Saturday, February 24, 2007


Duncan Clinch Phillips
1838 – 1917

Duncan Clinch Phillips (the son of Elias Phillips and Mary Mahon Ormsby) was born in March 1838 at the Ormsby family homestead called “The White House” in what was later the South Side of Pittsburgh. He was educated at St James College in Maryland and Brown University, in RI. During the civil war, Phillips rose to the rank of Major of the Company M, 4th PA cavalry. D C Phillips was associated with Phillips and Company, a window glass manufacturer.

He married twice.
His first wife: Florence Ebbs of West Chester, PA (?-February 4, 1870)
Married October 18, 1866
Their children did not survive childhood:
- Arthur Ormsby Phillips (July 1867– October 1867)
- Florence Ebbs Phillips (April 12, 1869 – September 17, 1878)
His second wife: Eliza Irwin Laughlin, daughter of James Laughlin of Jones and Laughlin Steel. Married June 14, 1883.
Their children:
- James Laughlin Phillips (May 30, 1884 - 1918)
- Duncan Clinch Phillips (II) (June 26, 1886 - ?) married Marjorie [?] He worked as an essayist, book reviewer, and art lecturer. To display his art collection, in 1918 he founded the Phillips Memorial Gallery in Washington, DC (now the Phillips Collection) in honour of his father and brother. He directed the gallery (1918–66) and wrote several books on art, notably The Artist Sees Differently (1931).

[Duncan Clinch Phillips (I)’ brother John Ormsby Phillips was the father of Mary Ormsby Phillips who married SFF&HC member Louis Semple Clarke on Jan 14, 1891]

Genealogy source: A Short Account of the Family of Ormsby of Pittsburgh. By Oliver Ormsby Page. Albany, N. Y., J. Munsell's Sons, 1892.

About their legacy, The Phillips Collection in Washington DC…

The two Phillips brothers were so inseparable that when James, the older, was ready to leave home for Yale in 1902, he waited 2 years so that Duncan, the younger, could graduate from secondary school and accompany him. The brothers, who were full of energy and talent, spent their early years in Pittsburgh, where their maternal grandfather, James Laughlin Phillips, had achieved success as a banker and cofounder of the Jones and Laughlin Steel Company. Seeking a milder climate because of his health, the boys' father, Major Duncan Clinch Phillips, relocated the family to Washington, DC. In college, Duncan (the son) was elected an editor of the Yale Literary Magazine. Soon after college, James was appointed assistant treasurer of the Republican Party. Both developed a passionate love of contemporary art, and in 1916 their efforts to identify and purchase modern paintings had become so successful that James requested an annual stipend of $10,000 from their parents for the purchase of works of art for their growing collection.
But war had already broken out in Europe, and in 1917 the United States entered it. The brothers' patriotism overtook them, and they tried to enlist, even though they were pacifists at heart. Both were rejected for service. Duncan, turned down by both the Army and the Navy, was 30–40 pounds under the desired weight for his height, which suggested to recruiters the possibility of a chronic disease he in fact did not have. James had had prior bouts of pneumonia, and his military rejection may have been related to questions about his pulmonary status. Disappointed, James nonetheless arranged to marry his sweetheart Alice, with Duncan as best man.

But as was the case for so many in those dark years, the world was beginning to unravel. Their father died suddenly not long after the wedding. Surrounded by war and loss, James and Alice moved to Chevy Chase, Maryland, near the headquarters of the American Red Cross, where James became associate director of the Bureau of Personnel, in charge of applications for overseas war service. Then, in the fall of 1918, the "Spanish flu" struck James, and on October 21, he died in the family home in nearby Washington, DC. Her son's death broke the health of their mother, who became a semi-invalid. His secure world shattered, Duncan's health broke down too, and he gave in to despair.

"There came a time when sorrow all but overwhelmed me," he later wrote. "Then I turned to my love of painting for the will to live. Art offers two great gifts of emotion—the emotion of recognition and the emotion of escape. Both emotions take us out of the boundaries of self…. So in 1918 I incorporated the Phillips Memorial Gallery… to create a Memorial worthy of… my father… and my brother, James Laughlin Phillips, an idealist… a keen student of men and social conditions—a broad-minded, warm-hearted, lovable and very noble American".
And so as a direct consequence of the death of his brother James from influenza, the 32-year-old Duncan Clinch Phillips, Jr (1886–1966) dedicated his life to creating a living memorial to him and to their father, and to establishing one of the finest public museums of modern art in the world. The collection, assembled over the next 5 decades, showed his remarkable taste, vision, and prescience in recognizing great works before others had suspected their greatness. Duncan's creative expression of feeling, the product of an artistic spirit, is reminiscent of similar creative expressions in literary form: the beautiful stories of Thomas Wolfe and Katherine Anne Porter, both of whom wrote about death and suffering from influenza. Wolfe's remarkable scene in Look Homeward, Angel records the death of his own brother Benjamin from Spanish influenza, 2 days before the death of James Phillips. In Pale Horse, Pale Rider, Porter wrote a surrealistic but harrowing account of her own near death from influenza in 1918 and her belated discovery of the death from influenza of the lover who had cared for her. In each case, unbearable tragedy and loss were ennobled by art.

The collection assembled by Duncan Phillips and his wife Marjorie, herself a painter, focuses on modern art and its sources. The nearly 2,500 items included works by many now-famous 20th-century artists (van Gogh, Degas, Homer, Kandinsky, Klee, Matisse, O'Keeffe, Rothko) as well as earlier artists whose work Phillips believed anticipated modern art (Chardin, Goya, El Greco, Daumier). Phillips also championed many artists who were not well known at the time (Milton Avery, Pierre Bonnard, Karl Knaths, John Graham, Nicolas de Staël) and sometimes provided stipends to them (Arthur Dove, Augustus Vincent Tack).

Today The Phillips Collection is still housed in the family home, where James died, at 21st and Q Street, in northwest Washington, DC. The building itself is a work of architectural accomplishment, built in Georgian Revival style by Hornblower and Marshall in 1897. The paintings are exhibited in a warm intimate setting that encourages reflection and contemplation. Even though The Phillips Collection was conceived in sorrow and loss, Duncan Phillips wanted the viewing experience to be "joy-giving and life-enhancing".

Source: Influenza and the Origins of The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. David M. Morens and Jeffery K. TaubenbergerNational Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland, USA; and Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, Washington, DC, U

While the legacy of another SFF&HC member, Andrew Mellon, may be more grand -- The National Gallery of Art -- The Phillips Collection (which is currently chaired by Duncan and Marjorie's son, Laughlin Phillips) is an equally lasting, but more intimate and personal creation. It is one man's gift to the nation financed by Pittsburgh steel.

There is a Duncan Phillips story that is worth telling. It has the founder standing with Dr. Albert Barnes in front of the Renoir masterpiece "Luncheon of the Boating Party."

"That's the only Renoir you have, isn't it?" asked the redoubtable Dr. Barnes, whose idiosyncratic more-is-more art collection is in the Barnes Foundation.

Phillips's reply was succinct: "It's the only one I need.”

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