The Phillips Collection, America’s first museum of modern art, was opened in 1921 in historic Dupont Circle in Washington, DC, by collector and philanthropist Duncan Phillips.
Duncan Phillips (1886-1966) was the son of Major Duncan Clinch Phillips, a Pittsburgh businessman and Civil War veteran, and Eliza Laughlin Phillips, whose father was a banker and co-founder of Jones and Laughlin Steel Company. The family moved to Washington, DC, in winter 1895-96.
Duncan was close to his older brother, Jim; Jim postponed attending college for two years so that he and Duncan could attend Yale University together. The brothers moved from DC to an apartment in New York in 1914. Duncan wrote extensively on art and published his first book, The Enchantment of Art, in 1914.
Soon after, tragedy struck the Phillips family. Major Duncan Phillips died suddenly in 1917 from a heart condition and James died from the flu epidemic in 1918. To cope with these stunning blows, Duncan turned to the restorative quality of art. “Sorrow all but overwhelmed me,” he later wrote. “Then I turned to my love of painting for the will to live.” He and his mother founded the museum in late 1918. It was originally called the Phillips Memorial Art Gallery, and opened it to the public in fall of 1921.As the collection grew, the family moved out of their Dupont Circle home to a new residence in 1930, allowing the entire house to become a dedicated space for the museum.