Reprinted from yesterday's late editions
The ghost of Andrew Mellon, founder of the National Gallery of Art, possibly blushed Tuesday night at the praise heaped on his memory by the vice president, the chief justice and a whole rotunda full of notables.
Forty years ago the gallery opened (March 17, 1941) with President Franklin Roosevelt accepting it for the nation. Mellon, whose industrial fortune contributed millions to the gallery at the beginning (and whose family has poured additional millions since) refused to have the gallery bear his name, desiring (as Chief Justice Warren Burger said Tuesday night) it not to be a personal or family memorial but a national institution, greater than any one name.
A canny Scot, indeed, Mellon also correctly suspected it would be easier to acquire other great art collections if it were not the "Mellon Gallery," and this has proved the case. Tuesday night Paul Mellon, who has devoted much of his life to the affairs of the gallery his father started, made a point of praising and thanking not only the donors of overwhelming collections (such as those of Lessing Rosenwald and Chester Dale and Samuel H. Kress) but also the lesser donors.
Vice President George Bush said President Reagan would have liked to be there, but that the first lady undoubtedly did well "to constrain the urge that he has to sally forth" until he is fully recovered.
Bush echoed the chief justice, who had spoken of "private enterprise and public effort" by reminding everybody that "it was action by the private sector" that made the gallery possible, and worked up to saying that "it represents what private enterprise is all about."
S. Dillon Ripley, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, represented it last night. Technically the gallery is a bureau of the Smithsonian, though it was said the Smithsonian regents commonly meet without even mentioning the gallery, since it presents no problems and has its own trustees.
Secretary of the Treasury Donald Regan attended. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger was in Chicago for three meetings (a new peace treaty with Chicago?) but his wife was present, despite chaos in their California Street house where the moving vans have barely departed.
The rotunda of the West Building is centered with a superb stone basin surmounted by the famous bronze of Mercury and a raised pool beneath. This was banked with white azaleas and hundreds of votive lights in clear glass lined the gallery's basins and lit the tables, giving a mysterious light in which great masses of peonies and other white table flowers appeared luminous themselves.
A New York caterer provided artichoke hearts stuffed with lobster, and the dinner was quite light and tasty, winding up with a dollop of apricots run through a sieve, the sort of thing they eat in Afghanistan to live forever.
Brook Astor was down from New York. Her own fairly magnificent gift to the Metropolitan Museum, a Ming garden court, will open in June. Another notable in the line of public gifts was Edith Rosenwald, widow of the National Gallery benefactor, remarkable in flame-colored gauze blazing with gold threads.
In addition to free enterprise, talk also ran to art. Paul Mellon mentioned the need for a fund to add to the collections in years to come and said, not surprisingly, that he and some friends were starting this and hoped others would join.
Andrew Mellon's 125 pictures are dispersed throughout many rooms of the gallery, but last night 50 of the finest were shown together.
The curator of Dutch and Flemish pictures, Arthur Wheelock, took the ribbing that such curators have come to expect, and are weary of, about fake Vermeers. As if there were no other fakes around. He said the odd thing to him was that fully competent curators and experts are fooled, for one generation, by clever forgers, and yet a generation later one wonders how any fool could have failed to spot the forgery. We go through life unaware how utterly we are creatures of our own generation, our own prevailing attitudes. To him, he said, the false Vermeers do not look anything like real Vermeers, but instead look like 1920 fashion pictures. Within a few years, a new generation with new ways of looking at things, sees the falsity of the forgery easily. But the genuine masterpiece somehow endures and holds up as generations pass.
Which of course was Andrew Mellon's idea for the gallery. Even in the building itself (Tennessee white marble with a rose blush) it shows. His advisers complained the Tennessee stone cost far too much -- you can of course get lousy marble elsewhere for vastly less -- but Mellon said at the time, never mind: "It is by far the most beautiful. And it will last."