Modern Lovers

Duncan Phillips was one of those quintessentially 19th-century white men of privilege who used his position to realize his own ambitious dream. Lucky for the rest of us, he was also a philanthropist with an unerring eye for art. His dream: "an American Prado," where visitors could see the finest examples of modern art alongside works by past masters who had, in Phillips' view, anticipated modern ideas. And he wanted to present these masterpieces to the public in a different way, opting for "an intimate and attractive atmosphere" over "the academic grandeur of marble halls and stairways and miles of chairless spaces."

Phillips' "museum of modern art and its sources" opened to the public in 1921, in what was then Phillips' house. Two years later, Phillips purchased Renoir's masterpiece Luncheon of the Boating Party to prove he was serious, and people have been flocking to appreciate its laid-back, sun-dappled charms ever since. Now, for only the second time in 15 years, Luncheon of the Boating Party is out on a limited tour. For the next three months, it will be docked at the Phoenix Art Museum, along with some 50 other paintings in the exhibition "Masterworks From El Greco to Picasso in the Phillips Collection."

The list of artists in the show reads like a greatest hits of 19th- and 20th-century painting: Picasso, Van Gogh, Degas, and Gauguin, along with the occasional El Greco and Chardin thrown in for good measure. The artworks didn't come as a package the Phillipses' only stipulation was that they be displayed with great care so it was up to museum director Jim Ballinger and education director Jan Krulick-Belin to determine how to make them work for Phoenix. "We used Duncan Phillips as a way to enhance our own mission," Krulick-Belin explains.

Exhibition designer David Restad built walls that suggest a series of spaces within the museum, to approximate the feeling of walking from room to room in a house. The deep, dark colors of the walls Prussian blue, Crimean red -- help create the feeling of comfortable intimacy that Phillips thought ideal for experiencing artwork. Most of the paintings are hung in small groups so that they seem to be "in conversation" with each other, as Phillips intended. (There are sculptures, as well, including a Giacometti, a Rodin, and a moving bronze jester by Picasso.)

One exception: The famous Luncheon of the Boating Party gets an entire wall to itself but this may be a pragmatic decision, based on the fact that crowds will no doubt linger in front of it. The shock of the familiar is what pulls you into the painting's orbit (as in, "Hey, I know that picture!"). What will keep you there is the revelation that no copy of this work has ever even begun to do it justice. This is one party you won't want to miss.