The title for Princeton University Art Museum’s newest exhibition, “The Artist Sees Differently: Modern Still Lifes from the Phillips Collection,” seduces us with the promise of a glimpse behind closed doors. What do artists see that we don’t? What are the great truths of life that artists have access to? How can we look through their lens and enrich our lives? And isn’t the very act of seeing differently what makes artists artists?

The exhibition, on view through April 29, includes works by some of the most revered names in modern art: Cezanne, Braque, Picasso, Bonnard, as well as Arthur Dove, Georgia O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, Man Ray, Max Weber, Juan Gris, and Milton Avery, among others.

Assembled by Marjorie Acker Phillips and her husband, Duncan Phillips, the Washington D.C.-based Phillips Collection includes more than 4,000 works ranging from masterpieces of French impressionism and American modernism to contemporary art.

Princeton University — which has long-standing relationship with the Phillips — was selected for the exhibit because the Phillips is undergoing renovations.

The Phillips was the first museum of modern art in the United States when it opened in 1921—before the Whitney (1930), before the Museum of Modern Art (1929). The dawn of modernism in America came in 1913, when Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse, and Duchamp caused a sensation at the New York Armory Show.

By displaying these works in an intimate setting, Duncan Phillips hoped to encourage visitors to appreciate new, challenging forms of artistic expression. The Phillips holds the world’s largest, most significant collection of works by Arthur Dove and the largest American collection of works by Pierre Bonnard. Duncan Phillips provided crucial aid and encouragement to artists in his collection.

Princeton University’s connection goes back to 1928, when it borrowed a selection of masterpieces as it was forming the vision for collections the museum intended to build. Then Director Frank Jewett Mather, under whom the art museum experienced a remarkable period of growth, had been a mentor to Duncan Phillips, according to Associate Director of Collections and Exhibitions Bart Thurber.

“The Artist Sees Differently” looks to a period during which artists struggled to find aesthetic strategies, responding to a rapidly changing world. In a quest to create a new art suited to the times, many late 19th and early 20th-century artists rejected the history, mythology, and religion paintings of the French Academy and chose to depict the humble objects of daily life.

Still life was considered the lowliest of genres, yet these artists found it provided them with a means to experiment with pattern and abstraction. It gave them a chance to push the boundaries of painting. Still lifes served to define modernity precisely because the academy disdained it, according to museum materials.

The exhibition’s title comes from the name of a collection of essays Duncan Phillips published in 1931 with chapters on Braque, Picasso, Cezanne, Hartley, and Avery, among others. Of Braque’s “Still Life with Grapes and Clarinet,” 1927, he wrote: “The arrangement is of such perfectly adjusted architectural structure and balance that no detail could be altered without destruction of the entire edifice.” Incidentally, Duncan’s “Artists See Differently” was reviewed in 1931 by Frank Jewett Mather in the Saturday Review of Literature.

Duncan met Marjorie in 1921, just when he was forming the collection, in memory of his father and brother. Although there is no documentation, says Thurber, Marjorie had an influence on the direction the collection took.

Marjorie Acker Phillips (1894-1985) began drawing at the age of 5, encouraged to become an artist by two maternal uncles, the painters Gifford and Reynolds Beal. By 1918 she was commuting to New York City from her family home in Ossining-on-the-Hudson, taking classes at the Art Students League. She met Duncan Phillips in New York during the Century Club exhibition of his collection and recognized him as a kindred spirit. They married later that year, and visits to Europe sharpened her understanding of impressionism and post-impressionism.

“I decided to paint the celebration of the wonder of the world,” she wrote. “I didn’t want to paint depressing pictures. There were so many depressing things; so many self-conscious, forced, foolish things. That’s why my paintings are all on the cheerful side — I felt it was needed.” Her paintings are filled with light.

Duncan described her as “an artist whose luminous and rhythmical landscapes with figures are worthy to be compared with the works of Berthe Morisot in line and with Andre [Derain] and Bonnard in color. Marjorie Phillips has the unmistakable style of the born painter.”

The Phillipses made extensive buying trips to Europe, frequently meeting with the artists whose works they purchased. It was on one of those trips, in 1923, that they bought for $125,000 — a princely sum at the time — Auguste Renoir’s ‘Luncheon of the Boating Party,’ the cornerstone of their collection.

