic on paper, Henry H. and Carol Brown Goldberg

In 1976, two years before Thomas’s death, Bader donated to The Phillips Collection Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers. The archival letters below relate to the gift. Bader acknowledges to then director Laughlin Phillips that Thomas was pleased to have an example of her work at the museum and hoped “that this will enable people to enjoy the painting.” On Thomas’s carbon copy, in her papers at the Archives of American Art, Bader annotated the letter with “Congratulation Again.” Laughlin Phillips wrote to Bader that the Thomas painting is “a significant addition” and “we are extremely pleased to have it.”

Letter from Franz Bader to Laughlin Phillips

Letter from Laughlin Philips to Franz Bader

Writing to Thomas, Laughlin Phillips acknowledged the gift of Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers, donated by Bader. He mentioned that the painting “has been hanging steadily since its arrival and bringing pleasure to staff and visitors alike” and remarked on his interest in her new work on view at the Corcoran. Later that year, the Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers joined the American Art from The Phillips Collection exhibition and toured several venues in the US.

Letter from Laughlin Phillips to Alma Thomas

In the fall of 1977, the Phillips hosted an exhibition of photographs by Franz Bader. Thomas attended the exhibition and kept the brochure.

Brochure for Franz Bader exhibition at The Phillips Collection

From the Archives: Barnett Aden Gallery and The Phillips Collection

Through archival materials, Associate Curator Renée Maurer explores the rich relationship between The Phillips Collection and Barnett Aden Gallery.

The groundbreaking Barnett Aden Gallery, the first Black-owned commercial art gallery in the United States, opened at 127 Randolph Place NW on October 16, 1943. It was founded in the private home of James V. Herring, director of the Howard University art department and Alonzo Aden, former curator of the Howard University Gallery of Art. Alma Thomas was the gallery’s primary funder and vice president. Herring and Aden, who frequently collaborated with Duncan Phillips, modeled the Barnett Aden Gallery on Phillips’s conviction that art should be enjoyed in an intimate setting. Phillips described his museum as “a home for all those who love art [where] visitors will feel inclined to linger and to return again.” Inspired by these ideas, the inaugural show at Barnett Aden was called Art for the Home. The gallery displayed works by artists of diverse backgrounds and upheld the belief that art should be available to everyone. It endorsed living artists who were not yet established and sold small-scale works for the starting collector. Visitors from across the city attended the gallery’s racially diverse exhibitions and educational programs. The gallery became a destination for cultural exchange and discourse, and the art openings were among the few interracial social events in the city.

Many local and up-and-coming painters were given their first group or solo show at the Barnett Aden Gallery. The Phillipses and the museum staff offered support by loaning paintings, purchasing art, and attending exhibitions. For example, from April to May of 1946, the Barnett Aden hosted Loïs Mailou Jones’s first solo show. Duncan Phillips lent Place du Tertre, 1938, which he had purchased from Jones in 1944. The painting was prominently featured in the brochure, below.

Brochure for Loïs Mailou Jones exhibition at Barnett Aden Gallery

The Barnett Aden Gallery also hosted Irene Rice Pereira’s first solo exhibition, from December 1948 to January 1949. The Phillipses attended the opening and made their first acquisition from the gallery, Pereira’s Transversion, 1946. Aden thanked Duncan Phillips in a letter dated February 17, 1949: “The members of the staff of the Gallery and I wish to express deep appreciation of yours and Mrs. Phillips’s visit and of your willingness to purchase the painting of I. Rice Pereira. We hope that you will continue to enjoy it more during the coming years.” The receipt below reveals the $650 purchase price for the work.

Letter from Alonzo Aden to Duncan Phillips about Irene Rice Pereira painting and purchase receipt

For the Barnett Aden’s 10th anniversary show Eighteen Washington Artists, the Phillipses lent Fish by Robert Gates. Duncan and Marjorie attended the exhibition with staff and kept this brochure.

The Barnett Aden Gallery 10th Anniversary brochure

On May 2, 1954, Aden wrote a letter of thanks to Phillips and enclosed a newspaper clipping from The Washington Star, which relayed details from the 10th anniversary exhibition opening. Aden noted that The Phillips Collection’s loan was prominently featured in one of the images in the article.

[Transcript: Dear Mr. Phillips, As I send this article for you to see, I am reminded of many kindnesses which you and your gallery have extended us. The painting shown in the background of the lower photographs is the Robert Gates “Fish” which you were so kind to lend for our tenth anniversary show. With grateful appreciation. Sincerely, Alonzo J. Aden]

At the gallery opening, The Washington Star reviewer highlighted the art of Jones and Pereira, who stands by her piece and next to Aden in the top right photo.

