Dear Dove, Dear Phillips, Dear Stieglitz: The Early Years

[Arthur] Dove’s relationship with my father [Duncan Phillips]—launched, controlled, and sometimes distorted by the redoubtable Alfred Stieglitz—must stand as one of the most interesting and productive artist-patron relationships of modern times . . . Dove was the model of what [my father] wanted most to encourage—the independent artist with a powerful, fresh, and highly personal vision.—Laughlin Phillips

Through correspondence in the Phillips archives, photographs, and more, the Reading Room exhibition Dear Dove, Dear Phillips, Dear Stieglitz explores the relationship between artist, patron, and gallery dealer.

THE EARLY YEARS, 1912-1933

Photograph of Arthur Dove on board the Mona

From 1924 to 1933, Arthur Dove lived on a 42-foot-long sailboat, the Mona, with his second wife, Helen “Reds” Torr, who was also a painter. They sailed around Long Island Sound, near Huntington Harbor.

Arthur Dove (1880-1946) grew up in Geneva, New York. He attended Cornell University, where he took classes in pre-law to please his father and studied art to please himself. Following graduation, he became an illustrator, and eventually dedicated himself to painting. In his early work, Dove explored realistic subjects, such as still lifes, but by 1910, deeply influenced by his immersion in nature, he began to work abstractly, creating some of the first abstract paintings in the United States. In 1912, Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), acclaimed photographer and gallery owner representing Georgia O’Keeffe, John Marin, and Marsden Hartley, among others, became Dove’s dealer.

Beginning in 1930, museum founder Duncan Phillips (1886-1966) became Dove’s patron. He sent Dove a check for 50 dollars a month (which gradually increased to 200 a month) in exchange for first choice of the artist’s paintings that were exhibited at Stieglitz’s gallery. Phillips responded to Dove’s simple way of life and his independence from European art movements. The Phillips Collection gave Dove his first museum retrospective in 1937 and owns 56 works by the artist—the largest collection of works by Dove in the world. Artist, patron, and gallery dealer exchanged hundreds of letters from 1926 to 1946, the year that Dove and Stieglitz died.

Letter from Arthur Dove to Duncan Phillips, 1927

Duncan Phillips to Arthur Dove, December 19, 1927

This is the first letter that Arthur Dove wrote to Duncan Phillips. The artist invited the collector to see his exhibition at Stieglitz’s 291 gallery in New York: “Your interest in my paintings leaves me free to tell you that I think a vital step has been taken in modern expression with the later ones. Yesterday on seeing the new paintings hung together for the first time I felt that there was beauty there that had gone much farther toward a new reality of my own. I feel that you should and will go to see them.”

Letter from Stieglitz to DP February 1 1926

Alfred Stieglitz to Duncan Phillips, February 1, 1926

Alfred Stieglitz and Duncan Phillips conducted a lively correspondence for 20 years. In this letter, Stieglitz aligns himself with Phillips’s growing predilection for innovative work by American artists: “What naturally interested me most is your growing interest in the gallant experiments of the living American modernists in which I am so much interested.” Several years later, Stieglitz reported to Phillips that he felt that the work of Dove, John Marin, and Georgia O’Keeffe was “of greater freshness and significance than anything being done in Europe.”

Dove, Arthur G., Golden Storm, 1925, Oil and metallic paint on plywood panel 18 9/16 x 20 1/2 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1926

Arthur Dove, Golden Storm, 1925, Oil and metallic paint on plywood panel, 18 9/16 x 20 1/2 in.; The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1926

Golden Storm (1925) and Waterfall (1925) were created on Dove’s sailboat in Huntington Harbor. Though small in scale due to limited working space, both works suggest the monumental. A suspenseful image of choppy waves raging beneath a threatening sky, Golden Storm reflects Dove’s constant experimentation with new media. He avidly read books on materials and techniques and often ground his own pigments. In this painting Dove made liberal use of metallic paint, creating a subtle, iridescent effect. Phillips expressed concern about the longevity of the delicate surface, but Dove assured him that it would not fade. Golden Storm and Waterfall were the first works by Dove purchased by Phillips and the first paintings by Dove acquired by a museum.

