Paul Mellon's Treasured Pleasures
At the National Gallery, a Taste of the Collector's Bounty
By Paul Richard
"An Enduring Legacy: Masterpieces From the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon" doesn't have a catalogue. It doesn't have his chief English pictures either. He gave them to Yale. "Dad's Coming," his best Winslow Homer, is absent, and so, too, is his windswept, light-green Vincent van Gogh landscape, "Green Wheat Fields, Auvers," which still hangs where he hung it in Upperville, Va. The collector's widow, Bunny Mellon, who was his picture-selecting partner, gets to keep it there for the remainder of her life; he didn't want her to have to tear up the house.
His memorial show is just a sampling, a taste of his taste.
Mellon had polished taste. His art shows what he liked.
He liked attentive dogs, sailboats, rolling acres, racehorses, and you see these in his paintings. He liked to recollect sunny long-ago summer afternoons, the ladies with their parasols, and quiet lamp-lit evenings, and big-city high life. These, too, are in his pictures.
They're not soft. They have a touch of sex in them, a scrutiny of women available to men. "Celibacy," he wrote, "is not one of my favorite virtues." There is death in them as well, in Edgar Degas' "Fallen Jockey." And there is even frenzy in the brushwork Mellon liked. But sex and death and frenzy are secondary subjects here. The gifts to the museum are mainly about pleasure, his pleasures, now ours.
The attentive and obedient dog that, shivering and wet, greets you at the door is George Stubbs's "White Poodle in a Punt" (1780), an animal with a how-long-do-I-have-to-stand-here look on its face. The most beautiful ship to be seen is in Fitz Hugh Lane's "Becalmed Off Halfway Rock" (1860): You can see the New England sunrise through the frays in its sails. The racehorses are wax ones, by Degas. The lamp-lit evening is Claude Monet's "Interior, After Dinner" (c. 1868). Mellon's pictures invite us to enjoy the big cities of London, Paris, New York.
London on a sharp winter day with long shadows is in Julius Caesar Ibbetson's "Skaters on the Serpentine in Hyde Park" (1786), a scene of happy slipping and sliding. It is also winter in "New York" (1911), a teeming canvas by George Bellows: You see the season in the light. The night life is Parisian. The "Fashionable People at Les Ambassadeurs" in a Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec drawing of 1893 are as blase as can be.
More than many millionaires, Mellon enjoyed the pleasures of living with great pictures. Here he thoroughly indulged himself. "Wonderful French paintings," he wrote, "are hanging in our houses. They have been there for years, by a window or beside a table lamp, and they give the walls a life of their own." They weren't only in his houses. There were paintings in his hospital room, and on his airplane.
He had the money and the inclination to buy top quality, and he knew it when he saw it. Some of the best paintings in Washington are hanging in this show.
It's got the best Mary Cassatt. The energy in her "Little Girl in a Blue Armchair" (1878) isn't soppy, but unexpectedly sexual. The child, sprawled suggestively, will someday be a Lolita, or a Balthus adolescent. Cassatt's friend Degas helped paint the shiny floor. Cassatt is usually very careful. Here there's wildness in her brush.
Also uncharacteristic, also great, is Paul Cezanne's "The Artist's Father," which Mellon gave the gallery 29 years ago.
He chose it to honor his father, Andrew Mellon, who founded the National Gallery but never lived to see it. He was not fun. Mellon remembered him as "dry and censorious and negative." Cezanne's father--in his house in his armchair reading his newspaper--is a man just as stony. His portrait doesn't look like a Cezanne; it doesn't have his cones or cubes, or his apples, or his Mont Sainte-Victoire, or any of that, but is a thing of immense weight.
For himself Paul Mellon also bought little things, objects he could handle--a postcard from van Gogh, one from Henri Matisse, a four-inch Henri Rousseau self-portrait--and these, too, are on view.
Mellon, in imagination, hung out with painters. Around his desk in his little office in his house in Washington on Winterhaven Street, like a circle of friends, were youthful self-portraits by painters he admired. Three of them--Edouard Vuillard at 21, Henri Fantin-Latour at 25, Degas at 23--are again together here.
Mellon said he dreamed in color. The most memorable colors in this show are the imaginary ones in "Harvest--The Plain of La Crau" (1888), a van Gogh drawing done in just two colors of ink, brown and black. The lines of the haystack, the dots of the field in the middle distance, and the tiny M's of the bright flowers in the foreground somehow make you think of hues.
You can learn a lot in this show by putting your nose right up to the pictures. The wet fur of Stubbs's poodle is a sea of white S's. The misty mountains in the background of Joseph Wright's "Italian Landscape" (1790) are evoked, as in a 20th-century Augustus Vincent Tack, by just three flat colors, a purple and two greens.
Mellon's money came from Gulf Oil, Alcoa, the Mellon Bank and more. He didn't earn it. He inherited it. He was baptized at Windsor Castle. Americans, being Americans, distrust the idea of aristocrats living in luxury and lording it. The notion that some people are by birth better than the rest of us and get to go to Yale and sleep on linen sheets and dine with the queen and don't have to work is not one we like. Mellon in his memoir, "Reflections in a Silver Spoon," wondered if his Presbyterian grandfather would have seen him as "an effete wastrel."
What made his philanthropy distinctive was that he spent his money selfishly. He bought only what pleased him. But there was a flip in his selfishness. He picked his fine things--his mountaintops, and seashores, and rare old books, and paintings--and then he turned around and gave them to the rest of us so that we could have them, too.
Mellon became the president of the National Gallery of Art when it was a hole in the ground, in 1938. He was 91 when he died on Feb. 1.
Mellon's memorial exhibition closes with two galleries of Degas, his favorite artist. The display was selected by committee. Philip Conisbee picked its French pictures, Nicolai Cikovsky Jr. its American and English ones, Andrew Robison chose its works on paper, and Alan Shestack supervised their efforts. "An Enduring Legacy" closes Feb. 27.
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