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Around the galleries

The Chester Dale Collection, Washington DC

— November 2011

Associated media

Pablo Picasso, 
Family of Saltimbanques, 1905,
 oil on canvas. 
Overall: 212.8 x 229.6 cm 
Chester Dale Collection

Alexander Adams admires the taste of two important American collectors

The core of the modern master collection in Washington DC’s National Gallery of Art came from a single source, a donation of more than 300 works of art. The donor was Chester Dale (1883–1962), who made his fortune as a Wall Street trader. His wife Maud (1876–1953) had an eye for art and was a painter. As a team they found and purchased some the best of French painting then on the market. Upon Dale’s death the majority of the collection passed to the nation. The current display (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, until 2 January) of 80 or so of the paintings (with other paintings distributed among the gallery’s collection) shows what a fine eye the Dales had. 

The Dale Collection began modestly. In 1918 Dale started collecting art that was more timorous than adventurous. George Bellows and Robert Henri were American Ashcan Realists, committed to painting scenes of contemporary life with an accent on (mild) social commentary. Stylistically, the pictures were painterly but conventional in terms of colour and composition. That these painters were considered advanced in America at that time is a mark of how backward the American art scene was then.

After a cautious beginning, Dale lost no time catching up with Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. The Dales (especially Maud) were big supporters of Modigliani’s painting and bought well. Their Matisses were also top-drawer portraits, nudes and still-lifes. The Van Goghs are more variable. There is  The Olive Orchard  (1889) and the decorative classic  La Mousmé  (1888), the rich oranges, reds and purples of the figure contrast with the chilly verdigris copper background. Conversely,  The Girl in White  (1890) is more than a touch casual and crude. Edouard Vuillard’s portrait of Théodore Duret is a shameless plagiarizing of Degas’s portrait of M. Duranty; its good qualities wholly derived from Degas’s example. The Bonnard is early and a little bland.

What is apparent from the current hang is how Dale tended to buy works of a similar size, quality and subject by the same artists and their peers. Thus we can see Matisse’s taut and sparse La Coiffure  (1901) and can compare with Modigliani’s  Nude on Blue Cushion  (1917), more decorative, the pose horizontal and languorous. Matisse’s is a more muscular and vertical composition. Nearby is Matisse’s Odalisque Seated with Arms Raised, Green Striped Chair (1923) showing how Matisse developed ideas via the vehicle of the female nude. Within the collection we see artists developing, sometimes in competition with their colleagues.

We can compare half-length female portraits by Renoir, Morisot, Cassatt and Degas. The Degases are intriguing. Mme Camus’s portrait is suffused with smouldering reds and maroons, not a cool hue in the painting. Girl in Red (c. 1866) is very lightly painted, the dress, hands and background brushed in loosely. Only her face is crisp; the dark-eyed gaze boring into us. Presumably the sitter was a female relative of Degas’s, as were many of his subjects of the time. Dale was not distracted by the artist’s bathers and wisely restricted himself to a single genre, the portrait. (An exception is a late scene of dancers.)

Thus we have sets that make coherent sense when viewed together: Impressionist landscapes by Cézanne, Pissarro and Monet, Post-Impressionist nudes and portraits by the School of Paris, and so on. This is the model of sagacious collection, distinguished by a philosophy as well as a good eye. No wonder that Dale stipulated that the donation must not be split by loans. ‘I will not have some American citizen travel all the way to the National Gallery to see a picture he has long wished to see (and this perhaps his one chance), only to find a bare space on the wall and a placard reading “out on loan”’. Something to ponder as Pennsylvania sets about undoing Dr Barnes’ generous bequest to Merion by relocating his donation across the other side of the state to Philadelphia.

Walking around the galleries some clear preferences become obvious: an aversion to abstraction and geometric art, an unwavering focus on American and Parisian art, doubts about Cubism, a taste for works stylistically typical of the artist. The Picassos are signature pieces: Pedro Mañach’s 1901 portrait is declamatory as a poster or sign, Le Gourmand (1901) is a pretty Blue Period which is saved from sentimentality by its brisk, painterly handling, the Gosol-period Two Youths (1906) has an archaic simplicity. Saltimbanques (1905) is hung facing Manet’s Old Musician (1862) – a discerning choice. Not only are these paintings of a similar size, they complement each other chromatically, being dominated by warm earth tones and they are thematically similar, as they show gatherings of figures marginalized by conventional society. Both pictures act as recapitulations of recurring themes and motifs for the painters.

Although Dale was – by any measure – rich, he benefited from buying in an era when the finest works by mid-career and recently deceased artists could be had for reasonable sums. Most importantly, the better works were still in circulation and he could get pieces of the highest standard. He also commissioned works, including portraits of himself (by Dalí and Rivera) and Maud (by Léger and Bellows). None of these portraits are much good, alas. Of other Dalís, there is the Crucifixion (1954), one of the better religious-period canvases, and The Sacrament of the Last Supper (1955), one of the worst. The latter is a ghastly affair of a Hollywood Christ and disciples who look like executives who have fallen asleep during a particularly tedious board meeting. The former is in the galleries; the latter is secreted as obscurely as possible near a subsidiary stairwell in the lobby. Not obscurely enough.

This should not detract from the body of the collection, which is one of best in America and the jewel in the crown of the National Gallery’s modern collection. Viewing the current display gives one an idea of the kick of excitement modern art can deliver and how many fine examples the Dales acquired and donated. Anyone with an interest in modern art will enjoy a visit to this exhibition.


Alexander Adams
Writer and artist

Media credit: Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

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