Stay tuned for Part II (The Centerport Years) and Part III (The Geneva Years) of this series and visit the Reading Room to see the exhibition.

The Impact of “The Klee Room” at the Phillips

Paul Klee, Tree Nursery, 1929

Paul Klee, Tree Nursery, 1929, Oil with incised gesso ground on canvas, 17 1/4 x 20 5/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1930

Duncan Phillips was a stalwart champion of Paul Klee, and had his works on constant view over several decades in what became known as “The Klee Room” at the Phillips. In 1971, art critic Barbara Rose wrote about the influence of “The Klee Room” in DC in her essay “Retrospective Notes on the Washington School” in The Vincent Melzac Collection: Modernist American Art Featuring New York Expressionism and Washington Color Painting:

“[Kenneth] Noland was not the only Washington painter to look closely at Klee. Klee played the role in Washington that Kandinsky played in New York, which made for crucial differences in approach and emphasis. As opposed to Kandinsky’s expressionist romanticism, Klee’s experiments with surface and texture, his early use of banding, central images, and geometric motifs, provided important precedents for the kind of technique and imagery eventually developed in Washington. Klee was accessible in Washington as Kandinsky was accessible in New York because of the taste of a local collector. As Solomon Guggenheim had assembled a great collection of Kandinsky’s works in his New York museum, so Duncan Phillips put together a remarkable collection of Klee’s works. No one who has ever lived in Washington (this writer included) can ever forget the impact of the Klee room at the Phillips Gallery.”

This work is on view in Ten Americans: After Paul Klee through May 6, 2018.

90 Years of Sharing Masterworks with Princeton

Thirty-eight works from the Phillips’s collection are currently on view at the Princeton University Art Museum, in the exhibition The Artist Sees Differently: Modern Still Lifes from The Phillips Collection, on view through April 29. Frank Jewett Mather, Director of the Princeton Art Museum from 1922-1946, was close friends with Duncan Phillips. Here is an excerpt from the Princeton Art Museum’s spring magazine, by Associate Director for Collections and Exhibitions T. Barton Thurber, about the long relationship between the Princeton Art Museum and The Phillips Collection:

Paul Cézanne, Ginger Pot with Pomegranate and Pears, 1893

Paul Cézanne, Ginger Pot with Pomegranate and Pears, 1893, Oil on canvas 18 1/4 x 21 7/8 in. Gift of Gifford Phillips in memory of his father, James Laughlin Phillips, 1939

In 1928 the newly expanded Museum of Historic Art (as the Princeton University Art Museum was then known) planned its first major loan exhibition to include a number of 19th-century paintings from the Phillips Memorial Gallery. On May 9 of that year, the Museum’s director, Frank Mather, wrote in a letter to his friend Duncan Phillips that the temporary display was intended to “exemplify the plans and hopes for a future permanent show.” As Mather stated of the Museum in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, these were “the sort of pictures [that] should eventually comprise [the Museum’s] collection.” Chief among the paintings to be borrowed was a still life by Paul Cézanne, whose works both Mather and Phillips greatly admired. In his book Modern Painting (1927), Mather had written of Cézanne:

“In those rugged and ragged canvases lay in germ pretty nearly all the experimentations and aberrations that were to mark the next quarter century. . . .
. . . These arrangements of fruit and kitchen or tableware have the greatest succulence of texture and depth of color. They seem as they glow from within to gain size and monumentality—these apples and pots and pans. They excite and appease, adding, as it were, to our own visual capacity. . . . Look more carefully at these rough and fragmentary indications, and they will begin to build a world; the writhing contours, the blots and smudges, will combine in a ponderous rhythm. . . . Cézanne, then, is the key to modernist painting.”

Cézanne’s magnificent Ginger Pot with Pomegranate and Pears (1893) was acquired by Duncan and Marjorie Phillips in 1939 and is currently on view in The Artist Sees Differently. The painting was first exhibited in the United States in 1929, at the Museum of Modern Art’s inaugural exhibition, where Mather’s former student Alfred H. Barr Jr. (Princeton Class of 1922), the founding director of MoMA, observed, “Cézanne’s complexity depends not upon the arrangement of objects but rather upon the composition of color planes.”