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Correction to This Article
The review incorrectly said that the exhibition is the gallery's first to be devoted to the Dale collection. An exhibition of the Dale collection was mounted there in 1965.
Art review

Chester Dale Collection makes a strong showing in National Gallery exhibit

For the first time, the National Gallery of Art looks at the contributions of art collectors Chester and Maud Dale with this exhibition of 83 French and American paintings, including Auguste Renoir's "A Girl With a Watering Can" and Mary Cassatt's "Boating Party."

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By Kevin Conley
Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Back in the prime of the past century, Chester Dale, a pugnacious New York trader, and his wife, Maud, an older and fashionable former divorcee, expended a great deal of their wealth and energy on what they liked to call their "children" -- their vast and uniformly excellent collection of mostly French art, now on display at the National Gallery.

As parents go, the Dales were what sociologists of the playground now call "helicopters" -- hovering, overshadowing presences, ready to swoop in at the slightest indication of distress. They seem to have duked it out with nearly every major museum east of the Mississippi: the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago. They lent recognized works of genius, then pulled them out at will. They were infuriating, quasi-czarist figures who intimidated gallery guards, scandalized French dealers and offended the old-money milquetoasts who tangled with them on museum boards. They were, in other words, an irresistible force.

In the end, their machinations succeeded, maybe even too well: The vigorous Dale bequest is, arguably, the cornerstone collection of the National Gallery; their widescreen Manet ("The Old Musician") and their rose- and blue-period Picassos, especially "Family of Saltimbanques" and "The Tragedy," make for destination viewing; "Girl With a Watering Can," their sunny Renoir, continues to be one of best-selling postcard images in the world.

But there's an irony here that might please their old enemies: Their collection has become so essential to the museum's holdings in impressionism and modern art that the National Gallery has been unable to mount a Dale show in the 48 years since the hoard arrived, following Chester Dale's death in 1962. The reason is simple: Take out the Dale holdings and the French galleries look barren.

The current show -- possible only because the museum decided to shut down and renovate the rooms where the Dales usually hang -- should rescue the couple from their recent invisibility. This is not just metaphor: The show opens (or ends, depending on your route) with several portraits of Maud and Chester that are valuable works themselves.

Maud appears in a George Bellows portrait, on the brink of the Roaring Twenties, in a black cloche hat and evening gloves. Apparently the Dales, unhappy with Bellows's first attempt, traveled all the way to Rhode Island to interrupt the artist's vacation and demand a do-over. Bellows, the boxing enthusiast and Ashcan realist, repressed the urge to pound his patron and instead imbued his portrait of Maud with uncharacteristically fond overtones of privilege and refinement.

Portraits by Rivera, Dali

The husband hangs just across the hall, staring out of portraits by Diego Rivera and Salvador Dali. In the 1958 Dali, Dale, at 74, holds a poodle and smirks with a brightly lit surrealist creepiness that makes him look like John Huston in "Chinatown." He's 62 in the Rivera, in a blue suit, a pearl tie pin, a carnelian pinky ring the size of an oyster. Unkind contemporary descriptions suggest that Dale was "small, grizzled, red-haired and excitable," but in the colorful Rivera he looks formidable: Reading glasses set down across an open art catalogue, he glances up with rheumy blue eyes, holding a half-smoked cigarette by an overflowing ashtray. The picture seems poised in the instant of silence between "Yes?" and a blistering Sunday-funnies tirade ("Why, you &%$ @$#!") Apparently, Rivera really liked the curmudgeon. That Dale returned the affection says something about his high regard for artistic honesty.

Collectors often get short shrift in art history, as if their powers of discrimination mattered less than their piles of cash. The view underestimates their influence. In fact, collectors shape the art world in much the way that producers do the film world, carefully validating talent and acting as a magnet for works of a particular voice.

The organization of this show highlights the Dales' exceptional instincts. The rooms are loosely themed (roughly: portraits of women, nudes and portraits of men, landscapes, blockbuster masterworks) and such proximity amplifies affinities and shared virtues (the psychological astuteness of Matisse's "Plumed Hat" sets the mood for the well-observed intimacy in William Merritt Chase's "The Friendly Call").

The Dales' taste was distinct and a little conservative: They preferred the accessible end of the era of experiment -- Picasso's classical figure studies over his cubism, Matisse's Nice-era nudes over his fauvist improvisations. In the long run, this emphasis on standard measures of talent -- draftsmanship, color sense -- has served the collection well. The one big Braque on display ("Still Life: Le Jour") now appears cubist to the point of self-parody, like the old beatnik at the party still breaking out his watusi to 50 Cent.

Family connections

There are plenty of individual examples of jaw-dropping genius here, but the show's great virtue lies in its familial juxtapositions: The Dales' children really do belong together. You can stand in the masterpiece room, for instance, and swivel your head from Manet's "Old Musician" to Picasso's "Family of Saltimbanques." The Dales bought them within months of each other, under the heady influence of the Met's 1930 show of the Havemeyer bequest, and it's clear that with these acquisitions the couple had decided they were ready to play in the big leagues.

In the landscape room, the conversation between the works was not quite so loud, but to me it seemed more surprising. On one wall, a 1909 Bellows -- "Blue Morning," a dusty New York construction site framed by the dark girders of the El -- hangs between two blushing-dawn or dusky-rose Monets. The Monets are supposed to win that fight, but the Bellows cityscape, newly restored and looking fresh from the studio, more than holds its own. On my scorecard, his quick liquid brush strokes and muscular sense of space overwhelmed the gentle French aestheticism nearby. I'm not sure I'd see the same thing every visit, but I'd like to come back and find out.

The museum extends its own recent innovation, inviting a chef whose palate complements the current show to run its courtyard cafe. Michel Richard of Citronelle has put together a wonderful (and, at $19.75, affordable) buffet of French country classics -- coq au vin, onion soup, lentils, cured ham -- the sort of stuff you expect to find hidden in the picnic baskets in "Le Dejeuner sur L'Herbe." This sort of marketing synergy is destined to sweep the museum world. (Come to the Warhol show and taste our tomato soup! Eat cake at the "Treasures of Louis XIV!" Rene Magritte: How you like them apples?) Enjoy it now before it all becomes old chapeau.

Conley is a freelance writer.

From Impressionism to Modernism: The Chester Dale Collection

Through July 31, 2011, at the National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW. Call 202-737-4215 or visit www.nga.gov.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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