YALE PAYS TRIBUTE TO MELLON BEQUEST
Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg
NEW YORK — Paul Mellon was not interested in seeing his name in lights, but his paintings were another story.
Not well-suited for the banking world of his industrialist and financier father, Andrew Mellon, Paul Mellon made philanthropy a full-time job, donating $1 billion in gifts and endowments during his lifetime to such groups as the Yale Center for British Art, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
A year after his death, Yale University is paying tribute to Paul Mellon, who turned over about 23,000 paintings, prints and drawings, 30,000 books, maps, atlases, manuscripts and board games, and a smattering of sculpture to the institution. The Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Conn., will showcase 160 paintings, as well as sculpture, sketches and rare books from his private collection with next month’s opening of “The Paul Mellon Bequest: Treasures of a Lifetime.”
The exhibit bows Feb. 17 and runs through April 29, with an emphasis on Paul Mellon’s love for English country life, hunting and horse racing. Small paintings from John Constable and sporting pictures by George Stubbs, Ben Marshall, James Ward and Alfred Munnings will also be on display.
During his 91-year life, Paul Mellon compiled the world’s largest collection of British art after that of the national collection at London’s Tate Gallery. Like his father, who founded the National Gallery and made a point of not putting the family name on it, the junior Mellon did not want to deter other donors by stamping the family crest on the Yale Center.
In his autobiography, “Reflections in the Silver Spoon,” which will be available at the museum, Paul Mellon explained his self-effacing lifestyle.
“I’m told that money is power, and I expect many have wondered why I haven’t used mine for that purpose; to prevail in business, to seek public office or an ambassadorship, to see my name in the paper more often,” he wrote. “For many reasons the idea of power has never appealed to me. What has appealed to me is privacy. To me, privacy is the most valuable asset that money can buy.”
It was so valuable to him that Paul Mellon routinely visited the Yale Center without fanfare, preferring to linger in the George Stubbs Gallery, the area in the permanent collection devoted to one of his favorite artists. Stubbs’s specialty, horses, was what he called his “one great recreation in life.” He hunted fox and bred and raced stakes winners from his Rokebly Stables in Virginia.
Stubbs’s “Pumpkin with a Stable Hand,” Paul Mellon’s first purchase and favorite painting, will be among the work displayed in the upcoming show. There will also be works from Constable and Munnings that have never before been shown.
“He preferred to have others enjoy his art,” said Jim Goodhue, registrar at the Yale Center. “He was helpful, but not intrusive. He didn’t lay out a plan. When he would come up, he would express thoughtfulness and appreciation for the work that had been done.”
A self-described “perennial student,” Paul Mellon graduated from Yale in 1929 and then reluctantly joined the corporate world at Mellon Bank. After working there, he and his first wife, Mary, traveled to Europe in the late Thirties to collaborate with Carl Jung on the English translation and publication of his philosophy.
In a 1940 letter to Paul Mellon, Jung said: “Mathematics is a hellish and perfectly useless torture for somebody who hasn’t a gift in that way, as it is the most boring nonsense to be forced to learn to play an instrument when one isn’t musical.”
More interested in being out hunting in the countryside than leveraging corporate buyouts, the younger Mellon questioned his father’s life.
“What does he think life is for?” he once wrote. “Is it to make money, accumulate, eat, drink and die?”
Interestingly, Andrew Mellon spent six-month stretches in England and France with his longtime friend, business associate and fellow art lover, Henry Clay Frick, for pleasure and to look for art. The senior Mellon eventually put all of his collection into a trust for the National Gallery, which opened in 1941, and then informed his son and daughter, Ailsa, of the extent of his gift.
Over the years, the younger Mellon donated 913 paintings, including some by Monet, Manet, Van Gogh, Homer, Cezanne and Renoir, to the institution.
In 1966, he made an endowment to Yale to house his collection of British art. The 114,000-square-foot center was architect Louis Kahn’s last design and now attracts about 118,000 visitors each year.
The museum’s 56 handcrafted domes on the fourth floor that filter natural light are its design highlight. Made of steel, concrete, white oak, travertine marble, wool and linen, the design of the Yale Center for British Art is intended to reflect the museum’s organic life.
That concept was one to which Paul Mellon related. He helped preserve nature through his contributions to the purchase of Cape Hattaras National Seashore in North Carolina, and by making a gift of Sky Meadows State Park to Virginia.
His family’s gilded wealth never inhibited his appreciation for a good book, a brisk walk or an ice-cold martini. In a commencement address, he once urged students to to enjoy simple pleasures and to not take life too seriously.
“What this country needs is a good five-cent reverie,” he said.
In his autobiography, he also hinted that their might be more to life than making money.
“I have always been aware of the tremendous advantages the circumstances of birth have brought me, but I have also learned that immense wealth has its unpredictable and often devastating effects,” Paul Mellon wrote. “The beautiful paintings on the walls were not all that was reflected in the silver spoon.”