Shortly after her husband assumed the role of University President in 1993, Senior Lecturer in English Jane Levin contacted then-Director of the Yale University Art Gallery Mimi Gardner Gates. She wanted to explain the Levins’ tastes in artwork: French impressionism, American landscapes as well as more modern works.
The Levins were not seeking new acquisitions for the gallery. They were just looking to decorate their house.
“This is the only time in my life I’ll say ‘I’d like a Cézanne’,” Levin recalled saying to Gates. “It was like being a kid in a candy store.”
The Levins and a handful of other administrators are allowed to borrow works of art that are not currently on display from Yale’s two galleries, the Yale University Art Gallery and the Yale Center for British Art. Gallery paintings — many of them by luminaries such as Matisse, Pissarro and Renoir — hang in the Levins’ house and the Provost’s House on Hillhouse Avenue, in the office of Yale College Dean Mary Miller and in Jonathan Edwards College.
Only a select number of administrators can request art from the galleries because curators want to limit the amount the works have to move.
Miller’s office is home to two gallery works, including Josef Albers’ Homage to the Square. Miller, an art historian who specializes in Mesoamerica, said she selected the work because the Joseph Albers Fund supports Yale students who study pre-Columbian anthropology and art history. While the paintings in the Levins’ house reflect their taste, the ones that hang in Miller’s office are indicative of her academic passions.
“I call Joseph Albers the patron saint for pre-Columbian studies at Yale University,” Miller said.
The collection at the Levins’ house, which includes 26 paintings on the ground floor alone, is the largest and most diverse on campus outside of the galleries. Like a museum, the house provides a brochure that identifies the works that line its walls. The artists’ names are familiar to many: an Alexander Calder mobile hangs in the hallway, adjacent to a living room with two paintings from John Constable.
Although 43 Hillhouse is not the Levins’ primary residence — they kept their East Rock home when President Levin was inaugurated in 1993 — Levin estimated that upwards of 5,000 guests see the house and its art each year. Between September and June of last academic year alone, Levin said the house hosted around 150 events, including an annual Halloween party and receptions for the families of incoming freshman and graduating seniors. Levin said she hopes visitors who are impressed by the art in the house will be inspired to view the rest of Yale’s collections in the galleries.
“We think of it as one of the finest house museums,” Levin quipped, referring to former residences, such as the Frick Collection in New York, that have been converted into galleries.
While there has long been art at 43, it changes with the tastes of the current president. Levin said former President Benno Schmidt, who served until 1992, enjoyed seascapes.
The Levins received the assistance of the two museums’ directors in selecting the works. Levin said she and her husband share similar but diverse tastes in art, ranging from French works from the 1700s to contemporary pieces. Only a few steps down the hallway from Thomas Gainsborough’s portrait of William Pitt — which hangs in the Levins’ dining room — hangs a work painted two hundred years later by Roy Lichtenstein.
Levin said she learned a great deal from the process of selecting the works. Curators from the two museums assisted the Levins in hanging the art, helping them group paintings that “speak to each other,” she said. As a result, she added, some of the house’s rooms seem themed. For example, the dining room features mostly portraits and other works by eighteenth-century English artists.
The process of choosing a work was simpler for Miller, who selected the second painting in her office, Arc Seed by the Chilean artist Roberto Matta, simply because it caught her eye.
“It’s a great picture,” Miller said. “I saw it and just loved it.”
The Levins could change the paintings in their house at any time, and have re-thought their decorations several times over the course of President Levin’s tenure, but the turnover has slowed recently because they are satisfied with the house’s current collection, Levin said.
Sometimes the Levins are obligated to make a change when the art galleries recall paintings for display, or for scholars to examine.
Levin said she does not think having artwork in the house limits its visibility. On the contrary, administrators’ decision to hang a masterpiece that was buried deep in storage can bring the piece to the galleries’ attention — and result in a director reclaiming it for public display.
Several years ago, Levin explained, a curator visiting from the Yale Center for British Art saw Thomas Gainsborough’s portrait of the Duke of Kent hanging in the Levins’ dining room. The curator was so impressed with how the portrait looked above the Levins’ mantle that he requested its return to the gallery for exhibition.
The Levins have enjoyed the ongoing process of selecting the artwork, she said, adding that the wealth of options is a testament to Yale’s museum holdings.
“We just saw this as an amazing opportunity,” Levin said. “[The collection] is extraordinary.”