Marjorie Acker Phillips: The Woman Behind the Phillips Collection

High Museum of Art
Jun 6, 2019 · 5 min read

Her exquisite eye and devoted leadership helped make this dazzling collection what it is today.

By Katie Domurat, Coordinator of Museum Interpretation, High Museum of Art

Edgar Degas, Dancers at the Barre, ca. 1900; Vincent van Gogh, Entrance to the Public Gardens at Arles, 1888; Wassily Kandinsky, Autumn II, 1912.

There’s an old saying that “behind every great man is a great woman.” As you stroll through the High Museum of Art’s exhibition European Masterworks: The Phillips Collections admiring stunning works by master painters Bonnard, van Gogh, Picasso, Monet, Klee, and others, you ought to keep that phrase in mind — and this name too: Marjorie Acker Phillips.

Marjorie Phillips (1894–1985), Self-Portrait, ca. 1940. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

Marjorie Acker Phillips (1894–1985) was both a distinguished painter and an art collector. However, like many women of her time, her name is often eclipsed by that of her husband, Duncan Phillips.

Marjorie played an integral role in developing The Phillips Collection with Duncan, yet she is not as widely recognized for her contributions in helping establish the first American museum of modern art.

Marjorie Acker was born in Bourbon, Indiana, to a large family at the end of the nineteenth century. She enjoyed a modest upbringing as one of six children born to parents Charles Ernest Acker, an electrochemical engineer and inventor, and Alice Beal.

Marjorie Phillips (1894–1985), The Hudson at Ossining, before 1921. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

Much of her childhood was spent with her family in Ossining-on-the-Hudson, New York. Marjorie was interested in art from a very young age and was inspired by her uncles, artists Gifford and Reynolds Beal, who encouraged her to pursue her talents and helped Marjorie attend the Art Students League of New York from 1915 through 1918, when she graduated.

Marjorie first met Duncan Phillips in 1920 at an exhibition of his own art collection at the Century Club in New York. The pair hit it off and were married shortly after, on October 8, 1921.

Marjorie moved to Washington, DC, where she settled with her new husband and his mother in their Georgian Revival mansion in Dupont Circle, a fashionable neighborhood of northwest DC.

In the fall of 1921, The Phillips Collection officially opened to the public as the Phillips Memorial Art Gallery.

The Phillips family would move out of the family home by 1930 to make more room for their growing museum collection as well as their growing family. The couple had a daughter, Mary Marjorie, born in July 1922; a son, Laughlin, followed in 1924.

Even with two young children in the house, Marjorie worked as Associate Director of the Phillips Memorial Gallery starting in 1925, a position she would hold until 1966 when she would become Director of the museum when Duncan passed away.

Paul Cézanne, Ginger Pot with Pomegranate and Pears, 1893; Marjorie and Duncan Phillips in front of Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s iconic work, Luncheon of the Boating Party (1880–81). (Photo credit: Naomi Savage, c. 1954)

Marjorie helped acquire many artworks during her time at the Phillips, but one of her most monumental acquisitions occurred early on in her marriage, in 1923. As a painter herself, Marjorie was interested in Impressionism, especially the works of Paul Cézanne and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, which led the couple to acquire works by these artists. In 1923, they bought the gem of their collection, Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party, based on Marjorie’s recommendation.

Over the course of their life together, Marjorie and Duncan purchased around 2,500 works of art together. Many of these works still remain as the core of The Phillips Collection.

Marjorie Phillips (1894–1985): Morning Walk, 1939; Neighboring Farm, 1956; Poppies and Cornflowers, ca. 1922. The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.

Marjorie was a talented artist, and some of her own paintings are in The Phillips Collection. Duncan was quite proud of his wife’s artistic prowess and wrote that his wife was “an artist whose luminous and rhythmical landscapes with figures are worthy to be compared with the works of Berthe Morisot in line and with André [Derain] and Bonnard in color. Marjorie Phillips has the unmistakable style of the born painter.” In 1955, she had her work shown at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and she regularly exhibited at the Durlacher Gallery.

Marjorie Phillips (1894–1985), Strawberry Picnic, before 1925. The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.

Marjorie retired as director of the museum in 1972, and her son Laughlin took over the role. She passed away thirteen years later of pulmonary failure in her home in DC at the age of ninety.

Although Marjorie’s artworks aren’t on view in the High’s European Masterworks exhibition, her artistic sensibilities are very much on display. Marjorie Acker Phillips was an influential woman of her time who not only achieved personal artistic success but whose work also advanced the arts in America and helped to establish and manage the country’s first museum of modern art.

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