In Case of Emergency . . . Part II

Honoré Daumier, Two Sculptors, 1870-1873. Oil on wood panel, 10 1/2 x 14 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1925.

Read part one of this post here.

Duncan Phillips appeared to feel tremendous relief and gratitude in his letter of December 30, 1941, to the director, Paul Gardner, of the then William Rockhill Nelson Art Gallery, as he announced the forty paintings from his collection that would seek refuge at the Midwestern museum as Washington, D.C., waited out World War II in post-Pearl Harbor anxiety. He also referenced another “almost equally large number of good pictures” being sent to the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center for the same purpose of safekeeping. By January 3, 1942, Phillips received a letter from Gardner, announcing that the first group of paintings, which had been shipped in batches, had arrived already to great excitement, especially regarding Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party. On its first day on view, January 25, 1942, that painting was written up in the Kansas City Star with the poignant headline, “When France was Free.”

Come October 16, 1942, however, Phillips was reassessing the impact of his decision to harbor his beloved collection so far out of reach. In a letter that day, again to Paul Gardner, he states that the gallery has been “very sadly crippled” by the loans of such works as Cézanne’s Self-Portrait, Manet’s Spanish Ballet, Chardin’s A Bowl of Plums, and El Greco’s The Repentant St. Peter.

I know now we really over-did our precautions in stripping ourselves of quite so many of our 19th century masters. In the case of two of them, Daumier and Cézanne, our loss is deplorable and I am finally compelled to write and ask you to return to us the “Two Sculptors” by Daumier and the Still Life by Cézanne . . . I still feel that the risk of air raids in Washington continues to be a very real one but the National Gallery and other institutions here are exhibiting great pictures and a certain amount of risk for property as well as human life is inevitable in war time.

Gardner easily agreed to return the two works and accepted Phillips’s offer to replace them with loans of a Paul Klee and Augustus Vincent Tack.

In Case of Emergency . . .

One of about 40 paintings Duncan Phillips considered to be "the best" that were sent to William Rockhill Nelson Art Gallery in Kansas City, Missouri. Eugène-Louis Boudin, Beach at Trouville, 1863. Oil on wood panel, 7 1/4 x 13 3/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1923.

A few months back, many art lovers were interested to read a Washington Post profile on Andrew Robison, National Gallery of Art curator of prints, watercolors, drawings, and rare illustrated books, and his “unique” system of identifying works in his collections that are of greatest value in the event of emergency evacuation. Though NGA director Rusty Powell explains that this is not the museum’s primary security program for its 116,000 items, Robison’s method was not dissimilar to one used by our founder in the 1940s. Duncan Phillips, no stranger to ranking his collection, put his evaluative skills to work to protect his collection in a time of national threat.

From January 1942 until September 1944, Phillips sent 33 works from his collection on the road to the Colorado Springs Fine Art Center to be displayed and stored in safety as Washington, D.C., waited out the possibility of German air attacks during World War II. Around 40 pieces from the collection were also sent to what is now the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City for the same purpose. The National Gallery of Art took similar action during this time, sending some of their paintings and sculptures to Biltmore House in western North Carolina.