In the second decade of the twentieth century, the years in which the young Duncan Phillips first launched seriously into art criticism and collecting, both the conservative and avant-garde factions of the American art scene hailed Albert Pinkham Ryder as one of the greatest of this country's living masters. During the reclusive Ryder's lifetime his very personal art was much more widely appreciated than had previously been thought. Since the 1880s, his reputation had been growing steadily and knowledgeable collectors had been seeking out his work for more than twenty years.
In 1916 Phillips published essays on American painters, among them Ryder, and his comments reflect serious study of the artist's work and admiration for a number of his pictures. Phillips extolled in Ryder the qualities in art he had most valued up to that time: the sense of dream and romance; a poetic cast, akin to literature but not illustration; a kinship with the old masters as well as nineteenth-century artists; and an independence of vision and style without the distortions of the modernists. But Phillips also began to recognize formal qualities, noting Ryder's "abstract expression of form through color," Ten years later, Phillips wrote: Ryder was "always superbly plastic with simplification which contains powerful suggestions and persuades us to believe in the reality of his visions....[His] dreams and his designs are absolutely unique and original and they place him among the great artists of all time."
Phillips sought Ryder's paintings eagerly as soon as he began to build his collection in 1919. His sense of urgency was increased by Ryder's death in 1917 and the prestige of the Metropolitan Museum’s extensive memorial exhibition in l9l8. But other collectors were well ahead of him, good works were hard to come by, and prices were skyrocketing.
The group of Ryders in The Phillips Collection is one of the largest museum collections in America and contains significant examples of Ryder's different eriods and subjects. The Phillips paintings encompass a range of style and date range from the nature-based style of the seventies and earlier eighties (Dead Bird and Gay Head) to the dramatically abstracted and convoluted reworkings of the 1890s and later (Macbeth and the Witches). In between fall Moonlit Cove, which retains Ryder's simpler and bolder massing of form; Desdemona and Resurrection, both begun about the mid-eighties; and Homeward Bound, starkly simple in composition but relating to other seascapes of the nineties.
In its themes, the Phillips group ranges from the nature-based to the imaginatively romantic (Moonlit Cove), the open sea (Homeward Bound), the Biblical (Resurrection), and the Shakespearean (Desdemona and Macbeth). The scope of these paintings and the selective process implied suggest that Phillips was concerned with showing not only the artist's stature and quality but also his full poetic and expressive capacities. The assembling of his distinguished Ryder unit was one of Duncan Phillips's most notable achievements as a collector.