Last Friday, while you were getting ready for a weekend of barbecues and cornhole, the National Gallery of Art was already celebrating. From the estate of the late philanthropist and perennial NGA supporter Paul Mellon, the gallery received a bequest of 62 rare paintings and sketches, including some by big-name artists like Vincent van Gogh, Winslow Homer, Claude Monet, and Georges Seurat. Mellon died in 1999, but the works have since been cared for by his wife, Rachel Lambert Mellon, who passed away on March 17.
This is not a small deal in the art world, although it is just a small addition to the hundreds of works that the Mellons have already donated to the gallery over the years. Among these final 62 priceless works, several have not been seen for years, which is sure to bring not only locals, but art lovers from all over the world to the National Gallery. I called Kimberly Jones, the gallery’s associate curator of French paintings, to chat about the significance of the works and the museum’s plans for future exhibitions.
WCP: This gift didn’t come as a surprise, right? Tell me a little bit about the story behind it .
Jones: No, it’s not a surprise, though it is a little bittersweet. While it’s always a delight to receive an exceptional gift, we do mourn the passing of Mrs. Mellon who, like her husband, was a great friend to the gallery. All of these works had been promised to the National Gallery in Paul Mellon’s will, with the understanding that his widow would retain life interest. This is just part of an extraordinary legacy; Mr. and Mrs. Mellon [have] bequeathed a total of 1,168 works overall to the National Gallery of Art. While the number of loans is in itself staggering, the quality and the range of works given is even more impressive.
Amazing. And the gift includes a major work by Van Gogh that hasn’t been seen in years—nice timing, since you already have a Van Gogh installation planned for June.
The arrival of the new Van Gogh painting certainly was serendipitous. In terms of having a context in which to show it off, the timing couldn’t have been better.
Tell me a little bit about what happens internally when 62 masterpieces roll in the door. What takes place between delivery and display?
There’s a lot of work that needs to be done before anything makes it onto the wall. First, our registrars begin by recording and storing all of the incoming works, taking measurements, creating electronic records, and organizing all the necessary paperwork. Our conservators then examine the works to determine what, if any, treatment needs to be carried out; we do this regularly with our collection, reviewing our works to decide if an object could benefit from conservation. In this instance, Van Gogh’s “Still Life of Oranges and Lemons with Blue Gloves” is currently undergoing treatment to remove a dingy, yellowed varnish so the painting will look its very best for its grand debut in June.
Which of the 62 works are you most excited about, aside from the aforementioned Van Gogh?
I am absolutely thrilled about the twelve oil sketches by Georges Seurat that we have received as part of this gift. Seurat died quite young (he was only 31 years old when he died) so the extant body of work is, not surprisingly, fairly modest. So, to receive a dozen works at once is extraordinary. Combined with the four paintings we already own, this gives us one of the most significant groups of his paintings in America.
How would you characterize the Mellons as collectors?
Clearly the Mellons had extraordinary taste and the resources to acquire great works of art, but what distinguishes the Mellons was their thoughtfulness. They acquired works that they knew would complement and enrich the gallery’s holdings—-for example, an early still life by Claude Monet called “Still Life with Bottle, Carafe, Bread and Wine.” This is not the kind of Monet most private collectors would acquire, but it perfectly fills a gap in the gallery’s already significant holdings of this artist’s works.
Is there anything that distinguishes this particular gift from those previously received from the Mellons?
These 62 works are the ones that remained with Mellons their entire lives. These are the works they surrounded themselves in their home in Upperville, Va., and lived with on a daily basis. They are intimate works, ideally suited to a private home, and ones they clearly cherished.