History And Context
Early in 1922, not long after their marriage, Duncan and Marjorie Phillips stayed briefly in New York City in a Park Avenue residence owned by Leila and Lister Carlisle, Duncan's cousin and her husband, who were spending the winter months in Florida. The trip, Marjorie Phillips recalled, was "a happy interlude," an opportunity to mix business with pleasure. Not yet encumbered by the demands of the newly opened gallery or children, the Phillipses took advantage of the excellent location of their temporary home by attending art shows and visiting friends. While Duncan Phillips concentrated on his writing and held Committee on Scope and Planning meetings, Marjorie painted the city from different windows in the apartment. Choosing to work early in the morning, a lifelong preference, she caught the city in quiet moments. As a visitor to New York, she saw it primarily as a source of visual pleasure. In particular, Phillips was fascinated by distant rooftops and plant-filled windows.
Nuns on the Roof presents an unexpected vista, a contrast between a monumental setting and an ordinary yet inexplicable moment: a chance view of nuns taking the morning air on the roof of an austere building, its arched windows suggesting a convent. Everything in the painting is seen from a distance. The light, most brilliant on the buildings just beyond the occupied rooftop, gives the scene a feeling of fresh, chilly weather, an effect reinforced by puffs of steam emerging from chimneys. Although the restrained, chalky palette and the subtly impastoed surfaces of faraway buildings contribute to the setting's grandeur, the private moment of a group of women oblivious to the painter's gaze is what captures the viewer's attention. Their faces, generalized by the light and distance, do not reveal what they are feeling. Enjoying a private time of her own, Phillips presented her subject with detachment as an anomaly in the heart of a busy city.