Arts Everyday Living: Beyond the Tunnel, Inside the Phillips Collection, Museum and Home of Art

Beyond the Tunnel: the Arts and Aging in America was published some thirty years ago, based on my experiences bringing art appreciation and the cultural resources of the art museum to older adults in the Washington, D.C. community through my non-profit organization Museum One, Inc. The world has changed since then, sometimes for the better, other times not so positively.

The concept of the tunnel was based on an actual nursing home I visited frequently in the 1980s. The facility still exists although it has been turned into an assisted living facility that I hope has been modernized.  Yet, the tunnel is  a state of mind, representing the ageism that continues to permeate our society. Ultimately, Beyond the Tunnel is simply a story—human and I hope, enduring—as well as a reflection of  our society and ourselves.

This next chapters are about another tunnel and a special person I will never forget.



The Museum

Chapter 6, Part I

(Google The Road Menders by Vincent van Gogh, 1889, Phillips Collection)

(Google Beach at Trouville by Eugene-Louis Boudin, 1863, Phillips Collection)

Located just off the broad avenue of Embassy Row, the Phillips Collection has always seemed more a home than a museum to me. Indeed, it was the personal domicile of its founder, Duncan Phillips, collector, art historian, and lifelong patron of the arts, until his death in 1966, at the age of 80. His red brick Georgian Revival mansion, built at the turn of the century, with its not quite harmonious green-toned shutters (at least according to my tastes), hugs the corner of 21st and P rather modestly, dangerously close to being obscured by the more ponderous Beaux Arts architectural style of its neighbors: the gargantuan facades of the Anderson House and the Indonesian Embassy just across the street, and pretentious floridity of the Cosmos Club, a block away. Only a simple, crisply hued banner streaming down the front, an announcement of current exhibitions, saves the uninitiated visitor or tourist from passing the museum by.

The Phillips continues to be my favorite gallery in Washington, although the survival tactics of the 1980s have exacted their economic and psychological toll. Renovation and expansion, corporate support and professional fund raising have inevitably altered the original character and charm I remember over a decade ago.

Admission was free that summer afternoon around noon in 1977, and I felt, as I had many times before, a sense of freedom and anticipation walking through the museum’s main door.  Mr. Phillips, I liked to imagine, had again invited me, his special friend, to share his inimitable paintings during the short reprieve of my lunch hour. Or rather it was his spirit that greeted me in the windowless foyer, one of the few shadowy areas of his house. A ghostly host, invisible, guiding me graciously to his most cherished possessions, which I preferred to think were still hung and arranged as he had originally ordained.

What a wonderful life Duncan Phillips must have led, I often mused, envying him. The heir to a substantial fortune, he was never forced to labor for money like the majority of us mortals. His days and nights could be devoted fully to the study and appreciation of art like some perpetual graduate student. He traveled, it appeared from my youthful perspective, when and where he wished, touring the great museums and galleries, meeting both established and aspiring painters and sculptors in locales around the world. He was truly a gentleman of  the “old school,” an American aristocrat, refined and affable, admired universally for both his scholarship and establishment of a respected museum, as well as financing some of the twentieth century’s leading artists.

And yet, the gallery had begun in tragedy—the deaths of his father and brother within a year of each other. To Phillips, his museum would forever be a memorial to their lives, but also, as he wrote, “a home for the fine arts and home for all those who love art and go to it for solace and spiritual refreshment.”*

I was still too immature to understand the drive whose existence I idealized—the hard work that lay behind the beauty of the rooms I moved through with such pleasure and contentment.

First, into the parlor and sitting rooms immediately to the left of the entrance. These adjoining domestic spaces separated by an open archway, are naturally sunlit, with high ceilings and bay windows, antique furnishings and French paintings—remnants of a more leisurely era.  Here Phillips, the connoisseur of the last century, prevailed.