“Over the years their home became one of Washington’s more prominent salons, where artists, politicians, and society figures gathered,” says her New York Times obituary. “But the Phillipses’ abiding passion remained art, and Mrs. Phillips made it a practice to retire to her studio every morning to paint. The couple also helped to foster the careers of many young artists.”

According to the Phillips Collection website: “Of all the artists represented in The Phillips Collection, probably none had as pervasive an influence on Duncan Phillips and on the shaping of the museum as Marjorie Phillips. She helped him gain insight into the artistic process and shift his emphasis from maintaining a memorial gallery in honor of his father and brother to building a vital museum committed to the contemporary world and the art of both men and women.”

Marjorie Phillips was associate director of the Phillips Collection until her husband’s death in 1966, when she became director. In 1971 she curated a retrospective about Paul Cezanne and published the book “Duncan Phillips and His Collection.” In 1972 she retired, turning over the collection to their son, Laughlin Phillips.

Duncan Phillips (1886-1966) was the younger son of Major Duncan Phillips, a Pittsburgh businessman and Civil War veteran, and Eliza Laughlin Phillips, whose father was a banker and co-founder of the Jones and Laughlin steelworks. He graduated from Yale in 1908 and wrote extensively on art, publishing his first book, “The Enchantment of Art,” in 1914. Over the years, Phillips continued to write about art, build strong relationships with artists, present numerous exhibitions, and rearrange works of art in the galleries, where he served as director until his death.

“Cezanne is the beginning of the journey, and for Mather and Duncan and Marjorie Phillips, Cezanne was so pivotal for the next generation of artists,” says Thurber. In Cezanne’s “Ginger Pot with Pomegranate and Pears,” 1893, on view here, “he is introducing a second table top, using a sense of light and luminosity to convert the ordinary into a rhythm of color and line.

Acquired by the Phillips in 1939, Duncan and Marjorie referred to it as having been owned by Monet and first exhibited in 1907, just after Cezanne’s death. Max Weber saw it in that show. It was also in the 1929 inaugural exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, along with works by Gauguin, Seurat and Van Gogh and organized by (MoMA’s first director) Alfred Barr (a student of Mather at Princeton). This single piece encapsulates what painting is about, and in acquiring it the Phillips showed a real commitment to the vision of the artist and promoting that vision.”

Georges Rouault’s “Bouquet No. 1” looks like stained glass. In fact, he trained as a glass painter and apprenticed to stained glass makers and restorers. “There are close to 40 of his works in the Phillips Collection, creating stained glass-like effects,” says Thurber.

Bonnard’s “Bowl of Cherries,” 1920, is typical of his work centering on the domestic interior, and here he plays with color, light, and shadow to highlight the artificial arrangement of the subject matter.

O’Keeffe’s “Pattern of Leaves,” 1923, is inspired by photography and its ability to enlarge, crop, and fragment. She creates visual drama in the fissures and tears of the leaves.

Still life, more than other genres, focuses on the importance of placement — of a blue-green vase and a bamboo pipe in front of a blue and white tray in a painting by Man Ray (1914); pink gladiolas on a gray table alongside purple grapes and red apples in a Milton Avery painting (1940); abstracted red, pink, blue, and brown forms in an Arthur Dove (1943); and abstracted planes of color in a Picasso (1939).

“We hope this examination leads viewers to our collection galleries with a greater understanding and sensibility of the still life,” says Thurber. “We hope they’ll take a closer look and have a greater appreciation.”

So, what do artists see differently? Several excerpted quotes provide a clue: “Nobody sees a flower — really — it is so small it takes time — we haven’t time — and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time,” said Georgia O’Keeffe.

Or, in the words of Georgio Morandi: “To achieve understanding it is necessary not to see many things, but to look hard at what you do see.”

The Artist Sees Differently: Modern Still Lifes from The Phillips Collection, Princeton University Art Museum. Through April 29, with an exhibition celebration Saturday, February 24, featuring a panel discussion with PUAM curator, lecturer, and MoMA chief curator emeritus John Elderfield, Harvard English professor, writer, and esthetician Philip Fisher, and poet, critic, and Princeton University English and humanities professor Susan Stewart, 5 p.m., 10 McCosh Hall; followed by a reception, 6 p.m.

Also opening is “Landscapes Behind Cezanne,” February 24 through May 13.

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