The Phillips is beloved in Washington, mostly because of its French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings by van Gogh, Bonnard, Cezanne, Picasso, Klee, and Renoir, whose Luncheon of the Boating Party is the most popular work on display. But as familiar and traditional as these paintings may seem now, the works and their artists were considered daring and avant garde when Duncan Phillips opened his gallery in 1921. The Phillips Collection, indeed, was America’s first official museum of modern art.
Founder Phillips’s vision for “an intimate museum combined with an experiment station” is one that the museum continually renews, through programs like its Intersections series of contemporary art projects that explore links between old and new artistic traditions; and in exhibits of provocative art. The Wolfgang Laib Wax Room is a good example: It is the first beeswax chamber that artist Laib created for a specific museum. That’s right: beeswax. You smell it before you see it, kind of a musty, faintly honey-ish, cloying scent. The artwork is the size of a powder room, with a single light bulb dangling to illuminate walls and ceiling slathered thickly with wax that has the yellow hue of the fruit of a peach, flecked with bits of orangey brown. I sooo wanted to touch it, but that’s not allowed. And a staff sentry stands near the entrance to make sure you don’t. What is the Wax Room but an experiment station?
Today, the museum’s 3,000-work collection includes European masterpieces, treasures by American masters Dove, Homer, Hopper, Lawrence, and O’Keeffe; and works by living artists, such as Susan Rothenberg and Sean Scully. The Phillips resides in a complex that joins the original 1897 Georgian Revival mansion that served initially as both Phillips family home and public art gallery, with a modern gallery annex that doubles the space. The elegant mansion’s graceful appointments—leaded- and stained-glass windows, elliptical stairway, oak-paneled Music Room, and tiled fireplaces—provide a lovely backdrop to the art and add to the reasons that locals love the Phillips.
Other reasons include blockbuster temporary shows; and the Phillips After Five events that take place on the first Thursday of each month, combining live music, cash bar, and food ($40 admission and you must make a reservation—very popular). The museum also has a charming cafe and a small gift shop.