The Phillips Collection, America’s first museum of modern art, was opened in 1921 in historic Dupont Circle in Washington, DC, by collector and philanthropist Duncan Phillips.
Duncan Phillips (1886-1966) was the son of Major Duncan Clinch Phillips, a Pittsburgh businessman and Civil War veteran, and Eliza Laughlin Phillips, whose father was a banker and co-founder of Jones and Laughlin Steel Company. The family moved to Washington, DC, in winter 1895-96.
Duncan was close to his older brother, Jim; Jim postponed attending college for two years so that he and Duncan could attend Yale University together. The brothers moved from DC to an apartment in New York in 1914. Duncan wrote extensively on art and published his first book, The Enchantment of Art, in 1914. Duncan’s passion for art was fueled by trips to Europe in 1911 and 1912 and visits to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, along with friendships in New York with artists Augustus Vincent Tack, who became a lifelong friend, and American impressionist painter Julian Alden Weir. In 1916 the brothers convinced their parents to set aside $10,000 annually to allow them to assemble a collection of contemporary American painting for the family.
Soon after, tragedy struck the Phillips family. Major Duncan Phillips died suddenly in 1917 from a heart condition and James died from the flu epidemic in 1918. To cope with these stunning blows, Duncan turned to the restorative quality of art. “Sorrow all but overwhelmed me,” he later wrote. “Then I turned to my love of painting for the will to live.” He and his mother founded the museum in late 1918. It was originally called the Phillips Memorial Art Gallery, and opened it to the public in fall of 1921. In a specially designed room added onto the second floor of the family home, they showed selections from their growing 237-work collection that now included examples by European artists, reflecting Duncan Phillips’s pioneering idea of creating a museum in the nation’s capital where one could encounter the art of the past and the present on equal terms. As the collection grew, the family moved out of their Dupont Circle home to a new residence in 1930, allowing the entire house to become a dedicated space for the museum.