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FAMILY'S 'MASTERWORKS' IS BUFFALO'S TREAT

Memorializing his beloved brother and father was the force that drove Duncan Phillips to open the nation's first museum of modern art in the family's Washington, D.C., home in 1921.

With an expansion project under way at the museum, a collection of more than 50 works entitled "Masterworks from the Phillips Collection" has taken to the road, with Buffalo's Albright-Knox Art Gallery among only five stops. The exhibit opens to the public Tuesday and continues through Sept. 1.

"The opportunity to seek a venue in Buffalo was one that we regarded as a great opportunity," Phillips Collection director Jay Gates said Friday night at the Albright-Knox. Gates gave a lecture on how the collection was assembled, which was followed by a ribbon-cutting for the exhibit upstairs.

Duncan Phillips was a child of privilege, born into a wealthy Pittsburgh family in the late 19th century. The family relocated in the late 1890s to Washington, D.C., where he and his brother, James, enjoyed an upbringing "that most of us can only imagine," Gates said.

So close were Duncan and his brother, two years his senior, that James Phillips delayed attending Yale University for two years so the two could go together. They roomed together and studied English; the study of art history simply wasn't available in the United States at the time, Gates said.

The brothers developed an interest in painting and decided to become collectors, asking their parents for an allowance to do so. Even before firmly establishing himself as a collector, Duncan Phillips became an art critic, Gates said.

Following the deaths of his father and brother in quick succession, Phillips decided to create a museum in their memory. What began as a couple of rooms in the Phillips family home quickly grew to the point where Phillips, his wife, Marjorie, and his mother had to relocate.

Even before creating the museum, some of Phillips' early acquisitions were Claude Monet's "The Road to Vetheuil," and "A Bowl of Plums" by Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin.

Seeking an image to be the "identity" of the museum, Phillips bought Pierre-Auguste Renoir's "Luncheon of the Boating Party" in 1923 for $125,000. "It's a slice out of Renoir's life," Gates said.

His collection includes landscapes and still lifes; "Entrance to the Public Gardens in Arles" by Vincent Van Gogh is among the former and "Ginger Pot with Pomegranate and Pears" by Paul Cezanne the latter.

Phillips wanted visitors to the museum to appreciate the art as he did.

"Linger . . . was Duncan Phillips' favorite description of what ought to happen in an art museum," Gates said. In the decades before his death in 1966, "If you visited . . . he would have met you and taken you around -- whether you wanted it or not," Gates said.

Before Friday night's guests were treated to a preview of the exhibition, Gates issued this standing invitation:

"Come to Washington to reacquaint yourselves with old friends . . . when they finally come home."

e-mail: jhabuda@buffnews.com

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