The year is only six weeks old but, last week, the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., opened an exhibition that promises to be a high point of 2010. From Impressionism to Modernism: The Chester Dale Collection. Chicago’s serious collectors, connoisseurs and simply fans of mesmerizing paintings need to make a pilgrimage to Washington before next July 31. But don’t wait until next year to go. You will want to return for a second viewing. Dale’s bequest stipulates that the works can only be seen at the National Gallery.
Chester Dale was a dashing, hard-driving Wall Street financier. He started on “The Street” as a lowly runner but, through shrewd instincts, amassed a fortune. He began buying art as a hobby. However, once his wife, Maud, who was trained as an artist, saw that his passion for art was genuine, she took charge and guided the building of their superb collection. Dale purchased the bulk of his collection during a whirlwind period from 1926 to 1932. The Great Depression curtailed his feverish pace. He made fewer purchases over the next twenty-five years with his final acquisition being Salvador Dali’s “The Last Supper” in 1956.
Dale was courted by dealers and museums. At various times, he was a trustee of the Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute and the Philadelphia Museum of Art besides the National Gallery. Both Chicago and Philadelphia wooed him in hopes of acquiring his collection. However, at his death in 1962, the entire collection went to the National Gallery. He chose that institution because his collection would rest in the nation’s museum and add immeasurably to the new museum’s holdings. John Walker, a former director of the National Gallery, assessed its importance saying, “It’s not just the backbone but the whole rib structure of the modern French school.”
The collection consists of 306 works—223 paintings, sculptures and works on paper —of which 81 are on display. Visitors can take an art history tour of stunning breadth including late 19th to early 20th Century masterworks by Degas, Manet, Monet, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Mary Cassatt, Redon, Cezanne, Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Modigliani, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Rousseau and Dali.
Kimberly Jones, who curated the show and authored its accompanying catalogue, admits to a few favorites in the show. They are Manet’s “The Old Musician”, Henri Fantin- Latour’s “Portrait of Sonia” (his niece) and Braque’s still life, “Le Jour”. She says,”It’s been really wonderful for me to learn about what Chester Dale meant for the National Gallery, the nation and the history of collecting in general.”