Guest Comment: Art Appears in Newly Renovated Mellon Galleries at VMFA
Two photography giants, Ansel Adams and Man Ray, currently share the limelight at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
While the beautiful exhibitions of their work are temporary, in the permanent galleries Paul Mellon and Rachel “Bunny” Lambert Mellon, two collectors from Virginia known to be generous, take advantage of their extended moment. They, too, were essential to 20th century American culture.
Magnificent European pieces from the Mellon collections have been reinstalled as part of a recently completed renovation of 10 adjoining galleries on the second and third levels of the museum’s west wing.
Until last month, British equestrian art and works of Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and French Symbolism had been suppressed for four years to allow for structural and physical improvements to better serve both art and visitors.
Another goal of the renovation was to ensure that these galleries would eventually connect seamlessly with the residual spaces and a new VMFA west wing scheduled for completion in 2025.
The relocation project also bridged the Mellon legacy and new curator Paul Mellon and head of the museum’s European arts department, Silvain Cordier (who worked at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts until two years ago). years). Few new conservatives can relocate their fiefdoms so soon.
âI prefer to work with a blank page,â Cordier, a native Parisian, said by phone recently. “But that doesn’t happen very often.”
Visitors to the second floor who now approach the Mellon French Galleries from the Marble Hall will enter a surprisingly nocturnal environment. The first two galleries were painted in a shade of dark blue and a deep cranberry, respectively. The paintings, which are individually lit, seem to be against the light. They burst.
Such coloring and lighting of the walls is unusual because Impressionist works, often associated with the outdoors and changing daylight, are traditionally displayed on light-colored or white surfaces. Cordier describes the Renoir, Bonnard, Van Gogh, Matisse, Monet and Seurat des Mellons as âintimateâ and âdiscreet and subtle masterpiecesâ.
Upstairs, we get a glimpse into Mellon’s individual collector passions. Paul Mellon was a horse breeder and his English equestrian paintings occupy three galleries. Colors in the gallery come from 18th and early 19th century palettes, possibly associated with the Adam brothers, influential British architects and taste makers. A witty and artful theatrical touch is the placement of a stylized Greek Revival style chair that VMFA designed for visitors to relax.
Rachel Mellon’s personal passion for the collection consists of pieces of jewelry commissioned by French designer Jean Schlumberger. For breathtaking jobs, installation is simplicity itself. The walls are painted in a shade of dark gray (Benjamin Moore’s “wrought iron” to be exact). Objects such as “Jellyfish,” crafted from 18k gold, platinum, moonstones, diamonds and sapphires seem to levitate. Gorgeous.
The Mellons’ benevolence towards the VMFA is legendary. In addition to shipping the immeasurably beautiful works now exhibited at the museum, in 1985 they contributed to the construction of the wing occupied by their galleries. In 1954, they funded the modern and stylish Leslie Cheek Theater, which for decades housed a professional theater company. The couple also provided an art mobile and donated a world-class collection of art from India and the Himalayas.
The VMFA encouraged Paul Mellon’s direction in collecting matters. In 1958, the museum asked him to chair an exhibition committee “Sport and the horse”. The experience stimulated his interest in British art so much that in 1963 some 400 of his pieces were shown in the VMFA’s spectacular temporary exhibition, âPainting in England 1700-1850â. The museum has cleared all its large galleries to accommodate its treasures. What nerve, an unwritten memo said: âImagine your collection permanently housed on the boulevard.
It was not to be. Paul Mellon’s English collection can be viewed on the campus of his alma mater in New Haven, Ct., At the Yale Center for British Art.
Paul Mellon’s family fortune was based on the Mellon Bank of Pittsburgh (later the Bank of New York Mellon). Rachel Mellon was the heir to Warner-Lambert (maker of Listerine, now part of Pfizer). In the 1930s, Paul’s father founded the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC after serving three presidents as Secretary of the Treasury. It was the horses that brought Paul and Rachel Mellon to Virginia.
Ah, sophisticated art patronage combined with smart and talented VMFA staff offers an early vacation package.
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