Paul Mellon has presented a last gift to the National Gallery of Art.
News of the vast trove of art left to the gallery in Mellon's will broke earlier this year. But it turns out there is more: It is a 73-piece art collection, a costly and considered one, which the philanthropist assembled from his offices and homes in the last years of his life.
The collection is French, American and English. In it is the Mellon set of unique Edgar Degas waxes, including the "Little Dancer Fourteen Years Old," and five domestic still lifes by John Frederick Peto, and a memorable poodle portrait, circa 1780, by the Englishman George Stubbs. Stubbs was Mellon's favorite British painter. Sporty in its imagery, gently bookish, too, Mellon's final bequest is personal in tenor, impossible to duplicate, and reflective of the man.
National Gallery Director Earl A. "Rusty" Powell said, "The most important parts of the gift are the great Degas painting `Fallen Jockey' and the sculptural waxes." The addition of these Degas works means the gallery will now have 19 paintings, 69 drawings and prints, and 63 sculptures by the artist. "We will be unique in the world in our capacity to present Degas," Powell said.
Because Mellon's gift stresses sculpture, it also slightly shifts the old collecting emphasis of the national picture gallery, founded by his father, Andrew Mellon, that opened on the Mall in 1941.
Paul Mellon, in the 1930s, presided over the West Building's construction. He selected I.M. Pei to design the East Building. Both buildings were paid for with Mellon family millions. By example and donation he set the museum's character. Mellon had already inserted more than 900 objects into the gallery's collections when he died in February at the age of 91.
More were to come. Mellon bequeathed the gallery more than 100 pictures -- including two by Vincent van Gogh, 13 by Georges Seurat, three by Edouard Manet, 10 by Pierre Bonnard and a dozen by Winslow Homer. He also left $75 million in cash. Powell called the bequest "the largest in the gallery's history." Mellon's giving was not done.
That art is not yet here. The gallery's pictures, like most of the assets distributed in his will (whose cash bequests alone exceeded $450 million), will remain with his widow, Rachel "Bunny" Lambert Mellon, until her death. No such postponement affects the transfer of the waxes, the Petos and his Stubbs, which, the gallery is announcing today, will arrive later this summer.
During the Depression Andrew Mellon spent vast sums on Old Masters. Only widely recognized masterworks would do. His search, he wrote, was "confined entirely to examples of ultra quality." The son proved less restrictive. He didn't seek the heaviest names; he just bought things he liked.
What he liked best was horses. In 1936 in London, Mellon was unexpectedly "bowled over" by an 18th-century painting, "Pumpkin With a Stable Lad," by the horse painter George Stubbs. "The price was five thousand dollars, and I bought it immediately," he recalled in his memoir "Reflections in a Silver Spoon." "It was my very first purchase of a painting and could be said to be the impetus toward my later, some might say gluttonous, forays into the sporting art field."
In memory of all of that, the green, green grass, the sporting life, the silver English light, Mellon chose to end his picture-picking efforts as he had begun them, with a Stubbs. The collector, like the painter, knew equine conformation, and looked as hard at horses as he did at art. Mellon bred Mill Reef, Quadrangle, and Arts and Letters. A colt of his, Sea Hero, won the Kentucky Derby in 1993.
But the grim side of horse racing is at the heart of a bleak Degas oil, the six-foot-high "Scene From the Steeplechase: The Fallen Jockey" (circa 1866; reworked 1881 and 1897), the painter's memorial to his brother. The canvas -- like a last Rothko or a black painting by Goya -- is sort of horrible to see. Most of Mellon's art points the mind to pleasure. Here the subject is death.
Less formidable, but almost as memorable, is another picture he chose for his final gift, "White Poodle in a Punt." It is by Stubbs and it is a most engaging picture. The dog is wet, shivering and irresistible.
Stubbs's animal portraits no longer cost $5,000. One, of a tiger, sold for more than $5 million at Christie's London in 1995.
Mellon also took simple pleasures seriously. He put the chess tables in Lafayette Square, and helped buy the 28,625-acre Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and once said that "what America needs is a good, five-cent reverie."
The Petos he chose -- "An English Breakfast," "The Old Kettle" -- are visual reminders of such small domestic pleasures. They are glowing little still lifes somehow mellowed by a mood of drifting reminiscence. Their mood is slightly raggedy, but Mellon, who kept them in his office, did not mind. He found them friendly. "One of the most engaging features in all of our houses is their friendliness," he wrote. "Major works of art live side by side with children's drawings, and bronzes of favorite horses . . . a little natural shabbiness in an old chair cover is sometimes purposely overlooked."
Two years ago an 1880s Peto sold for $552,500 at auction in New York.
