One doesn’t sense that self-defeating cynicism at the Phillips. The audience favorite of the collection — Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party” — has been moved from its old gallery, which it dominated like a cross on an altar, and reinstalled in the museum’s Music Room, where it sits behind the piano, enhancing the implied conviviality of the room, but in a rather genial, retiring way. It doesn’t feel quite so loud, or overbearing, but rather as if it has learned to sit back and listen a bit.
Another gallery, on the second floor of the old mansion, is devoted to small domesticities, including photographs of families by Bruce Davidson and intimate scenes of ordinary life by Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard. But it also includes important paintings by Horace Pippin, Yasuo Kuniyoshi and William Merritt Chase. The racial and ethnic diversity of the artists is striking, but more important, the gallery rises above the bland generalization: We are all human, all devoted to family, all equally committed to home and hearth. There are unities here, to be sure; but there are also essential differences, in scale, in wealth, in material comforts and in the subtleties of emphasis on what makes a house a home.
The curators of the exhibition emphasize familiar themes, especially art as a form of healing, citing Phillips’s own words about how building the collection and making it available to the public helped him heal from the 1917 death of his father and the loss of his brother during the 1918 flu pandemic. But it is Phillips’s larger philosophical view of art that gives this show its coherence.
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