Photo courtesy Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
They resided as houseguests for the pleasure of art philanthropists Paul and Rachel “Bunny” Mellon. The Mellons kept in their private rooms 26 works of art, including six paintings by masters, that were added in June to the collection of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Mitchell Merling, the VMFA’s Paul Mellon curator and head of European Art, explains that Mellon bequeathed the works of art to the museum in 1999, but they remained with his widow at their Fauquier County estate until her death on March 17 at age 103. These pieces, for the most part, have never before been seen by the public.
One of the most idiosyncratic of the six is Edgar Degas’ At the Milliners (shown at left), painted between 1882 and 1885. An unsettling scene depicts a faceless customer before a shop mirror, trying on a fashionable hat. The clerk’s arm jabs in from the right, holding the next choice. “The haphazard nature of it reflects Degas’ influence by photography,” Merling says. But the artist’s passion for the ability of paint to convey expression and atmosphere is here, too. “Degas didn’t feel that paintings needed to immediately reveal themselves. They aren’t supposed to be like telephone directories.” The Degas work was the first to go on display in the museum, in early June, with the others to follow in the fall.
A sense of contemporary immediacy is also in the misty Houses and Garden by Georges Seurat (circa 1882) and the agrarian idealism of Haystacks (1904 to 1905), by Kees van Dongen. Seurat’s work is closing in on, but not quite, pointillism. The painting resembles a quick glance from a passing vehicle. Van Dongen’s view of farm workers represents his embrace of what were then viewed, says Merling, as “the authentic French, those who worked with the earth.” He later became a society portraitist.
Vincent Van Gogh’s Daisies, Arles (1888), makes a total of five works by the artist in the museum. While van Gogh’s brother, Theo, is well known, his younger sister, Wilhelmina, also received his letters and art, including this painting. She outlived both brothers, but Wilhelmina died in a psychiatric asylum. Paul Gauguin’s sublime and intimate Still Life with Bowl, painted around 1889, is recognizably Post-Impressionist.
The recent Mellon gift complements the approximately 1,800 pieces the couple have given the VMFA through the years.