Mellon's Degas waxes are objects of a different echelon. They are sculptures of high art and historical significance.
The French painter Edgar Degas (1834-1917) is remembered as an impressionist, but the label misleads. It is true he captured glimpses, as did most other impressionists, and did so with quick brush strokes, but he was also a sharp-focus depictor with a knowing eye for social distinctions. Aristocrats and shopgirls, laundresses and jockeys, whores and ballet dancers, are equal figures in his art.
His waxes moved impressionism from two dimensions into three. Later, master painters (Gauguin and Matisse and especially Picasso) would devote equal efforts to sculpture and picture-making, but Degas was the first modernist to do so.
"I believe he will live to be greater as a sculptor than as a painter," wrote his friend Mary Cassatt.
Degas' famous bronzes -- of bathers, horses, dancers -- are now in high demand. When available for sale they may well bear price tags of $500,000 each. But historically at least they're slightly spurious works of art.
Degas never sold or showed them, never even saw them. Nor did he consent to their reproduction in large salable editions. While he lived he exhibited only one sculpture, a wax one, the famous "Little Dancer" -- a three-quarter-size slightly simian adolescent ballerina dressed in real fabrics -- which he displayed at the sixth impressionist exhibition in 1881.
Except for the "Little Dancer," all of Degas' sculptures -- which were discovered in his studio after his death -- were intensely private objects. Their surfaces were sketchy, their materials improvised. Degas made his wax sculptures of colored waxes, fat, modeling clay and plaster, stiffened, when required, with brush handles and rope. Sixty-nine were salvaged. All were cast posthumously -- and very carefully -- by Albino Palazzolo after long negotiations with the painter's heirs.
(This is how they were made: A wax sculpture would first be coated in fine-grained clay, then surrounded with plaster. Once the plaster had hardened, the mold would be cut open, the wax removed and the clay brushed away. Then the wax sculpture would be reinserted, and gelatin would be poured in to fill up the space once occupied by the clay. The original wax sculpture would then be removed again, and new wax would be poured into its space in the plaster-and-gelatin mold. Then, using the old lost-wax bronze-casting technique -- in which molten metal poured into the cavity first vaporizes the wax and then replaces it -- a first bronze modele would be made. All subsequent reproductions would be based on those "models," which are now in the collection of the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena.)
The bronzes (all were cast in Paris, after 1919, in editions of at least 23) were smaller than the waxes (by as much as 3 percent), and differently colored, and duller in detail. They are problematic objects. The waxes aren't. They're from the artist's hand; they reveal his color choices, and his preferred reflectivities. Some even bear his fingerprints. Paul Mellon bought them all.
Mellon and his wife first saw them on a table at Knoedler's in New York in 1955. "The overall effect," Mellon wrote, "was overpowering. . . . The collection haunted me for days. . . . It seemed an opportunity too fantastic to be missed, so I agreed to purchase the entire collection."
Mellon gave four of them to France (to the Musee d'Orsay, Paris), and four to Britain (to the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge), and kept the remainder. They were displayed in the Brick House on his farm in Upperville, Va., against soft green velvet in an installation of Bunny Mellon's design.
In 1985, he gave 17 of the waxes (and a Degas plaster, and five Degas bronzes) to the National Gallery. Mellon, in his final gift, has now given them the rest (29 waxes, four plasters and four bronzes).
Degas' bronze horses seem both new and antique. They're works of modern art but would not have looked out of place on the inlaid table of some Renaissance grandee. The "Little Dancer's" visual pedigree is similarly mixed. Though unidealized, she is a statue. She's half Parisian working girl, half Greek nymph.
Her hair is real hair coated in brushed-on wax. Her skirt is real fabric. How much she is worth today is anybody's guess.
A posthumous cast of the "Little Dancer" was sold at Sotheby's New York in 1996 for $11,882,500.
The Mellon gift also includes 17 small, highly detailed bronzes of animals -- of panthers, elephants, terriers, whippets, pointers and an ostrich -- most cast in the 19th century by such specialists as Pierre Jules Mene and the exceptionally skillful Antoine-Louis Barye. They are the sort of sculpture with which Mellon chose to live.
The National Gallery, under Powell's leadership, has just opened a sculpture garden. Its design chief, Mark Leithauser, is planning a revision of the sculpture galleries on the West Building's ground floor. The museum, once known almost entirely for its pictures, is shedding that old bias. And now it has the waxes.
A memorial exhibition exploring the breadth of Paul Mellon's many gifts will open there later this year.
CAPTION: Paul Mellon's gift includes the famous "Little Dancer" sculpture.
CAPTION: Degas' "Horse Galloping on Right Foot" is one of the pieces in Paul Mellon's final gift to the National Gallery.