Mellon's Legacy Reflects His Delight in Life, Beauty

By Shaw-Eagle, Joanna | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), November 13, 1999 | Go to article overview

Mellon's Legacy Reflects His Delight in Life, Beauty


Shaw-Eagle, Joanna, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Paul Mellon loved to tell this story about his collection: "One of our daughters brought home some friends from school for lunch - and at the time, we had a large and very beautiful but very impressionistic van Gogh, of blue sky and waving wheat, in our front hallway.

"As they came in the front door, one of the girls looked up at it and said in passing - `Oh, who paints?' Not at all shattered or confused, the daughter said, `No one here, Da buys them in the store.' "

"Da," of course, was one of the most passionate and astute collectors of the second half of this century. Mr. Mellon, who died Feb. 1 at age 91, followed closely in the footsteps of his father, Pittsburgh industrialist Andrew W. Mellon, but focused on modern pieces while the elder Mellon bought the work of old masters.

Like his father, whose collection formed the nucleus of the National Gallery of Art when it opened, the son believed in sharing his art. The gallery now celebrates his generosity in the memorial exhibit "An Enduring Legacy: Masterpieces From the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon."

At the National Gallery through Feb. 27, the show presents 89 works from the more than 1,000 that Paul Mellon and his second wife, Rachel "Bunny" Mellon, gave the museum. Mr. Mellon focused on British paintings (he was partly raised in England, and his mother, Nora McMullen Mellon, was English), Americans of the 19th century, French art and, especially, the work of Edgar Degas, his favorite artist.

Through this benefactor, the gallery owns one of the greatest caches of Degas' work, including one plaster, 48 wax and five bronze sculptural pieces. In 1956, Mr. Mellon acquired 69 of the wax images in a single purchase from Knoedler's gallery in New York.

The exhibition aims to show the distinction and scope of the couple's gifts to the gallery. The masterpieces are here: Paul Cezanne's "Boy in a Red Waistcoat" (1888-1890) and "The Artist's Father" (1866); Claude Monet's "Woman With a Parasol - Madame Monet and Her Son" (1875); Degas' "Scene From the Steeplechase: The Fallen Jockey" (1866, reworked 1880-1881 and circa 1897); Mary Cassatt's "Little Girl in a Blue Armchair" (1878); George Stubbs' "White Poodle in a Punt" (circa 1780) and George Bellows' "New York" (1911).

Mr. Mellon liked smaller works as well, such as the youthful self-portraits by Edouard Vuillard, Henri Fantin-Latour and Degas. He treasured tiny postcards scribbled by Henri Matisse, van Gogh and Henri Rousseau, also on view. This is the kind of art his father never would have bought.

* * *

The collector remembers growing up in the family home in Pittsburgh. He recalled in 1967: "In that pre-smoke-control era, soot hung like a pall over the entire city, and I remember our house as being very gloomy. . . . But on the walls, like windows into a world of eternal brightness, glowed the pictures collected by my father, Andrew Mellon."

It was a happy childhood, although he remembered his father as "dry and censorious and negative." He and his sister, Ailsa, spent long summer holidays in the English countryside with their mother.

Mr. Mellon left Pittsburgh in 1919 to attend the Choate School and entered Yale University in 1925. After graduating in 1929, he attended Clare College in Cambridge, England, where he developed interests in horses and collecting art.

He would pursue those passions his whole life. He bred and raced top horses. Thus, it is not surprising that he purchased Degas' greatest horse painting, "Scene From the Steeplechase: The Fallen Jockey," one of the crowning achievements of his collecting.

His first purchases were books and paintings of racing and hunting. However, it was only after World War II service and the death of his first wife, Mary Conover Mellon, in 1946 that he began collecting in earnest.

He and "Bunny" Mellon, his new wife, began visiting galleries in New York and Europe in 1948. …

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