The Phillips Collection Impressionist Works Easily Impress

23 Jun
June 23, 2011

When people typically think of galleries and museums in Washington, D.C., they imagine the stretch of buildings flanking the National Mall, on Constitution and Independence Avenues.

While those are world-class museums, they are far from the only ones in the city. In fact, off the beaten path, some of this city’s greatest galleries are begging to be discovered.

Tucked away on tree-lined 21st Street you’ll find the Phillips Collection, one of the area’s best collections of famous artwork.

Just off Massachusetts Avenue, in Dupont Circle, the Phillips Collection resides in Duncan Phillips’ former house. Phillips, an art collector, moved to Washington, D.C. right before the start of the 20th century.

He took up residence in a red-brick Georgian mansion on the corner of 21st and Q Street. There, he stored his burgeoning collection of famous art, occasionally showing it to the public. As the collection grew, he moved out of the house, leaving the artwork there for public display, and in 1921, the Phillips Collection was born.

While the mansion remains the focal point of the collection, the space itself has grown, as has its impressive list of artwork. The collection has undergone three additions, in 1960, 1989 and 2006 and now holds an astounding 3,000 works of art. The building now spans almost an entire city block.

A trip to the Phillips Collection costs $12, which gets visitors access to both the permanent collection as well as the rotating exhibits. Included in the price of admission is a free audio tour, which is accessed by cell phone. Selected works of art are marked with a code that you can punch into your phone and hear the Collection’s director, Dorothy Kosinski, discuss the history, style and criticism of the work.

Currently, the Phillips Collection is hosting two rotating exhibits, which have very different, but related styles. Both temporary exhibits are in the Goh Annex, a wing built during the 1989 renovation after a donation from a Japanese businessman, Yashiro Goh.

The first exhibit is titled “Kandinsky and the Harmony of Silence: Painting with White Border,” and runs from now until September 4th. The exhibit showcases the works of the famous Russian modernist painter Wassily Kandinsky.

On display is one of his most famous works, Painting with White Border, as well as the sketches he created in the sixth-month period leading up to the final painting, demonstrating Kandinsky’s thoughts and motives behind his masterpiece.

Alongside the Kandinsky exhibit are the works of the American sculpture Frank Stella. Stella was strongly influenced by Kandinsky’s modernist ideas, but worked in an entirely different medium. Instead of canvas and paint, Stella created colorful, soaring metal sculptures, some up to 15-feet wide. Similar to the Kandinsky exhibit, the collection showcases miniature models of Stella’s work, with both exhibits focusing on the thought process of the artist.

While those two exhibits are wonderful, the gallery’s permanent collection is a must-see. The works span both the globe and centuries of time. Among the artists featured are famous European impressionists Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet and Pablo Picasso. The most well-known work is Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party, which shows a group of young people enjoying a leisurely meal on the banks of the Siene.

The Phillips Collection is not limited to European painters. Among the American work they have are numerous pieces from Georgia O’Keefe and Kenneth Noland as well as an entire room dedicated to the abstract works of Mark Rothko.

The amazing list of well known talent is a very convincing reason to leave the National Mall and go view one of the best “hidden” art collections that D.C. has to offer.

- David

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