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Renoir's 'Boating Party' Returns to the Potomac

In a town full of museums, the Phillips Collection has always been Washington, D.C.'s most intimate, personal home for paintings. Now about 60 of its European masterworks -- by Renoir, Van Gogh, Cezanne and others -- are back at the Phillips after a four-year absence. They went on tour while the museum was expanded, reconstructed and refurbished.

Duncan Phillips, founder of the museum, had an impeccable eye for beauty, form, composition and color. Some of the finest modern art of his time is showcased in a late-19th-century mansion he opened to the public in 1921.

Originally, the plan was to send the Phillips paintings off to just five U.S. museums. But construction delays kept the masterworks on the road. Registrar Joseph Holbach says the paintings eventually went to 11 museums, on three continents, and were seen by 2 million visitors.

The paintings got rave reviews wherever they went. But Phillips Collection Director Jay Gates says that the French were especially glad to have the works back on native soil. Parisians stood in line for hours to see them. When they got inside the museum, some wept in delight.

One of the most well-received was Renoir's "Luncheon of the Boating Party." Duncan Phillips, whose family money came from steel and banking, bought the picture in 1923 from Renoir's dealer in Paris for $125,000.

The "Boating Party," says Gates, serves as a summing up of that artistic summertime known as French Impressionism.

"As a monument to the movement, what is the choice of subject?" Gates asks. "Lunch, with friends. On Saturday."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.