The third-oldest surviving globe, a 1476 first-edition Chaucer manuscript, a rare Turner sketchbook and about 250 other gems in the Yale Center for British Art are on view at the Center as part of an exhibition commemorating its founder, Paul Mellon ’29.
“Paul Mellon’s Legacy: A Passion for British Art” — the largest exhibition in the Center’s history — celebrates the 100th anniversary of Mellon’s birth and the 30th anniversary of the Center. Opening today, the show is the centerpiece of a yearlong program of events and exhibitions around the world honoring Paul Mellon and his artistic philanthropy.
“Paul Mellon was really the greatest cultural philanthropist of the 20th century,” Yale Center for British Art Director Amy Meyers said.
University President Richard Levin said Mellon’s numerous gifts to the University are now worth more than $1 billion. His most important gifts included building and providing an endowment for the Yale Center for British Art, to which he donated much of his vast art collections; endowing the Paul Mellon Centre for British Studies in London; financing the construction of Morse and Ezra Stiles colleges; and endowing the deanships of all 12 residential colleges. Upon his death in 1999, he left a final gift of $90 million and 130 works of art to Yale.
With his sister, Mellon also supported the construction of the east wing of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., to which he donated over 1,000 works of art, and his largesse extended to numerous other institutions around the world.
The exhibition now on view in New Haven focuses on the highlights of Mellon’s collection. In October, about 150 of the objects will make a transatlantic voyage to their homeland, where they will be displayed in the Royal Academy of Arts in London, a trip that many of these works may never make again, Meyers said.
MaryAnne Stevens, acting secretary and senior curator of the Royal Academy, said the exhibition showcases Mellon’s taste and talent in collecting the works of British painters, sculptors, watercolorists and book illustrators from a period which coincides with the pinnacle of the Royal Academy’s influence itself.
“Many of the paintings in the exhibition were indeed shown at the Royal Academy, so there’s even more of a reason why we should be implicated in this wonderful project,” Stevens said. “This exhibition brings together the two strands of what Paul Mellon was about. It was not only the collecting of British art; it was also its study.”
Initial reactions to the exhibition among the Yale community have been overwhelmingly positive.
“I’ve never seen the building look as well as it does right now,” said Jules Prown, professor emeritus of the history of art and the first director of the Yale Center for British Art. “The installation that’s been done is particularly sensitive to the building, so the building looks great, and the works of art look great in it.”
In addition to the exhibition opening today, another major exhibition, “Great British Watercolors from the Paul Mellon Collection at the Yale Center for British Art,” will open at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts on July 11, travel to St. Petersburg’s State Hermitage Museum in October and then return to Yale. Meyers said this is the first time that the Center is sending a major exhibition to the Hermitage.
British Art Center Curator of Prints and Drawings Scott Wilcox said the exhibition of 88 watercolors is a particularly appropriate way of celebrating Mellon, since he amassed one of the world’s greatest collections of British watercolors.
“There are very few other institutions, even in Britain, that represent the development of that school of watercolors as well as we do here,” Wilcox said.
As part of the centennial celebrations, each of the Center’s three departments acquired a major work. One of these is the earliest-known self-portrait of Mellon’s favorite artist, George Stubbs.
British Art Center Assistant Curator of Paintings and Sculpture Cassandra Albinson said the acquisition further solidifies the Center’s position as the most important collection of Stubbs’ work — as well as the overall largest collection of British art — outside of the United Kingdom. The Center’s holdings include about 2,000 paintings, 50,000 prints and drawings, 35,000 rare books and manuscripts, and hundreds of sculptures.
British Art Center Public Relations Manager Amy McDonald said objects donated by Paul Mellon form about 85 to 90 percent of the Center’s total holdings today.
The University’s celebrations of Mellon will include a number of talks and additional exhibitions at the Beinecke and Sterling Memorial libraries. Other institutions celebrating the anniversary of Mellon’s birth include the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, the Fitzwilliam Museum at the University of Cambridge and the Tate Britain.
“Cultural institutions understand the importance of this man and his beneficence and the way in which art institutions were supported and grew because of his activities, and they want to honor him,” Meyers said. “But they also want to understand him in a deeper way, and these projects allow that to happen. So it has been very gratifying to see how much interest — institutional and individual — we’ve generated internationally through these projects.”