Introduction to the Robert F. Phifer Art Collection by Laura Fravel, Art Historian

Robert F. Phifer 1849-1928
Robert F. Phifer

Robert Fulenwider Phifer (1849-1928)

Robert F. Phifer was the fifth of seven children born to Caleb and Mary Phifer. Caleb Phifer was a prominent citizen of Concord with wide-ranging business interests. The family house stood on the present site of First Presbyterian Church.

Robert Phifer entered Davidson College before his 15th birthday and pursued his studies during the last years of the Civil War. He left Davidson without graduating, reportedly with excellent grades in all subjects except deportment. From there, he became a planter and cotton buyer. In the dog-eat-dog business world of the Gilded Age, Phifer proved to be shrewd and canny, accumulating a substantial fortune.

Leaving business behind in 1881, he soon moved to New York, where he maintained a studio and apartment crowded with art. He became an active member of New York’s legendary Salmagundi Club, a men’s society of artists and art enthusiasts. Over the years he acquired many works by Salmagundi members for his own personal collection.

An insatiable traveler and dedicated amateur painter, Phifer was particularly fond of Paris and London, where he studied art. Once, while on an extended trip around the world, he spent six months in Japan, traveling and painting with a group of local artists. Despite his travels, he remained committed to his North Carolina roots, and returned regularly to Concord to visit friends and family. Ultimately, his passion for art and strong commitment to his native state led him to become the first major benefactor of the North Carolina Museum of Art.

Robert Phifer never married and died in 1928. He is buried in Concord in the Memorial Garden of the First Presbyterian Church.

Phifer’s Art Collection and the North Carolina Museum of Art

Late in his life Robert Phifer was concerned about the final disposition of his art collection. He wanted to find an institution that would care for his paintings and share them with a wide public. In 1924 he read about the recently organized North Carolina State Art Society and its aspirations for a state art museum. He contacted the Society’s president and over the next few years formed a cordial relationship with the fledgling Art Society. In 1927, an exhibition of Phifer’s collection was presented to great acclaim at the N.C. State Fair in Raleigh. Later that year Phifer decided to bequeath his collection to the Art Society as the nucleus of a state art museum. It is fair to say that the receipt of the Phifer Collection got the ball rolling. Though progress was slowed by the Great Depression and World War II, the North Carolina Museum of Art eventually opened its doors in 1956.

In his will, Phifer also arranged that the bulk of his considerable estate would eventually come to the Art Society. Those funds now constitute the principal art endowment of the North Carolina Museum of Art. Over 230 works of art, including many of the Museum’s masterpieces, have been acquired, wholly or in part, with funds from the Robert F. Phifer Bequest.

No one has had a greater impact on the North Carolina Museum of Art than Robert F. Phifer.

The Salmagundi Club

Founded in 1871, the Salmangundi Club is one of the country’s oldest professional art clubs. It offered a venue for a new generation of cultivated, well-traveled gentlemen-artists to share fellowship and to bring their work before an appreciative audience. Among the club members were major stars of the New York art world, including William Merritt Chase, Childe Hassam, John La Farge, Thomas Moran, and Louis Comfort Tiffany. As an active member, Phifer would have met many of the artists whose work he collected through the Club.

The Salmagundi Club held annual auctions of the work of its members. For these auctions, the Club required that all submitted paintings conform to specified dimensions. Phifer preferred these small, uniformly sized paintings because he could easily rotate the collection on his walls. Many of the works in this exhibition were bought at the Salmagundi Club’s annual auctions.