The Washington Star review

From the Archives: Lillian Evanti

Associate Curator Renée Maurer on Lillian Evanti’s performance at The Phillips Collection in 1942.

Lillian Evans Tibbs, a Paris trained, internationally renowned soprano, with an ability to sing in several languages, traveled the world as Madame Evanti, the first African American opera singer to perform with a major European company. She held concerts at her home on Vermont Avenue, which was transformed into an informal salon, and also at various venues throughout the city, from the White House to the Belasco Theater to the Lincoln Theater to The Phillips Collection.

An important art patron and collector, Lillian Evanti first wrote to Duncan Phillips in early December 1934 after touring the collection. She described her impressions: “The museum is a magnificent contribution to Washington, for which we should be deeply grateful.” She discussed her interest in the interrelation of the arts, her fondness for the August Vincent Tack panels, sent clippings and brochures from previous performances, and asked for “an appointment” hoping to secure a concert in the Music Room. Phillips and Evanti met on December 7, 1934. Although a concert was not immediately scheduled, Evanti kept up her correspondence with Phillips, apprising him of her performances in South America, enclosing publicity brochures that detailed her work, and reminding him of his promise to host an event for her at the museum.

Publicity brochure for Lillian Evanti, which shows her dressed as Violetta from La Traviata standing among the cherry blossoms.

In 1942, Phillips suggested to Evanti that she perform during the Modern Mexican Painters exhibition at the museum. Pleased by the invitation, Evanti shared her memory of their first meeting, which actually occurred eight years before, and offered to sing “Inter-American music with a special group of lovely Mexican songs.” She promised to invite distinguished guests to her performance. But Evanti’s premiere was put on hold until February.

Transcript: My dear Mr. Phillips, Ever since I had the honor and pleasure of meeting you, quite four years ago, I have looked forward to an intimate concert in the Phillips Gallery. It gave me renewed courage when you told me that you would arrange to give me a date during the exhibit of Mexican art. Would you like a program of Inter-American music with a special group of lovely Mexican songs? Then my composition could be sung to bind the spirt of the Inter-American solidarity. I am sure that if Dr. Castillo Nájara is in town he will be there as I know him personally. In fact I know nearly all the Latin American ambassadors and Ministers here. They are all eager to hear my song “Pan Americano.” I have already spoken to my accompanist to be in readiness for a program this month at the Phillips Gallery. Please give me this opportunity that I have long waited for. I think we might expect a very distinguished audience. Yours sincerely, Lillian Evanti.

In mid-February, Evanti secured a day for her debut at the Phillips. The letter below indicates her interests in an immersive experience, one where several works from the collection would be on display in the Music Room to complement her song selection. Phillips kept the installation he had in place since early February 1942, which included paintings by Georges Rouault, Pierre Bonnard, and Rufino Tamayo, among others.

Transcript: My dear Mr. Duncan Phillips: May I make a in the group of Spirituals – Lord I want to be—- Sometimes I feel—– City called Heaven—-Camille Nickerson [mark] stood on de Ribber ob Jerdon—-arr by H.T. Burleigh If possible I would like to make a request. Will you hang in the Gallery for this period a “Le Brun”—or a painting that ties in with the Handel style. also: a “Fragonard”– of the Mozart style. and a Van Gogh–whose style, life and vicitudes correspond perfectly with Hugo Wolf. I feel very sincerely the kindship of the arts and feel that my concert would be greatly augmented if some of the corresponding painters were represented. Most Sincerely Lillian Evanti Feb. 10-’42

On February 15, 1942, Evanti performed in the Music Room “a varied program of Classics, a group by Hugo Wolf, an Inter-American group, and a group of Negro Spirituals. The concert was timed with the Phillips’s inaugural exhibition of Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration Series. Held in the museum’s print rooms, it featured all 60 panels. Evanti’s performance was well received in the local press.

Brochure of Lillian Evanti performance at The Phillips Collection

Program for Lillian Evanti performance at The Phillips Collection

This letter, which expressed the staff’s enjoyment of the concert, was sent to Evanti along with her $100 honorarium.

Transcript: Dear Miss Evanti: I am enclosing herewith the Gallery check for one hundred dollars, the honorarium for your concert given in the Gallery Sunday, February 15th. We all enjoyed it very much and are glad to have this opportunity of hearing you. Sincerely yours,