It is always a privilege to install great works of art in an extraordinary museum such as VMFA, and sometimes it is an honor. This was certainly the case earlier this week as I worked with VMFA’s skilled production team as we entirely reinstalled the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon. The gallery walls are now freshly painted and adorned with important, newly acquired works from the life estate of Mrs. Paul Mellon, including masterpieces by Degas, Gauguin, Seurat, Pissarro, Dufy, and van Dongen. Many of the paintings have been put in period frames lovingly fabricated by the firm of Gill & Lagodich in New York. Highlights include nine paintings by Boudin, four by Delacroix, four by Degas, three by Dufy, three by Monet…the list goes on!
After first becoming interested in British sporting art, Paul Mellon began to collect 19th- century French art in the 1940s with his second wife, Rachel (“Bunny”) Lambert Mellon.
“You notice that I’ve repeatedly said “we” and “us” because it is certainly no secret that Bunny has always had a tremendous influence on the quality and scope of the collection. It was her enthusiasm and taste and intuitive gifts which in the beginning ignited my own latent inclination like a match to dry tinder and made inevitable a long, cooperative search for these glowing objects.”
-Paul Mellon, 1986
Mr. Mellon never intended to become a systematic collector, but instead acquired works that appealed to his sensibilities. Focusing mainly on the Impressionists and their precursors, such as Barbizon and Romanticism, Paul Mellon appreciated the directness of observation and spontaneity of brushwork that were hallmarks of these artists. He also particularly liked small-sized paintings for their “intimacy and their human appeal.”
Though the collection he and Mrs. Mellon gave to VMFA largely consists of Impressionist painting with a particular emphasis on Degas, it actually comprises masterpieces of every period from Romanticism through Cubism and the School of Paris. Mr. and Mrs. Mellon gave a large part of their collection to VMFA in 1985, and he subsequently bequeathed many more.
This installation celebrates Mr. and Mrs. Mellon’s collection of French art at VMFA which taken together exemplifies their appreciation of the immediacy of the artists’ personal vision, expressed most particularly in preparatory sketches, watercolors and paintings. In this gift one can also discern the domesticity of both subject matter and scale that was a strong personal preference of Mr. and Mrs. Mellon.
“We both like to wander down the byways of art, too, looking for something that catches our eye or for minor works that nonetheless recall happy memories or otherwise appeal to our hearts.”
Paul Mellon acknowledged that he was exceptionally privileged to be able to lead his life surrounded with these works, though it was always his intention eventually to facilitate similar experiences for a much broader audience. As the art museum of Mr. Mellon’s adopted home state, VMFA became an especially important component of his overall program to make great works of art readily accessible to a broad range of audiences.
“While owning these pictures, in addition to the daily pleasure they gave us, there was also the subliminal pleasure of knowing that someday they would be seen and loved by many, many people.”
-Paul Mellon, 1986
To implement this carefully considered and lofty vision is indeed both a privilege – and an honor.
–Dr. Mitchell Merling, Paul Mellon Curator and Head of the Department of European Art