A family of collectors' items


The accumulative instincts and passion for art of a wealthy and flamboyant New York couple, and of two shy Welsh sisters, led to art collections of almost mythic proportions and quality

IN APRIL 1911, a few days before his 28th birthday, a promising stockbroker named Chester Dale married Maud Thompson (née Murray), a divorcée seven years his senior. Chester was the son of a British immigrant academic, and had dropped out of military academy at the age of 15 because he wanted to work as a messenger on Wall Street. An erstwhile boxer, Dale was short, ginger-haired and pugnacious. Maud, the daughter of a newspaper journalist, had the beauty and sophistication Chester lacked.

Though the Dales had no children, their union gave birth to a collection of almost mythical quality and proportions, which at one point numbered 700 works of art. “My pictures are like a family,” Dale said. “Each one has a special niche in my heart.”

The role of collectors in art history is often underestimated. Yet it is collectors who largely determine, through their choices and museum endowments, what will be considered great art. The leading exhibitions in Washington this spring pay homage to two singular pairs of 19th- and early 20th-century collectors of French art: the Dales, and the Welsh sisters Gwendoline and Margaret Davies.

Dale defined his and Maud’s role thus: “We have always held that a collector of art is merely a custodian who is serving posterity.” After quarrelling with several major museums, the Dales eventually left the bulk of their collection to the National Gallery in Washington where it became, in the words of one director, “the whole rib structure of the modern French school here”. For the past 45 years, the Dale paintings were not shown as an ensemble, because it would have left too many blank spaces on the museum’s walls. Thanks to the ongoing renovation of the French rooms, 81 works from the Dale’s “family” have been reunited until the summer of 2011.

Maud Dale had briefly studied French language and art in Paris. For the first 15 years of their marriage, Chester contentedly amassed his fortune – he was particularly expert on railway bonds – and enjoyed New York soirées with Maud and her artistic friends. They bought paintings from several neighbours in Manhattan who were artists, including Georges Bellow and Robert Reid.

The turning point came in December 1925, when the Dales bought their first French painting, Henri Matisse’s Plumed Hat, for $2,000 in New York. Matisse’s reputation was not yet fully established, and it was a daring, avant-garde purchase.

Maud encouraged Chester to begin a collection of French paintings, concentrating on modern artists, but including what she called their “ancestors”; not only Renoir, but Boucher; not only Cézanne, but El Greco.

Chester and Maud bought paintings with a gusto that bordered on gluttony. “This picture business was really getting under my skin,” Chester said later. “I found that when I was downtown getting the wherewithal to buy pictures, my mind was on pictures. Perhaps all that was good timing, because you could not buy pictures with hay and I wanted more pictures.”

DALE’S FORTUNE FELL from $60 million to $10 million in the 1929 stock market crash, but it didn’t discourage him. On the contrary, he purchased 123 paintings in 1929, his bumper year, and another 100 in 1930. Murdock Pemberton, an art critic who accompanied Dale on a buying spree in Paris, described him snapping up canvases “as you or I would buy neckties”. This encounter of American money and European artistic genius left a dazzling legacy. In one room of the National Gallery’s exhibition, devoted to outdoor scenes, five Monets (two cathedrals, Venice, the Houses of Parliament and the Seine) hang alongside two Cézannes, a Van Gogh, a Gaugin and an assortment of lesser Impressionists.

Dale stipulated that none of his paintings ever be lent, because he couldn’t bear the idea that Americans would travel to Washington to see a specific painting, only to find an “on loan” sign in its place. Many works from his collection have nonetheless become instantly recognisable visual clichés. Renoir’s Little Girl with a Watering Canmakes us nostalgic for the golden childhood we never had. Picasso’s The Loversshows the turbulent Spaniard at his most tender.

Maud Dale had a penchant for the recently deceased Modigliani, and began buying his works in 1927. The Dales went on to own 21 of Modigliani’s works, probably the finest selection in the world. Maud’s fondness for portraits explains the pre-eminence of the genre in the collection – nine by Degas. “Portraits are the documents by which not only the individual, but his epoch, can be recreated,” she wrote.

Ever the brash American, Chester would stop at nothing to obtain a painting. He shocked a French dealer by demanding that he make an offer for a Corot seen in the home where the Dales had dined the previous evening. Around 1927, Dale fell under the spell of Manet’s The Old Musician, a huge canvas showing a seated fiddler flanked by six other figures. “I had no more thought of buying it than I did of buying the Palace of Versailles,” Dale said. The Manet was not for sale, but in 1930, he offered $250,000 for it – a colossal sum in those days, and Dale’s most expensive purchase. The Dales bought most of their 12 Picassos in the 1930s, including the Family of Saltimbanquespurchased sight unseen from a bank vault in Switzerland for just $20,000. The masterpiece is similar in size and theme to The Old Musician, and the two paintings seem to speak to each other across the room where they hang in the National Gallery exhibition.

Of special note are the portraits of themselves which Maud and Chester commissioned from George Bellows, Fernand Léger, Diego Rivera and Salvador Dalí.

GWENDOLINE AND Margaret (“Daisy”) Davies were contemporaries of the Dales, though it is unlikely the heiresses to a Welsh coal and shipping fortune ever met the flamboyant New York couple. The Davies sisters belonged to a harsh, Calvinist sect, did not drink, never married – and, unlike the Dales, never sought to meet the artists whose work they collected.

Described as “cripplingly shy”, the sisters bought their first two paintings, both Corot landscapes, on successive days when they were in their mid-20s. Over the following decade, they assembled a fine collection from the Barbizon, Impressionist and post-Impressionist schools. Fifty-three works ranging from Turner to Cézanne have been loaned by the National Museum of Wales to the Corcoran Gallery, near the White House in Washington.

The paintings are arranged chronologically, so we see the evolution of painting, including the influence of Turner on Monet. The Davies sisters’ social conscience is evident in paintings by Daumier and Millet.

THE SAME CONSCIENCE led the spinsters to work as Red Cross volunteers in France during the Great War. Gwendoline made a side trip to Paris, to buy two Cézannes. Their last purchase, Rain – Auvers, was painted by van Gogh shortly before his death.

The upheaval of the war rendered the sisters more confident and daring in their artistic taste, but it also led them to abandon collecting for more serious pursuits, such as fostering the nascent League of Nations.

The undisputed star of the show (which has ended prematurely at Washington’s Corcoran gallery but is moving to Albuquerque) is Renoir’s La Parisienne, an uncharacteristically frivolous – but breathtaking – choice by the staid sisters. It was painted in 1873 for the first Impressionist salon the following spring, and shows Henriette Henriot, an aspiring actress who posed for 11 of Renoir’s paintings. She seems to have stepped out of a Zola novel, in indigo blue dress and hat; all ribbons, flounces and bustle.

Renoir painted Henriot as a social prototype. “The face, strangely old-looking and childish at the same time, meets us with a false smile,” a contemporary art critic wrote. “Yet the figure has an innocence about her. One could say that this little person is doing her best to be kittenish.” Nearly 140 years after Renoir painted her, the same could be said of many a present-day Parisienne. Perhaps the painter Paul Signac best described this captivating painting: “How simple it is, how beautiful, and how fresh.”

From Impressionism to Modernism: The Chester Dale Collection. National Gallery, Washington, DC, until July 31, 2011. See nga.gov/exhibitions.

Turner to Cézanne; masterpieces from the Davies Collection, National Museum Wales will run at the Albequerque Museum of Art and History in Albuquerque, New Mexico, from May 16 until August 8. See cabq.gov/museum/