Happy Birthday Marjorie Phillips

Marjorie Phillips, Self-Portrait, circa 1940. Oil on canvas, 20 1/2 x 16 1/2 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Gift of the artist, 1985.

The impact of Marjorie Phillips (1895-1985) on the spirit of The Phillips Collection is clear when one dips into her husband’s correspondence. In letter after letter from artists such as Pierre Bonnard, Alfred Stieglitz, John Marin, and Arthur Dove, Marjorie’s gracious presence and passion for art is commented on with appreciation. Seemingly always at her husband’s side, when not in her studio, she brought a true painter’s sensibility to Duncan’s lifelong exploration of artistic expression.

Taking over directorship of the museum after Duncan died in 1966, Marjorie filled a more substantial curatorial role than she had in the past, mounting two large and unique shows that year.

Birds in Contemporary Art explored works in many media and a wide range of representational style from Chaim Soutine to Morris Graves to Constantin Brancusi. Featuring a large number of sculptures, the show resulted in the purchase of one of the museum’s still most-loved works, Alexander Calder’s Only Only Bird (1951).

Marjorie's handwritten notes on selections for her show, Birds in Contemporary Art, 1966. From Phillips Collection Archives.

Installation shot of Birds in Contemporary Art, 1966, featuring works on the left by Morris Graves, Georges Braque's Oiseau on the right wall, and sculpture by Constantin Brancusi, Jean Arp, and Leonard Baskin. Photo from Phillips Collection Archives.

Following this exhibition, Marjorie opened the museum’s first show of outdoor sculpture featuring works by Alicia Penalba in the newly formed courtyard. In an oral history interview in 1974 with Paul Cummings, Marjorie described discovering Penalba in a New York gallery and buying a piece of her work. Likely a bigger champion of sculpture than her husband, she had asked him for an outdoor space at the museum for exhibitions. In the Sunday Star on September 25, 1966, reviewer Benjamin Forgey gave the Penalba show a very positive review.

The former courtyard with exhibition of outdoor sculpture by Alicia Penalba, 1966