THE ODIOUS Noel Desenfans and the arriviste Francis Bourgeois started it all.
They were 18th-century upward- strivers who never made it into English high society but set the style for major art philanthropists. They founded the Dulwich Picture Gallery outside of London, which led to the founding of the National Gallery inside of London, which led to the founding of the National Gallery in Washington and hundreds of other great public art collections.
Desenfans and Bourgeois not only left their great -- although eclectic and in some cases spurious -- collection of old masters and 18th- century contemporaries to posterity, they also bequeathed the money to build and maintain a building to house it.
The cream of that collection, still intact two centuries later, has been lent to the National Gallery for the summer and is on view in the West Building. Amidst these gorgeous works one seems to sense the shades of Desenfans and Bourgeois, who failed to achieve popularity and had to settle for immortality.
Actually they didn't start out to be such nice guys. Desenfans was a Frenchman of modest background who wanted to be rich, famous and welcome in the best homes. As a London art dealer -- or hustler -- he became rich, notorious and despised by the upper crust. His proteg,e Bourgeois, a minor painter, became a member of the Royal Academy only because Desenfans poured so much port and persuasion into its members.
What became the Dulwich collection actually was assembled for King Stanislaus Augustus of Poland, who was forced to abdicate in 1795 before he could take delivery or, more to the point, pay for the works.
Desenfans tried to sell the collection to the Russian Tsar and the English Crown and to whomever, but he had a tendency to sell one painting and buy two, and so when he died there still was a great pile of them left. In that pile, mixed in with minor works and fakes, were masterpieces by Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Murillo, Tiepolo, Gainsborough. . .
Because Dulwich was "a sleepy, indolent little place," the collection remained unaltered, and so gives us the only surviving example of what was regarded at the beginning of the 19th century as the epitome of contemporary art. Not much more than one in ten of the hundreds of works is now considered outstanding, and most of those are included in the three dozen paintings in this show. But what current collection of 20th-century "masterpieces" will come off as well in 2085?
COLLECTION FOR A KING -- Through September 2 in the West Building, National Gallery of Art.