National Gallery steward Paul Mellon dies at 91

He chose philanthropic life over the family business

February 03, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Paul Mellon, the patrician art collector who turned philanthropy into his personal art form, above all through his stewardship of the National Gallery of Art, died on Monday at his home in Upperville, Va. He was 91.

Paul Mellon turned from his family's world of banking and business to become an inventive benefactor of the nation's cultural life. The Mellons' gifts to museums, libraries and other causes from parks to poetry to medicine have been estimated at nearly a billion dollars. The money has gone to save seashores and encourage scholars. It established the Yale Center for British Art and America's top poetry award, the Bollingen Prize.

To many, the greatest monument to the family's fortune, and to Paul Mellon's personal dedication, is the National Gallery of Art in Washington, conceived as a gift to America by his father, Andrew W. Mellon, the financier and longtime secretary of the treasury. The elder Mellon did not live to see his wish fulfilled. But Paul Mellon, who could never share his father's love for commerce, more than inherited a dedication to giving something back to society.

Over the years, Paul Mellon gave 913 works to the National Gallery, including Cezanne's "Boy in a Red Waistcoat," two paintings by Mark Rothko, Alexander Calder animal sculptures, Winslow Homer's "Dad's Coming," Picassos, Gauguins, Bonnards, Vuillards, a Manet, the original wax version of Degas' "Little 14-Year-Old Dancer" and postcards that had been written by van Gogh and Matisse. The gallery is organizing a memorial exhibition to highlight his gifts.

At a time when many patrons of the arts insist that their names be chiseled on a museum's facade, Paul Mellon was remembered for avoiding self-promotion and refraining from such exercises of power.

"Some of it, I suppose, is just a natural shyness on my part," he once said. But there were other reasons. In his 1992 autobiography, he said, "If my father had created `the Mellon Gallery of Art' in Washington, would other donors have been willing to support it?"

In addition to his love for art, Paul Mellon was an environmentalist. In 1956, Mellon family foundations published a report, "Our Vanishing Shoreline." As a result, and with considerable Mellon money, parts of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the Great Beach of Cape Cod and Cumberland Island off the coast of Georgia have been preserved.

Among Mr. Mellon's countless awards were the National Medal of Arts, presented by President Ronald Reagan in 1985, and the National Humanities Medal, awarded by President Clinton in 1997.

Pub Date: 2/03/99

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