A global salute to philanthropist Mellon’s gifts to the world

By Paul Richard WASHINGTON, Special to The Washington Post

Nineteen institutions (prominent among them the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia; the Royal Academy of Arts in London; Oxford, Cambridge and Yale universities) have joined to mark the centennial of philanthropist Paul Mellon. The Washington components of the year-long celebration were announced Tuesday at the National Gallery of Art.

The celebration will begin with an impressionist exhibition mounted in his honor, “Eugene Boudin at the National Gallery of Art,” which opens Sunday. Mellon (1907-1999) guided the gallery for 58 years. He also gave it US$218 million and 900 pictures. “We thought of bringing them all together, but we couldn’t,” said director Earl “Rusty” Powell. “There’d have been nothing left in the galleries. So we settled on Boudin. Paul loved Boudin’s small paintings. They were one of his mini-passions. He gave us 26.”

Though museums and research centers are the centennial’s participants, scholarship and art were not Mellon’s only interests. He also helped to buy the 28,625-acre Cape Hatteras National Seashore and the 1,500 acre Sky Meadows State Park in the Blue Ridge of Virginia, where he used to go to look at the stars. “What America needs,” he said, “is a good five-cent reverie.”

Twenty exhibitions, lectures and receptions will be offered in his honor by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, another institution deep in Mellon’s debt. He served as a trustee there for more than 40 years, helped pay for its building and gave it US$17 million and more than 10 percent of its art.

To Yale, where he went to college, he was even more generous. He commissioned the building for the Yale Center for British Art (from architect Louis Kahn) and then filled it with his collection of exceptional British art. At his death he left the center an additional US$75 million, and 130 pictures — under the condition that the museum never charge admission or request donations at the door.

The Yale Center is the centennial’s lead organizer. In September, it is sending “A Passion for British Art, 1700-1850: Paul Mellon’s Legacy” to the Royal Academy in London. Tate Britain nearby will show the sporting art he gave it. In October, one Mellon exhibit, of watercolors he owned, will open at the Hermitage. Another, “British Vision: Observation and Imagination in British Art, 1750-1950,” goes on view in Belgium at the Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent.

Oxford’s Mellon exhibition is titled “An Honorable Friend.” Cambridge’s is called “A Cambridge Tribute.”

“Reflections on a Life With Horses,” an exhibit of Mellon’s paintings by Sir Alfred Munnings, will open April 20 at the National Sporting Library in Middleburg, Va.

When the National Gallery opened its East Building in 1978, Mellon was surprised to be serenaded there by the jazz musician Benny Goodman. (The clarinetist, a Mellon friend, had sneaked in in disguise.) On June 10, Mellon’s birthday, a free Goodman-style concert will take place at 4 p.m. in the atrium.

The gallery also has produced a 50-minute film biography, “Paul Mellon: In His Own Words,” which will be broadcast by PBS during the centennial.