The predominantly brown, olive, and earth palettes of Daumier, Courbet, Corot, and other pre-Impressionist names punctuated the walls, their interpretations of Italian villages, forest glens, and Parisian streets placed advantageously over a loveseat, a wing chair, or a priceless end table. An ocean vista by Courbet, positioned directly over one of the mansion’s ornate fireplaces, particularly engaged me. It was a large, powerful canvas of an astonishing emerald sea and yellow-green sky, so flat that the horizon seemed to act as a barricade against the viewer’s eye. At the very edge of the foreground, a dark grid of rocks pushed outward, sealing off with finality the flow of the crashing waves.

I often conjectured that Courbet was challenging me, or any spectator, to attempt to penetrate the spatial blockage he so willfully created. But Boudin, his contemporary, soon summoned a soft splash of nautical blue, the Beach at Trouville, nearby. How I loved that painting, as much for its placement as its content. A tiny beach scene, with colors fresh as the salt air, resided perfectly in its own private corner next to the parlor’s windows. Ordinarily, its fashionable participants, fully clothed in the formal attire of the time—a woman holding a parasol, a playing child, a couple strolling with their spaniel-like dog, so minute in scale and dimension—would be lost among the vast exhibitions of a national or city museum. But in this cozy enclave, Boudin’s wispy figures could reach out, entreating me to enjoy the cool breezes, fair weather, and sight of sailboats racing parallel to the land.

But harbingers of the future were scattered all around me. As I viewed the harmonious Boudin, I could detect another image forcing itself upon me, pulling me with its expressive energy toward the opposite side of the room. Van Gogh’s a Roadmenders of Saint-Remy shook and slanted upward—an earthquake zone of heavy, bulging trees, strewn concrete blocks and bending, straining workmen cried out for my attention.

What was Van Gogh trying to capture, transforming a mundane scene of laborers repairing a town thoroughfare into a vision of potential destruction? Would Saint-Remy, I wondered, ever be the same again? Western art, certainly, would never withstand the onslaught of Van Gogh and the coming generations.

And neither would Duncan Phillips. How many times did he puzzle as I did now, over Cezanne’s Jardin de Lauves, a patchwork of multicolored cubes rumored to be the artist’s garden, composed in 1906 but just as baffling in 1977.

Van Gogh and Cezanne, though, represented just the embarkation point for Phillips, and in turn, my journey into “modern” art. An ambitious path, which I discovered again as I departed from the two introductory galleries, extending straight ahead, back across the foyer, toward the new wing. But first I would have to pass through the music conservatory and former library, the intervening corridor between the past and present, yesterday and today.

Initially, it seemed more like a feudal hall—grand, dark, slightly oppressive—more suitable for a lordly banquet than a concert performance or art display. In appearance, it is pseudo-Gothic, specifically English Perpendicular, with richly carved paneling and beams, fan-vaulting, and an extraordinary fireplace fit only for a manor house, adorned regally with heraldic symbols. I wondered sometimes if Phillips might have been embarrassed by the elaborate surroundings—an environment definitely more appropriate for his Victorian forebears, who popularized such extravagant fantasies, than a pioneer of avant garde art.

Yet, ingeniously, Phillips had integrated the religious visions of a recent French master, Georges Roualt, into the atmosphere of the late Middle Ages. Composed like the stained glass apparitions of a medival church, Roualt’s oils glowed ethereally from the dusky upper reaches of the room—Christ, the disciples, other scenes of the Gospel engraved in a smoldering fabric of jeweled red, royal blue, and flame yellow.

Strange, I thought, how Roualt, who died barely 20 years before, was so inspired and moved by the spirituality and faith of such a distant age—a fervor that Phillips himself must have recognized. Had he, the question might be asked, intentionally selected the Roualts with this exhibition space in mind, as if were trying to create a tiny, flickering sanctuary within his museum? Not Christian or any particular sect, but a universal dwelling in which a soul could rest and contemplate.

I was always tempted to remain indefinitely, especially today, within the natural twilight and wood decor of the conservatory. It is like an interior forest, cool, dim, shady, insulated from the oppressive heat of the city outside. But I knew the very core of the collection awaited me above. I traveled further and away, taking my usual route up the exit stairway, over the causeway bridging the mansion with its modern addition of 1960.






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