Looking Back On How The National Gallery Of Art Got Its Start 75 Years Ago

Jun 19, 2016
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The National Gallery of Art here in Washington, D.C., is celebrating its 75th anniversary with a small exhibition of works on paper. They were presented, over the years, by Paul Mellon, the collector and philanthropist who made the museum possible. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg says the exhibition is fine, but the man himself was extraordinary.

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SUSAN STAMBERG: Paul Richard was The Washington Post's art critic for four decades.

PAUL RICHARD: When I look back at these 40 years and think, you know, to what artist do I owe the most instruction and pleasure and delight? After a while, I thought it was probably not a painter. It was Mr. Paul Mellon.

STAMBERG: Because Mr. Paul Mellon brought Titians and Leonardos and Manets and Cezannes and Botticellis and on and on into a handsome, pink marble building on the National Mall for millions of Americans to enjoy. And why? Because Mr. Paul Mellon - shy, good-looking, gracious, and very, very rich, was a passionate believer in pleasure.

RICHARD: He took care of his pleasures. He really did. He once said celibacy is not my favorite virtue (laughter).

STAMBERG: (Laughter) Paul Richard says Mellon was full of memorable pronouncements.

RICHARD: He once said that what America needs is a good 5-cent revelry.

STAMBERG: Well, the national gallery is filled with revelries, the myriad pleasures that art can bring. And you don't even pay 5 cents to get in. It's free, thanks, in large part, to Paul Mellon.

His grandfather Thomas and his father Andrew made the money in banking and railroads, Gulf Oil and Alcoa. A national museum was Andrew's idea. Paul made it happen.

ANDREW ROBISON: Andrew Mellon had the vision and provided the wherewithal.

STAMBERG: This is Andrew Robison, National Gallery Mellon senior curator of prints and drawings.

ROBISON: But it was very much Paul Mellon who gave it its spirit.

STAMBERG: Art critic Richard says Paul Mellon had a philosophy about philanthropy and art.

RICHARD: He felt very much that the government had too many other responsibilities - you know, it had to take care of crime and war and people's health - that only individuals with money could do this kind of thing.

STAMBERG: Individuals like his father, Andrew.

ROBISON: Incredible idea - he said he would give his collection, which was not that large - you know, 50, 60 paintings - and he would pay for a building.

STAMBERG: But son Paul did more than that over the years. He kept buying art for the gallery and was very personal about it. He wouldn't buy anything he didn't want to live with himself. He kept rearranging the art he owned. Paul Richard remembers interviewing him at home. Talking about a small Cezanne self-portrait, Mellon took it off the wall and handed it to Richard.

RICHARD: There must have been a dozen nail holes behind the picture.

STAMBERG: On the wall?

RICHARD: On the wall - because he'd look at it and think it should move over a quarter of an inch. It should up - up a quarter of an inch.

STAMBERG: Constantly rehanging his revelries. Curator Andrew Robison remembers a time Mellon was so ill, he couldn't leave his bed. So he rearranged the drawings and paintings in his bedroom mentally.

ROBISON: He said, it took my mind off of my illness. And it helped me memorize their compositions and their colors and what they were all about.

STAMBERG: Seventy-five years ago, the National Gallery of Art opened its doors so that Americans and visitors from all over the world could enjoy the artistic pleasures that Paul Mellon had known since childhood. The gift was both free of charge and priceless. In Washington, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.